Friday, November 25, 2011

Memento Mori

These are the words we are told were whispered in the ears of Romans granted a triumph as they rode their chariots to the Capitol.  "Remember you are mortal," they were advised.  One would think the reminder would be unnecessary, but clearly it is not, as we take pains to remind ourselves of this fact, now and then, if not at the moment we achieve glory or are glorified.
I've been reminded of this twice in the last three years, rather forcefully, and so am inclined to opine on my mortality; but I find myself very much at a loss to say anything that has not already been said by someone over the tens if not hundreds of thousands of years we have pondered our fate.  It makes one wonder whether death is in a sense banal, but it cannot be, as it cannot be said to be boring, no matter that it is obvious.  But what can be asserted intelligently beyond the fact that we die, which is to say at the least that we no longer exist as we have existed?

Marcus Aurelius apparently believed that we either dissolve into the atoms the ancients felt made up the universe, or are absorbed into the Divine Reason.  Others have believed otherwise; it seems there is no end to the alternatives available to our imagination if to nothing else.  We may simply cease to be.  We may go to heaven or to hell.  We may transmigrate, reincarnate.  We may continue to exist is some other universe. 

We are vitally concerned regarding our fate, yet there is clearly nothing unique about it.  All livings things change, age and die; at least those living things of which we are aware.  Perhaps there will come a time when we may avoid this fate, perhaps that time will never come.  We consider ourselves unique because we are aware of our fate--we know we will die, while other livings things do not (we are presumptuous if nothing else).  This has caused the more self-loving among us to dramatically despair, usually in rather florid, self-pitying essays, poems and novels.  But this reaction seems less than useful, even futile and silly.  It is rather like loudly protesting the fact that we continually urinate.

What can we usefully do in response to the fact that we will die?  This would appear to be the only intelligent inquiry that can be made if our concern is regarding how we are to live rather than to speculate about what might happen when we cease living; something we cannot determine much as we may want to. 

Unsurprisingly, this is a question which has been addressed.  We have not always been melodramatic, self-regarding romantics or mere believers in a paradise awaiting us in some other realm.  Wise men and women have considered the issue, and have come to make inferences which are sensible.

"Live every moment as if it were your last moment" or words similar to them have been said and written time and again.  This is advice many have given though they have believed very different things regarding what may or may not happen after we have lived.  This is good advice because it relates to what is in our control.  That we will die is something we clearly cannot control.  Our concern should be how we live, i.e. with things we can do or not do.

Should we then "eat, drink and be merry"--words we have also heard said over our history?  Well, there is certainly nothing wrong with eating, drinking or being merry.  But it's doubtful we can be merry all the time.  We can relish the times we are merry, certainly.  However, there are times in our interaction with the universe and others in it when we are confronted with problems, fears, dangers and things which decidedly are not the stuff of merriment, and we must face them as well. 

We can act in accordance with nature, as the Stoics taught.  We are intelligent creatures, social creatures, made up of the stuff which makes up the universe of which we are a part.  We can act reasonably and do so by doing the best we can with what is in our control.  We can try to do this at every moment, and when we die do so knowing this this has been our goal in life, and be content. 

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