If you’re interested in philosophy, have a penchant for Stoicism, self- improvement, or indeed maxims for living, you’ve probably come across the phrase “memento mori” a time or two. Whilst this phrase might not mean anything to you, or, on the flip side may well be a part of your daily vocabulary. We’re going to take a look at the history of what the phrase means, from the ancient societies of Egypt and Rome to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. At the end of this piece I’ve included some exercises of how you could potentially apply them to your life with dedicated practice.
To begin with, let’s get to the heart of the translation. The words can be roughly transcribed from Latin as “Remember you will die” and this was something that the Ancient Romans coined way back when. However, if you look into it, most civilisations have an iteration of this sentiment in their own dialects and practices. For example, in Ancient Egypt, death was so commonplace in everyday life that there are many treatises written about the “Egyptian obsession with death”. If you think of the practices of burial for example: the constructing of large pyramids as shrines to the fallen pharaohs, and commemorating both their death (and life) by mummifying the dead, as well as opulent resting places for officials too. This invoked as sense of honour — even in death.
The Ancient Romans lined monuments and tombs inscribed with epitaphs alongside most of their public roads as a way to remember their dead, and were not only for the rich. Some hundreds of monuments have survived to this day, on Rome’s Via Appia, and they offer a great insight in how the Romans approached death, with a sense of fearlessness, and sometimes even an indifference to life.
This is echoed in the epitaph labeled B507,
Refrain from tears, father and you, beloved mother, stop crying. I do not feel the punishment of death, life was a punishment, in death rest is prepared for me.
To contextualise the phrase, we must visit Ancient Rome- as a way for the struggling senate to keep egos at bay, especially amongst victorious military leaders and generals. Often when these guys returned from a successful campaign, they would be honoured with a “triumph”, one of the highest honours you could receive at the time by partaking in brutal conquests. Taking you back to this ceremony, you’d find the area lined with citizens and the “triumphant” general or leader would then be paraded through the crowd on a chariot. Accompanying him, there would be a servant of sorts and their responsibility would entail whispering, “Respice post te. Hominem te memento,” or similar words, as they basked in the glory of their success. This acted as a strong reminder that their hubris is temporary and too where they, not to forget that we’d all inevitably meet the same fate one day.
Something that Marcus Aurelius wrote in his private journal, the Meditations (6.24) coincides with the above sentiment favourably:
Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died, and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.
Meaning? That no matter your current position or social standing, you can’t take it with you. Death waits for no-one, and your lifetime will be merely other people’s memories in a few years when you’re gone. Of course, you may try and indeed succeed to be one of the few who makes a mark on society, either favourably or not. However, in the meantime we should all seek to be indifferent to this notion at the very least, and simply focus on making the most of your limited time here.
The Subject of Death in Stoic Writings
Relating memento mori to Stoic philosophy in the Roman era of the Stoa is greatly enhanced by the oration or writings of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. As we are privy to their inner workings about the subject of our mortality, we can safely say that dying was not something to cower from, but instead to embrace and relinquish the opportunities that being alive has created. After all, we need a way to rationalise our acceptance that we as humans are made of organic matter, and it is only natural that we will one day perish.
Looking at the writings of Arrian from the teachings of Epictetus, who often reminded his students of the servant reminding the general of his mortality. He also lectured about, “impermanent bonds” through not just death itself, but the threat of exile in those days, which concerned those close to you. It was his way of practising a form of detachment which I know can sound quite callous, but he has a point, about everything being fleeting:
Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible — by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.
I must die. Must I then die lamenting? I must be put in chains. Must I then also lament? I must go into exile. Does any man then hinder me from going with smiles and cheerfulness and contentment?
In much of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and the sources I have read accredit his virtuous life to this way of thinking despite being the most powerful man in the ancient world during his tenure as emperor of Rome.
You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.
Let each thing you would do, say, or intend, be like that of a dying person.
Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.
And lest we forget Seneca the Younger too in his famed Letters to Lucilius wrote:
Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day…The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.
Seneca in On Earthquakes, mentions the sentiment, of not fearing death to Lucilius again:
“Forget all else, Lucilius, and concentrate your thoughts on this one thing: not to fear the name of death. Through long reflection make death one of your close acquaintances, so that, if the situation arises, you are able even to go out and meet it.”
Finally, Zeno of Citium the originator of Stoicism who founded the school in Athens is reputed to have said:
No evil is honorable: but death is honorable; therefore death is not evil.
The Stoics aimed to rise above these fears of death, and grief, explaining the ability to do so through a framed concept originally from the teachings of Aristotle: magnanimity (μεγαλοψυχία) a subdivision of the cardinal virtue of courage, which meant having a great mind and heart and absence of cowardice. So, if there’s one thing to cling on to and memorise from the teachings of the late era Stoa it’s this: Memento mori acts as a reminder to live virtuously and without delay.
As we look further into history beyond the ancient world, you can find people of the Middle Ages surrounded by death: epidemics such as dysentery, smallpox, and bubonic plague were rife. Not to mention poor sanitation, dangerous occupations and poor working conditions. Therefore, it was important for people not to fear death, but embrace it. Subsequently, this would have a massive impact on society as a whole, evidence to reinforce this up would most notably be found in the workings of contemporary artists through Vanitas Art, and also grew an art genre called Danse Macabre (The Dance of Death).
This sentiment was shared through literature and popular culture. Death was a common theme that featured very heavily at this time. Most notably, through Shakespeare, a great example of this would be the scene in Hamlet when Hamlet holds up the skull of a court jester. As he raises the skull, he grapples with the thought of how even the most lively, and vivacious people end up this way. Dating as far back as the 16th Century right up to the Victorian era, we can see illustrious examples of jewellery in the form of pendants, rings, brooches and necklaces with representations of death and dying on them to act as memento mori.
In a Christian context, the phrase was often used as a reminder for their followers that the afterlife awaited them. Church walls were and still are adorned with elaborate memento mori art and sculptures, often showing kings, priests and peasants all being led by the touch of death. With some churches using actual human bones to hold in place the structure of said buildings (think of the catacombs in Paris).
Are the Words Still Prevalent in Today’s World?
After the 19th century we see a decline in the use of memento mori overall, although in the last decade it’s certainly become a popular phrase with the modern Stoic community online, being cited and circulated through various formats. I myself have been known to create digital content referencing the phrase, which coincides with my attempts at philosophical practice. In modern art, literature, podcasts and self-help blogs we find new ways to shed light on mortality. The author and marketer Ryan Holiday has certainly assisted in popularizing the mantra in recent years with his line of merchandise from the Daily Stoic store, and recording artists like The Weeknd, and the late Mac Miller have referenced “memento mori” in their works.
Artists and authors too have still dabbled in the macabre, like Sarah Lucas, who used her photography skills to craft self-portraits with a skull in hand. Photographer Michele Turriani has recently embarked on a project to raise awareness of endangered animals that appear on the IUCN red list by photographing the skulls of these animals, and paying homage to the memento mori Vanitas Art style.
Writers like Muriel Spark, David Jarrett, and Peter Jones have covered the subject at length, and on stores like Etsy and eBay you’ll find budding designers selling pieces of newly created jewellery and framed prints representing the mantra.
Finally, perhaps a good example of this phrase in practice on a large scale happens every November as the people of Mexico come together to celebrate death and fervour up a passion for life during the “Day of the Dead” festivities, on the same day that the European Catholics celebrate “All Souls Day”, this in its itself is a form of remembering the mortality of others and should allow for a reflection of your own existence.
The concept of memento mori has also been accredited as the key to success in the tech world of Silicon Valley. The late co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs once said,
Remembering I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in my life… [as] Things just fall away in the face of death
Words to Live (and Die) By?
We’ve taken a look at the historical aspect of the mantra and the people who are using it in the modern age, but now it’s time to dig into memento mori from a practical standpoint. This phrase is typically used as a meditative exercise to tell us that our body, our careers, our reputation, our possessions, and even our family can be taken away from us at any time, therefore, should not be the primary focus of our lives.
It can also be used as a reference to all the great and powerful people who came before us, who are now dead and buried. Have you ever heard of someone who was born and didn’t die eventually? Well perhaps in some respect the Turritopsis dohrnii, a type of jellyfish, can revert to an earlier state of existence through a master stroke of genetics and in theory create a cycle of immortality, but even they can still be consumed by predators or killed by other means.
If fortune allows it, we’ll have approximately 3 billion heartbeats in your lifetime, according to research. So, how can these words assist you with not being careless with those sacred heartbeats? It is said that knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice. So if you’re interested in starting to learn some methods, here are 5, I personally use that help me get the best out of day to living:
Exercises like these require consistent practice. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that only by doing this several times you will have the ability to curtail certain problems or spring into action by rectifying your procrastination without actually doing anything. Stoic Philosophy and its exercises require you to learn, practice, apply, and repeat what you’ve picked up through reading. Simply internalising the contents is not good enough.
- Reflecting on your current standing: Take a step back from how you go about your daily life and ask yourself, ‘are the things I’m spending my time on worth it?’. There’s work to be done, and it’s part of our nature as human beings to carry out certain duties. We must not dither with those fleeting seconds that pass us by. I tend to do this a few times a year and often take myself to a mountainside or long countryside walk, less frequently than I’d like, but it’s method really rallies home when I’ve needed to change something about my personal or professional life.
- An attitude of Gratitude: Sounds clichéd to some, but grab a pen and notepad, or device and start accumulating a list of things that you’re grateful for. What can you think of? Gratitude for waking up in the morning with relatively good health (fate permitting) and a warm bed to rise from, often go overlooked as we scramble to our devices and caffeinated beverages. I recommend doing this most days, or failing that, whenever you can. You’ll be surprised how much is in your life that you often overlook, and personally speaking it’s a great method to use whenever you find yourself at an impasse of desiring more, as we often need a reminder of what we already have in our lives and perhaps don’t need more of.
- Physical reminders: If you want to use memento mori as a practice and assimilate it into your way of living, having a constant reminder in your home or on your person just like those before us, is certainly a way to press you towards those achievements that await your work and toils. I carry a minted coin with me every day and have a skull model in almost every room at home. You cannot beat physical prompts, they will reinforce your psyche to fall in line accordingly.
- Moderating your ego: A visualisation exercise I’ve carried out from time to time involves sitting alone in my office, repeating “memento mori” for around 2–3 minutes to myself internally, it’s like the practice of meditation and yoga where you are encouraged to choose a mantra and repeat it inward. This tactic has worked well for me, especially when it concerns a time that I might have had good news or success in my professional life. Humility is key. Another method, if you can muster up the imagination, is to visualise someone whispering those fated words in your ear as a reminder to tame your hubris. Tricky but effective.
- What if this was my last day?: It’s not pleasant to think about this, but doesn’t make it any less possible. When I’ve found myself struggling for motivation, and at times courage, I’ve referred to this passage from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:
Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize what the world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned to you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.
Imagining lying on your deathbed — remembering what’s truly important, do you want to be full of regrets? This exercise doesn’t necessarily need to be reserved for major decisions either, I’ve used it to get me out on the trails for a run, or indeed to take care of important legal matters that I’ve been putting off, and general life admin too. Contextualise it and make it fit to your own circumstances, it’s your duty as a citizen of the great cosmopolis to not leave any stone unturned.
Memento Vivere (Remember You Have to Live)
Before I finish writing, I want to end this piece on a positive note. I know that memento mori speaks volumes to some people, myself included, and when used in the correct context (like listed above) provides us with the aim to not squander our time on this planet and be grateful for each day we have in good and even poor health.
However, for some of us dwelling on our inevitable fate even in the philosophical sense won’t be helpful, and that’s okay too. As long as we have time available on this planet, let’s aim to enjoy it, death doesn’t always need to be present as a reminder and, if fortune allows it, let’s not beckon it to our doorstep so hastily. After all the rewards from life, come through actually living and playing the game as we hurtle through space on this blue sphere we call “Earth”.
Enda Harte is a music management consultant living with his partner in Ireland. He writes about Stoic ethics and history online and is the creator of the forthcoming Stoic Reflections Journal 2021.