Memento Mori — Dancing with Death
An Ancient Stoic Philosophy is Resurrected
Within the beliefs of the philosophy known as Stoicism lies the lesser-known concept of memento mori — a Latin phrase that translates to: “Remember that you must die.”
It’s pretty much a fact that mankind has always feared death above all else. We fear it so much we rarely if ever ponder our own inevitable end. Memento mori, on the other hand, tackles the subject head-on. It encourages us to reflect on our mortality every day — not for bad but for good. It’s a lesson in choosing to live every day as fully as we can, appreciating everyone and everything in it. Treat every day like it’s our last, it says, because indeed one day it will be.
It’s not an easy thought to grasp.
The origin of memento mori dates back to the days of ancient Greece and Rome. In Greece, Socrates was among the first philosophers to put forth the idea that meditating on death can and should create a vigorous incentive to not waste the time we’re given on this earth.
He and his followers also saw this mortal way of looking at things as a worthy practice in humility. Don’t get too full of yourself, because at death every earthly possession and title and money you’ve ever earned will fall away. In this, what’s true for paupers is true for kings.
In the days when Rome ruled most of the known world, a triumphant parade was held after every conquering victory over a foreign land. At the head of the procession rode the emperor in a chariot, with a slave standing obediently at his side. It was the slave’s duty, legend has it, to whisper in the emperor’s ear over and over a simple warning: “Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.”
Nothing lasts forever. Such is the essence of life, with the final proposition being, “Remember that you must die.”
Yet every day when we wake up our ego tells us we’re invincible, that the end of the road is so far away it’s not worth thinking about. Not today. Sure, deep down our logical side knows there are no guarantees when it comes to longevity. But we’re not going to worry about that.
What if, instead of avoiding the subject of death, we tried harder to honestly face death?
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the better part of the western world from 161 to 180 CE. Revered to this day as a great warrior, poet, and statesman, Aurelius was educated and trained in Stoic philosophy. He no doubt was borrowing from the idea of memento mori when he wrote in his private journal:
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”
According to the website DailyStoic.com, the most important application of Stoicism, or any other philosophical teaching, is “differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t, what we have influence over and what we do not.” In other words, it’s not what happens to us so much as how we react to what happens that determines our character, and ultimately our fate.
And just to be clear, this isn’t just about ancient emperors and philosophers. Apple co-founder and inventor Steve Jobs, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2011 — eight years after his initial diagnosis, had this to say about coming face to face with his own end:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life….Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
How to Implement Memento Mori in Your Daily Life
Memento mori, when practiced properly, can be quite useful in living a healthier, more peaceful life.
With that in mind, here are a few points to consider:
· The goal of studying philosophy is to compel one to take action toward living and understanding a better life. Start a new hobby, begin a new project, prioritize your goals and do something to make each and every new day a little more fulfilling. Author Ryan Holiday put it best: “You don’t have to do a lot every day, but you have to do something.”
· When something annoys you, think to yourself “memento mori — this is too minor and temporary for me to get upset about.”
· Memento mori is a long-term discipline, not a quick fix. It must be thought of and practiced steadily over time in order to have a meaningful impact.
· Understand that there is a significant difference between Death Reflection and Death Anxiety. It may not be in everyone’s best interest to think about ‘the end’ if, instead of peaceful reflection and motivation, it only brings about worry, dread, or even panic. If there is a chance this line of thinking could become an all-consuming instrument of fear, then one should think twice and step away quickly.
I know as the years keep rolling by, those hushed words — remember you must die — creep into my thoughts a little bit more. The Stoics tell us the wiser man recognizes the presence of the grim reaper somewhere in the vast banquet room that is our life. But he also knows that death doesn’t make life pointless.
On the contrary, death makes life more purposeful than ever.
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