Memento Mori

Memento Mori

When giving your wife or child a kiss, repeat to yourself, “I am kissing a mortal.” Then you won’t be so distraught if they are taken from you. 


We were recently discussing the Four Stoic Virtues, which collectively form the skeleton of a Stoic’s decision-making process. Before that, we discussed amor fati, which teaches a Stoic to not only tolerate the undesirable aspects of life but to learn to embrace them as a necessary step on the path to the good life. Another fundamental tenet of Stoicism is memento mori

By a literal translation, memento mori is a command remember one’s mortality. Why would a Stoic need such a reminder? 

In recounting the death of Socrates, Plato writes “those who truly grasp philosophy pursue the study of nothing else but dying and being dead.” In other words, the entire point of being a philosopher is to learn to accept death as a natural result of life. 

The history of philosophy is filled with examples of facing death with resigned detachment. If you are reading this, you likely know about the death sentence of Socrates. Surrounded by his friends and students, Socrates was forced to drink hemlock. By all accounts, he scolded the lookers-on for any hint of anguish over his plight. He had lived a good life and would now die a good death. Seneca’s death sentence, ordered by his student Nero, parallels that of Socrates. Tacitus describes the scene as follows.

At the same time he called [his friends] back from their tears to manly resolution, now with friendly talk, and now with the sterner language of rebuke. “Where,” he asked again and again, “are your maxims of philosophy, or the preparation of so many years’ study against evils to come? Who knew not Nero’s cruelty? After a mother’s and a brother’s murder, nothing remains but to add the destruction of a guardian and a tutor.”


In short, the first reason for the command to remember death is to be prepared when death comes. However, such an important concept cannot be limited to the final moments of life, so there must be a second, more important, reason.

A Stoic remembers death so that he can remember to live. Humans seem to have evolved to almost never think of death or, on the rare occasion when it enters our consciousness, to think of it as only applying to everyone else. The Stoics understood that there would be no better motivation to live a good life than to be constantly reminded that the good life will one day come to an end. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda (through his version of George Washington speaking with a young and reckless Alexander Hamilton) may have provided the most succinct modern interpretation of this second reason for memento mori: “Dying is easy, young man, living is harder.” Know that one day you will die and be prepared to face it, but do the hard work of living until the end. Memento mori is not a glorification of death, but a celebration of life.

At this point, I normally provide an explanation of how the concept being discussed can be applied to the practice of law. For this topic, however, and with a nod to the mental health crisis stalking our profession, I will leave you with the number to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. If you or someone you love is considering suicide, please reach out to 1-800-273-8255. Embrace life!