How the Stoic concept of 'Memento Mori' can transform your entire life

In Book 2 of his ‘Meditations’, written almost 2,000 years ago, the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius says this: “You may leave this life at any moment: have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say or think”. The Stoics were big believers in the importance of constantly reminding yourself of your mortality, and the concept of ‘Memento Mori’ (Latin for ‘remember that you must die’) features prominently in Stoic writing, not just in the ‘Meditations’ of Marcus Aurelius, but also in the Letters of Seneca and the questions asked by Epictetus.

If there’s one thing that every human being has in common, it is that we all must die. I wonder how that prospect makes you feel? The vast majority of people today appear in denial about the fact that, one day, they must die. This denial is highly unsurprising; death is, of course, humanity’s biggest fear. Evolution has hardwired us to avoid death at all costs, with our evolutionary purpose in life very clear – to survive and reproduce. Considering this evolutionary impulse, which governs so much of what we do, there is no surprise death is so feared. Add to this the uncertainty that surrounds death – nobody has ever come back to tell us what it’s like to be ‘dead’ – and then throw into the mix the grief and pain caused by the loss of a loved one, and it’s unsurprising that the last thing anybody ever wants to think about is their demise, or the demise of anybody else!

The world’s largest monotheistic religion - Christianity and Islam - are just as concerned with death – and what might happen after it – as they are concerned with what happens in this lifetime. Christianity, for example, is centred around the death and apparent resurrection of Jesus. The vast majority of the world’s religions make promises to their followers about eternal life and post-death existence, reflecting how humans have a simultaneous fear and fascination with death.

In the same way that Christianity saw believing in life after death was an important article of faith, the Stoics saw reflecting on death as an important philosophical task. Reflecting on death, they believed, would wake us up from complacency and force us to really focus on what was really important in our lives. As Marcus Aurelius wrote in Book 4 of ‘Meditations’, ‘You do not have thousands of years to live. Urgency is on you. While you live, while you can, become good’. And as fellow Stoic Seneca urged in his Letters, “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.”

What if reflecting more on our mortality and the prospect of our death was – in an almost paradoxical way – the secret to feeling more alive? What if meditating on ‘Memento Mori’ (‘remembering that you must die’) was the secret to making the most out of your short and precious time here on this planet? In a world where it’s all too easy to take our lives for granted, realising how short and precious they are could be the ‘wake-up call’ we need in order to stop wasting our time and instead start living our best lives.

As Marcus Aurelius wrote, we may leave this life at ‘any moment’. We simply do not know when we will die. We could have another 10 years on this planet, we could have another 10 days. What matters is not the quantity of days we have left, but the quality of them. Aware that our lives could so easily be taken away from us, we must resolve to make the very best of every single moment that we are alive. Remembering how precious and futile life is should inspire us to make the most of each and every day that we have on this planet. Every hour and every day should be seen as a gift. Remember, the universe doesn’t actually owe us anything. There are no guarantees or promises that we will be around to see tomorrow, and so we must strive to make the most of our lives today! We must fearlessly live each moment of our lives to the full, pursuing our dreams, seizing the day and striving to fulfil our potential. We must embrace every opportunity to express gratitude for our continued existence, and we must make the most of every chance that we get to connect with the people (and world) around us! Think about how you can make the most of your time here on this planet and reflect on how you can leave an inspiring legacy everywhere you go. Make it your mission to make an impact and make a difference, leaving this world a better place than you found it. Never stop expressing thanks for the privilege of being alive, and never stop appreciating life’s simplest pleasures.

Stop taking your life for granted and start using the Stoic philosophy of ‘Memento Mori’ as an inspiration for making the most of each day. Seize every day and strive to make the most of every moment! Life is too short not to be lived to the full!

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