There is a philosophy as old as the hills. Well not that old. Two thousand five hundred is not in the millions which is the age of the hills, but it’s a long time in human history.
So it is that we begin the year with a quote and some wise words from philosophers who’ve been in the business of thinking about many of the things we think about, long before we started to think about them. This post comes courtesy of a project run by Ryan Holiday, titled The Daily Stoic. Here are his thoughts for Monday 9 January under the heading “Remember that you will die”.
“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.” — Seneca
The powerful and the wise have been finding ways to remind themselves of their mortality for centuries. Their art is filled with it. Their writing muses over it. Their desks were staged with totems to remind them of the urgency of life. They would keep reminders close to their body too, wearing memento mori rings, cufflinks, even tattoos. They never wanted to forget: We can go at any moment.
The Stoic finds this thought invigorating and humbling. Remembering this fact is one of the most important and critical of Stoic exercises.
It is not surprising that one of Seneca’s biographies is titled Dying Every Day. After all, it is Seneca who urged us to tell ourselves “You may not wake up tomorrow,” when going to bed and “You may not sleep again,” when waking up as reminders of our mortality. Or as another Stoic, Epictetus, urged his students: “Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible— by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.” In Meditations Marcus Aurelius wrote “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” That was a personal reminder to continue living a life of virtue NOW, and not wait.
The French painter Philippe de Champaigne expressed a similar sentiment in his painting “Still Life with a Skull,” which showed the three essentials of existence – the tulip (life), the skull (death), and the hourglass (time). The original painting is part of a genre referred to as Vanitas, a form of 17th century artwork featuring symbols of mortality which encourage reflection on the meaning and fleetingness of life.
This is only depressing if you miss the point. Used properly memento mori is a tool to create priority and meaning, one that generations have used to create real perspective and urgency. To treat our time as a gift and not waste it on the trivial and vain. Death doesn’t make life pointless but rather purposeful. And fortunately, we don’t have to nearly die to tap into this. A simple reminder can bring us closer to living the life we want.
Holiday doesn’t beat about the bush. He is rather blunt leaving his readers in little doubt about the nature of his subject for the day. It fits with our position that states we need to face up to the realities of what it is to live in the present, knowing that this present day could be our last. It will be for thousands of people whether they have planned for it or not.
Let’s make sure as Seneca says that our minds are prepared for whatever eventuality life sends our way. “The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time”.