Memento mori is one of the most valuable pieces of advice a contemporary person can receive. We will look at exactly what this phrase means, as well as how Stoics viewed this famous saying.
Stoic philosophers noticed that many people live their lives with expectations and regrets, i.e. they live more in the future or the past than in the actual present. This is the main reason why the phrase memento mori became an important idea in Stoic philosophy. Memento mori comes from Latin and means “remember you must die”. In other words, death is inevitable. This may seem morbid, but we will delve into the benefits of this phrase later on.
Our individual well-being depends on many factors, but one of those is focused on how we perceive the time we spend here on Earth. As beings with developed reasoning and intuition, we are able to easily recall past events and perceive possible future outcomes. When dealing with everyday situations, we often follow the examples that lie in the past. After all, the past can teach us valuable lessons in life.
On the other hand, we also strive to reach future goals, while at the same time, we can easily become overwhelmed by the unknown possibilities. In our fast-paced, modern world, we often look forward and rarely take the time to step back and reflect. Then again, why should we reflect on ourselves?
Well, the future and past share one similarity that cannot be found in the present. Namely, according to Stoic philosophy, the future and past are points in time that can’t be affected by our actions, and therefore are out of our control.
The past has already happened, and the future is yet to come. However, it is a common case throughout history that people suffer from negative emotions, such as anxiety and regret, due to their inability to control or change certain events in the past and future. This feeling of powerlessness is detrimental to our mental well-being. This is where memento mori reveals itself as useful advice.
Future, Past and Present
At first, memento mori may not seem very pleasant, because nobody likes to be reminded of death, especially not their own. One may ask why do we need that reminder at all? There are three main reasons why we desperately need those grim words:
“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire”Seneca
The first reason considers our habit of running towards the future. If you are only focused on the future, you will consequently be yearning for happiness in various forms. But as long as you are reaching out for this future, you are forgetting that true happiness is found in the present.
When those future events come into the present, you will still be too busy thinking about the future to enjoy them. Happiness is not something to reach for, because it doesn’t dwell somewhere distant and out of sight; it exists within you at all times.
The second is related to the past. For those who dwell in the past, regretting their mistakes or enjoying their past achievements and old glory, they are similarly out of touch with the present. They hold onto these past events in an attempt to relive them or change them; however, in doing so, they are denying themselves the potential to be happy now.
The third concerns our neglect of the present. This is otherwise known as procrastination, which is a passive relationship with the present moment. Procrastination can be caused by anxiety or greater dreams of the future; they yearn for accomplishment, but are unwilling or too scared to take the steps necessary to gain that achievement. People are not just “lazy”; there is always a deeper cause.
Unlike the last two reasons, procrastinators live in the present, but they don’t take action. They are passive and indifferent towards their life, and so they are equally unable to achieve happiness.
“They lose the day in expectation of the night, and the night in fear of the dawn.”Seneca
The point of memento mori – the reminder of one’s own death – is to bring us back to the right path, to remind us that we are alive and that life exists in the given moment.
“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
Life is a gift, and so it should be used. As Seneca suggests, we should look at our life with more value. Each day, you should prepare yourself and organize your life. You should remind yourself that you will have time for everything you want to do; however, you must learn to value every breath as if it is your last. If you were to die tonight, would you be satisfied with how you spent your last day, or would you feel it was wasted in procrastination, regret, or anxiety?
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …”Marcus Aurelius
Let us consider the above two quotes. Look how beautifully connected they are. Marcus Aurelius comments on our mortality and the importance of determined actions, while at the same time, he is poetically grateful for each moment he is alive. This is an important example when it comes to valuing life in the present moment. Such activity stems from a well-trained mind and is vital to avoiding negative mindsets and achieving happiness.
To conclude, the point of memento mori is to return your mind to the present moment. It can help you reflect on yourself, your interests, goals and plans. Rather than upset you with the knowledge of your inevitable demise, memento mori should give you the strength to continue your journey mindfully. It reminds us to be grateful and joyful towards the life that is given to us, and to not waste a moment of it.