Memento Mori

Learning to live through facing death

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources weโ€™ve found.

๐Ÿ›๏ธ Theory

There is a famous line: to philosophize is to learn to die.

Before the effects of aging and injury cloud the mind, the philosopher sees mortality clearly. It is tragic but natural. Unavoidable and ordinary. A fact of life that is a force for urgency and gratitude.

The Stoics called themselves to come to terms with the reality of impermanence. We are mortal creatures. This much is obvious, but how many of us have truly internalized that fact?

Even if you believe in a life after this one, our earthly lives and the lives of the ones we love come to an end.

Most men ebb and flow in wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardships of life; they are unwilling to live, and yet they do not know how to die.

Seneca, Moral Letters 4

For the Stoics, death is not an evil. It is a necessary thing that may be done well or poorly. We all have the power to face it with excellence.

By internalizing the fact that we will die, memento mori, the Stoic seeks to live freely. They are not constrained by the fear of mortality. Nor are they prideful or complacent. That fact that weโ€™re mortal engenders urgency and gratitude now. Urgency, because this is all we have. Gratitude for the simple reason we have a life at all. Both of these attitudes inspire presence: the ability to see things as they are in the moment and act well.

Death hangs over you: while you live, while you can, be good.

Marcus Aurelius 4.17

To philosophize is to learn to die, because we are mortal creatures. The challenge of philosophy is, given that fact, how should we live?

๐ŸŽฏ Action

Pause and remind yourself of your mortality. Let go of the trivial and acknowledge what matters.

๐Ÿ”— Links

๐Ÿ’ฌ The wise get perspective and see death as it is. Here we have a line from Marcus Aurelius where he quotes the great philosopher, Plato:

The man who has an elevated mind and takes a view of all time and of all substance, do you suppose it possible for him to think that human life is anything great? It is not possible, he said. Such a man then will think that death also is no evil.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.35

Ibn al-Jawzi said:

The ship of your lifetime is approaching the coast of the graveyard. What is the matter with you that you are busy inside the ship trying to acquire goods?

๐ŸŽง๏ธ Listen to Michael and I discuss the practice of Memento Mori in detail on the Stoa Conversations podcast. We talk the benefits and risks of Memento Mori exercises so that you can translate Stoic philosophy into real practice.

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