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Saint Diana?

By Peter Singer (August 24, 2007)

Ten years after her death, Princess Diana still has star power. The media are filled with tributes and retrospectives, and all over the world, the public seems to be avidly soaking it up. Has Diana become a new kind of saint, and if so, what does that tell us?

I encountered the cult of Diana in 2004, when I was in Hyde Park on the day the Queen opened the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. I found myself among a group of middle-aged women wearing jackets and hats covered with badges. They looked like football fanatics, except that the badges bore Diana’s face, not David Beckham’s.

I started chatting with them, and learned that their clothing, handbags, and shoes were patterned after those that Diana had worn. Some had a “Diana room” in their homes, filled with memorabilia of the princess. Their lives, it seemed, now revolved around a woman who had been dead for seven years.

The Italian sculptor Luigi Biaggi offered his view of this phenomenon with a statue of Diana in a pose and robes suggestive of the Virgin Mary. Celebrities, his work was saying, have replaced religious figures. Margaret Evans, a British researcher, studied tributes people left for Diana after her death and found that some referred to her as a saint, or an angel, and a few compared her directly with Jesus.

Bizarre theories sprung up about Diana’s death including claims that the British secret service murdered her because she was a threat to the throne, or that she is living happily with her new love, Dodi Fayed, having staged the entire event to get away from the glare of publicity. Then, as befits the death of a quasi-divine figure, a prophesy of her death was discovered in the words of the singer/songwriter Morrissey on the Smiths’ album “The Queen is Dead.”

From a rational perspective, this idolizing of Diana is as absurd as any cult. Granted, she used her prominence to promote worthwhile causes. She championed the sick and marginalized, and her work for a ban on landmines, while sometimes ridiculed as politically naïve, drew worldwide attention to the issue. Whether that would have led, without her death, to the Ottawa treaty banning landmines is impossible to tell. Even now, many nations, including the United States, Russia, China, Israel, and Iran, have not signed the treaty.

Of course, there was often a disturbing incongruity between Diana’s commitment to the poor and sick, and the extravagant lifestyle she led. But Diana’s flaws were part of her appeal. In contrast to the British royal family’s stiffness and reserve, she showed herself to be a princess who was also a normal human being, more like the rest of us. As she went through a messy divorce triggered by an unfaithful husband, millions of women shared her pain. In an era before reality television shows, Diana’s life was reality television.

The constant media focus enabled people to feel that they knew her, and so they followed and cared intensely about her ups and downs, as if she were a member of their own family. To otherwise mundane lives, a sense of involvement with Diana added excitement and glamor.

Earl Spencer urged us to resist the temptation to canonize his sister. In his funeral speech – the most interesting of all the Diana eulogies – he said that turning her into a saint was incompatible with appreciating her “mischievous sense of humor.” Nevertheless, he went on to attribute some saint-like qualities to her, especially her “almost childlike” desire to do good for others. In trying to account for the way British newspapers sneered at her good intentions, he said: “My own and only explanation is that genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum.”

That remark may have been a bitter payback for the role Spencer believed the media, and the paparazzi who worked for them, played in Diana’s death, but it was not without truth. Some people use cynicism to evade moral responsibility. If you can convince yourself that everyone behaves selfishly, then why try to be a better person?

A person with a naïve but sincere desire to do good threatens that protective shell, and one way to blunt the threat is to sneer. Diana might have had a better life in the US, where people and the media are more ready to accept good intentions at face value.      

What effect did Diana’s life and death have on the millions who admired and loved her? After her death, tens of millions grieved and many wrote letters and sent checks to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, which has a website called But if the work does continue, it is on a more modest scale that has settled into the background of public charitable work.

Perhaps that was inevitable. While a single person can arouse our emotions, such feelings tend to be temporary and rarely produce a lasting change in our lives. Or perhaps those who identified so strongly with Diana somehow imagined that they shared in her good deeds, and that they need not do anything more.

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include How Are We to Live? and Writings on an Ethical Life.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2007.