A Remainder We All Need (IM 899)

Memento Mori

The ancient practice of meditating on mortality goes back to Socrates, who once said that the proper practice of philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.”

One day we all die, that’s what we all have been told and that’s what we believe. But we are, in fact, dying everyday. We die every night when we go to sleep and awaken a different person, although we often barely notice what has been lost in the process. The child dies to become the adolescent. The adolescent dies to become the man. The boy is father to the man but also predeceases him. As Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius put in this is not the body to which your mother gave birth.

This idea of practicing and meditating on death adds meaning in life. It encourages us to focus our attention on its true worth. Seneca told himself each night as he closed his eyes to sleep that he might not awaken to see the morning. In one of his Moral Letters, he wrote:

You were born a mortal, and you have given birth to mortals: yourself a weak and fragile body, liable to all diseases, can you have hoped to produce anything strong and lasting from such unstable material? — Seneca, Moral Letters

“Know thyself ” and be mortal, said Seneca.

Those whom you love and those whom you despise will both be made equal in the same ashes. This is the meaning of that command, “Know thyself”, which is written on the shrine of the Pythian oracle. — Seneca, Moral Letters

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself: “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Marcus, therefore, advises contemplating death in each action:

During every one of your actions pause at each step and ask yourself: “Is death deemed catastrophic because of the loss of this?” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Epictetus would say his students, “It is not the things themselves that disturb men, but their judgements about these things. For example, death is nothing catastrophic, or else Socrates too would have thought so, but the judgement that death is catastrophic, this is the catastrophic thing.”


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