“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Who said that?

When I wrote about George Santayana’s observation that, “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” I didn’t realize it was a quote with controversy over the attribution.

English: Spanish-American philosopher and writ...

He said it: Spanish-American philosopher and writer George Santayana, early in his career (Photo: Wikipedia)

Ridley Scott‘s outstanding 2001 movie, “Blackhawk Down,” opened with the quote, but attributing it to Plato, according to Plato expert Bernard Suzanne in Paris.  One philosopher is as good as another, you might say, so it’s understandable that a good line from a modern philosopher like Santayana might be attributed to one of the most famous philosophers of all time (“they all look alike,” I hear someone saying).  Or, the cynics might say, perhaps Santayana lifted it from Plato — after all, who but another philosopher would actually read the stuff?  Who would know?

Suzanne’s sleuthing is impressive if only because it shows the murkiness of the issue.  According to Suzanne:

  • The quote is popular among American soldiers (ask one — report back in comments).
  • Michael Takiff found it attributed to Plato by a U.S. soldier in Vietnam, writing home, in a book published in 2003.
  • No one has found it in any of Plato’s dialogues — at least, no one Suzanne can find.
  • Gen. Douglas MacArthur used the quote in a farewell address to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in 1962, attributing it to Plato.  That would be a likely source of its popularity among U.S. soldiers.
  • The Imperial War Museum, in London, has the quote engraved on its walls, attributed to Plato.  The museum opened in 1936.  Santayana’s version was published in 1922.
  • Reminder: Santayana said it here: Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies, number 25 (1922)

Who put it on the wall of the Imperial War Museum, and why did they misattribute it, just a dozen years after Santayana wrote it?


Quote from George Santayana misattributed to Plato

Quote from George Santayana misattributed to Plato, on a coffee mug from Zazzle


20 Responses to “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Who said that?

  1. John Eidsmoe says:

    So far as I can determine, Plato did not use those exact words (even in Greek), but he said something that could be similar. In his Apology he has Socrates saying that death is either an uninterrupted sleep or a transmigration to another realm. In this sense he could be saying that the dead have seen the end of the world’s conflicts.
    On another occasion he has Socrates observing that any human fortune can turn into misfortune and any human happiness can turn into unhappiness. Only at death is the final chapter of our lives written, so only then do we know whether we have lasting happiness. In this way again, Plato/Socrates could be understood as saying that only the dead have seen the end of conflict.


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    “Oh, yeah — but what about ‘Oyo Como Va?’ Carlos’s guitar should verify it all by itself.”


  3. Tim Shey says:

    Maybe it is because “Plato” sounds more cool than “Santayana”.


  4. […] internet search reveals a number of blogs debating the origin of the quote, though none credibly link it to the ancient Greek […]


  5. Joe Jones says:

    Maybe it’s not misattributed at all. Maybe it was Plato first and Santayana used it in his publication. I for some reason I doubt that Jorge would just plagiarize anyone. Likely he gave credit & people quit quoting it correctly. Likely because they heard it more and more from Jorge Santayana so the Plato quote you faded to the rear of anyone’s memory or records books. The Army’s OCS and Military academy’s teach it as Plato


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Interesting grousing about misattributed quotes here, discussing this quote in particular.



  7. […] en gang i mellomkrigstiden, og også han viste til Platon som kilde. Hverken lesehester eller nettets søkemotorer  har imidlertid kunnet finne noe slikt sitat i Platons verker. Derimot skrev beviselig den […]


  8. […] system of higher-education finance is such that, in time, it may come to be said that “Only the dead have seen the end of student-loan […]


  9. Ed Darrell says:

    Maddening, wasn’t it, Chris?

    You did the right thing. But fighting ignorance and misattribution is long war, not a short battle. Keep up the good work.


  10. Chris says:

    I used this quote in a Memorial Day speech and attributed it to Santayana. The local newspaper noted the quote and attributed it to Plato.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. AdrianOrtizMD says:

    Reblogged this on adrianortizmdblog.


  12. sameer says:

    watched this movie the other day and the quote is 100% correct


  13. […] “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Who said that? Contrary to what Black Hawk Down says, this quote is not in any of Plato’s writings. The […]


  14. Migueealejandro says:

    Reblogged this on The Mannerly Khal.


  15. I honestly think that it’s a very good quote! Because it’s true.


  16. gj says:



  17. Chris brosnahan says:

    Only the dead have seen the end of….STUPID


  18. Jazni says:

    Plato :)


  19. For some reason this happens a lot to Santayana. Another famous quotation of his (“those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat”) tends to be misattributed to others as well. When is the man going to get the credit he deserves?


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