Did Plato write
“Only the dead have seen the end of war” ?
Since this quote appeared, attributed to Plato, at the beginning of Ridley Scott’s 2001 movie “Black Hawk Down”, several people have asked me the exact source of the quote in Plato’s dialogues. Yet, I have been unable, to this day, to locate it in any one of them.
And I’m not the only one in that case ! One person who asked was Mr Michael Takiff, who had come up with the quote, attributed to Plato, in a letter from a soldier in Vietnam to his father while preparing a book called “Brave Men, Gentle Heroes: American Fathers and Sons in World War II and Vietnam”, to be published by HarperCollins in 2003. I was unable to help him, but I later learned, in further exchanges I had with him by mail, that, with the help of friends and colleagues, he had come up with the following about the quote:
No one he had been in touch with had been able to locate it in a dialogue of Plato.
Yet, it can be found, attributed to Plato, in General Douglas MacArthur’s farewell address to the cadets at West Point (May, 1962).
Mr. Bernard Duffy, of California Polytechnic State University, coeditor of a book of MacArthur’s speeches, had told him that the quote could be found on the web as a quote of George Santayana’s, and further digging confirmed that it could be read in Santayana’s “Soliloquies in England” (Scribners, 1924, p. 102), Soliloquy #25, “Tipperary”, in a section which reads: “Yet the poor fellows think they are safe! They think that the war is over! Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Santayana does not attributes the saying to Plato, or anybody else for that matter (1).
It shows up, again attributed to Plato, on the wall of the Imperial War Museum in London.
Here is what Mr Takiff wrote me on August 2, 2002 about the quote, based on these data:
“I think it’s almost certain that MacArthur’s use of the quotation in his famous speech in 1962 accounts for the its popularity among American soldiers. However, I’m doubtful that MacArthur is the ultimate source of the quotation’s attribution to Plato. My reason is that it appears, attributed to Plato (just Plato, no citation), on the wall of the Imperial War Museum in London. (I owe my awareness of this appearance of the quote to a former professor of mine — Victor Bers, a classicist at Yale — who recently visited the museum.) The museum has been housed at this location since 1936; of course, the quotation could have been put up any time since. One would think, however, that the keepers of this institution would practice more scholarly discipline than the producers of a Hollywood war movie. And so, I’m doubtful that the quotation’s route to the museum’s wall passed through General MacArthur’s speech.
I have just emailed the director of research at the museum. I’ll let you know what, if anything, I find out.”
In short, the attribution of this quote to Plato remains most questionable, while its appearence in works by George Santayana is a fact, and the possibility that the source of its misattribution to Plato be General McArthur is quite real, though not proven.