You Were Born to Die
How the Ancient Practice of Contemplating Your Death Can Help You Live Well Now!
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly” — Marcus Aurelius
“You should remember, that you were born to die… ” — Blind Willie McTell
Are You Ready to Die?
How you answer that question depends on more than your age, physical condition, or situation. Your answer reflects your attitude and position on what it means to live a good life.
“Life Is Just a Pilgrimage from the Womb to the Tomb.” — Cornel West
Ben Franklin famously stated “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” However, it is quite possible, even easy, to cheat or avoid taxation. We can not say the same of death. Upon our exit from the womb, as Cornel West more eloquently speaks, the only outcome that is assured is that our corpse will eventually become worm food.
The ancient Greeks and Romans not only knew this, but celebrated it. Used it as a motivation and reason to live in the moment and live well. During victory marches, Roman generals were followed by slaves who whispered in their ear momento mori (“remember, thou must die”). Reportedly this helped the generals remain humble and circumspect.
Roman playwright and political advisor, Seneca, wrote frequently on contemplating one’s death. An example worth reading is his essay titled On the Shortness of Life. Seneca’s words are reflected in the writing of later thinkers like the French essayist Montaigne who wrote “To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”
The Greek Stoic philosopher and teacher Epictetus mixed the contemplation of death with characteristic humor. “I must die. If soon, then I die; whereas if a little later, I will take lunch now, since the hour for lunch has come, and afterwards I will die at the appointed time. How? As becomes the man who is giving back that which was another’s.”
Death Is a Call to Live
The quote from Epictetus further reminds us that our life is not ours. It is a gift. Epictetus would say a gift from Nature, but if you prefer you can call it a gift from God. The source of the generosity is not the point. Remembering that our corporeal condition is of unknowable duration provides meaning and motivation to live well in what the Romans called the hic et nunc (the here and now).
Meditation on our own death was the ultimate manifestation of the Stoic exercise known as premeditato malorum (the contemplation of adversity in advance). This practice provides perspective and context to any of life’s vicissitudes and challenge from getting cut off in traffic or shortchanged at the grocery, to crabby co-workers and belligerent bosses, to illness or financial hardship, and on and on.
Without proper training and education, it is quite easy to respond to our impending doom in a hedonistic or even nihilistic manner. “If I’m going to end up dead, why not live it up and satisfy all my basest urges and desires?” This approach, however, will only hasten your demise.
To contemplate our death is at the same time to contemplate what it means to be truly human and truly happy and a call to action to strive to become more of both. This requires us to temper our irrational, emotional, and bodily wants and have the courage to work for the benefit and needs of others. To practice the golden rule and cultivate wisdom. To remember the words of the Roman Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus, “It is not possible to live well today unless you treat it as your last day.”
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