💀 "Memento Mori" Isn't a Stoic Phrase. It's a Christian One.

So, how did it become such a Stoic mantra?

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Pop culture Stoicism seems keen to remind us that we will all die soon enough. Not today, hopefully, but, at some point in the future, we’ll each shuffle off the mortal coil and “meet our maker.”

Last week I talked about “Amor Fati”, this week I’m going to talk about “Memento Mori”; a Latin phrase (with Ancient Greek roots that pre-date Stoicism) asking us to “Remember, we must die.”

In this week’s edition, my goal is to help you get more out of this ancient concept of getting comfortable with your own mortality. I want Memento Mori to become a useful and practical tool that helps you to live a better life, instead of what many people find it to be: an anxiety-inducing instruction that encourages non-stop hustle and grinding.

Before I start, here’s a friend’s newsletter

Reza Tareen publishes a regular philosophy newsletter called “The Great Memo.” It’s free and you may want to check it out.

The roots of Memento Mori seem to lead us to the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus

Democritus was a pre-socratic philosopher who lived from 460-370 BCE. It was said of him that he would regularly go on, what we might call today, “meditative retreats” to catacombs and other “houses of the dead” to reflect on his mortality and inevitable death.

Democritus may not have been the first to have held such a practice, or to find value in one, but he seems to be the first documented one in the Classical tradition.

Just as is the case with “Amor Fati”, “Memento Mori” is Latin while Stoicism is Greek. Meaning no one in ancient Greece ever uttered the phrase “Memento Mori.”

How about in Ancient Rome? Did any Roman Stoics ever use the phrase “Memento Mori?” Well, maybe, but probably not.

The expression memento mori developed with the growth of Christianity, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, Hades and salvation of the soul in the afterlife. The 2nd-century Christian writer Tertullian claimed in his Apologeticus, that during a triumphal procession, a victorious general had someone standing behind him, holding a crown over his head and whispering: "Respice post te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori." ("Look after yourself. Remember you're a man. Remember you will die.") …

The thought was then utilized in Christianity, whose strong emphasis on divine judgment, heaven, hell, and the salvation of the soul brought death to the forefront of consciousness. …

A Biblical injunction often associated with the memento mori in this context is In omnibus operibus tuis memorare novissima tua, et in aeternum non peccabis: "in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin."

Wikipedia entry on Memento Mori

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has studied the Classics – if even briefly – just how much of the foundation of Christian ethics is a near-direct plagiarism of Stoic ethics. In this case, however, they have done antiquity a great justice in that, while Stoicism fell out of fashion by the 3rd Century AD and was all but forgotten until the late 20th Century when A. A. Long near-single-handedly resurrected interest in it, Memento Mori survived through art and literature.

Rarely, if ever, did these artistic conduits credit Stoicism (or even Greek Antiquity) with their use of the idea – instead, these works were influenced by what were taken to be, by then, Christian ethics.

“Amor Fati” is a Latin phrase, popularized by a German Nihilist, and which pop culture incorrectly identifies as “Stoic canon.”

“Memento Mori” is a Latin phrase, first uttered (as far as we know) within the context of Christian Ethics by a Christian writer, and which was reflective of a practice first created by a guy named Democritus who has been dead for ~2500 years.

Indeed, the idea behind Memento Mori (at least sort of) had been a concept held in high regard by Ancient Stoics – but it was never given a name… it was never “the Stoic practice of Memento Mori.”

And I say “at least sort of” because, going back to that Wikipedia excerpt:

A Biblical injunction often associated with the memento mori in this context is In omnibus operibus tuis memorare novissima tua, et in aeternum non peccabis: "in all thy works be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin."

Keeping your immortal soul safe from damnation was, categorically, not why the Stoics wanted us to keep our mortality in mind – and this is a critical difference.

Christianity wants us to remember our death so we’ll remember our judgment before the Creator. Christianity wants to motivate us to find God, accept Jesus as our Saviour, and pledge fealty to their theological model.

The Stoics want us to remember our death so we’ll remember we’re running out of time to acquire the knowledge of perfect moral reason (Virtue). Not because, if we don’t, we’ll face judgment and damnation, but because, if we don’t, we’ll have lived a less good life than we could have.

The reason behind remembering our mortality is, in my mind, every bit as important as remembering our mortality in the first place.

Thanks to the Christians, Memento Mori, as a phrase, survives… how it was ever aligned with Stoicism – not the concept but the literal phrase itself – is beyond me. Because to utter a motto of Christian ethics, as a Stoic, seems silly.

My cynical theory?

“Memento Mori” is Latin, so it sounds cool and people like cool-sounding things. Stoicism has become an in-vogue, cool thing itself. Stoicism talks about meditating on the inevitability of our death.

So cool people, trying to make cool things, slap two cool-sounding ideas into a single marketable product, and BANG ⬇️

You get that kind of nonsense.

It’s the perversion of a serious philosophy for the sake of marketing products to people who want to feel like they’re a part of something – a practice I find to be highly manipulative as it leverages people’s feelings of “lostness” for the sake of profit.

The less cynical theory is that people just aren’t careful or thoughtful these days.

Why not mix Latin phrases with Christian Ethics and ancient Greek meditative practices – what’s the harm in that?

Especially if it sells because people want it.

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Remember your death, buy a coin or a t-shirt, but don’t cheapen your practice — endeavour to learn what is true.

There’s nothing wrong with having a Memento Mori coin, or an Amor Fati t-shirt, or a collection of “I love Marcus Aurelius” underoos — these things are all indifferent things and you’re allowed to pursue them if you want them.

What matters to me is you know why you choose to choose what you choose.

Knowing that Memento Mori is a Christian phrasing that co-opts an ancient lineage of non-Christian philosophy for the sake of reminding you not to sin, lest your mortal soul be lost to Hell, is, I think, valuable.

Knowing all that means you can buy a Memento Mori coin understanding the history of the phrase (and the practice), which means you can buy that coin knowing exactly what the phrase means to you.

And to make it clear that I believe that last bit, even I have a Memento Mori hoodie! I think it’s a great conversation starter and I love it when people on the Metro ask me about it.

With a full understanding of the history of the phrase, I can explain how it fits into a healthy Stoic practice while, at the same time, explaining how it is not expressly Stoic.

This makes me a better teacher and practitioner, and I hope it will do the same for you.

Take care,
Tanner

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