Memento mori. “Remember your death.” Or, more poetically, “Remember that you are mortal.” In Plato’s Phaedo we hear Socrates say that the proper practice of philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.” In other words, the inescapable fact of our own mortality casts its shadow over every day of our life.
This sounds awfully glum. But consider this: In his book The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner tells of a conversation with a Tibetan Buddhist monk who declared that the secret to happiness is to think about death several times a day. We cannot fully embrace the here and now until we have fully embraced our own mortality.
I thought about this idea of memento mori after a recent conversation with my brother about the justified use of nuclear weapons. It seems to me that we can and must turn memento mori around to also point to the other people with whom we share this journey through life. For they too, whether they (or we) recognize it or not, are mortal, and live each day in the shadow of that mortality. When we end another person’s life, we take everything from him: his family, his friendships, his past, his future, his hopes, his dreams; we strip him of everything and cast him into the abyss. We take his fragile life, all of it, and cast it away.
How do we justify this? How do we justify it in our own conscience? How do we justify it before God? There may be situations in which it is justifiable; maybe self-defense, or the defense of our loved ones, although a rational moral argument can be made that even these situations do not justify us in taking another person’s life away from him.
Was our entry into World War 2 justified? I think it started out that way. But it ended in fire bombings that created firestorms that indiscriminately murdered innocent people by the ten of thousands, and in the dropping of two nuclear bombs that killed upwards of a hundred thousand innocent people; a much more difficult proposition to morally justify. Was the invasion of Iraq a justifiable war? Something on the order of a hundred thousand Iraqis, mostly women and children, died at our hands in that war, and the killing is still going on in the failed state we left behind. What do we put on the other side of the scale to balance that out, to justify that obscene loss of life?
We human creatures are mortal. We live out our little lives precariously, always balanced on the precipice of our mortality. Maybe thinking about death several times a day would make us a gentler, kinder people in our treatment of others. Maybe that would add some small measure of happiness to our lives, and to theirs.
Mortem quoque memoria eorum, remember that they too are mortal.