What memento mori wants to tell us?
Answer by Gershon Velvel
‘Remember that you’re gonna die!’
Glancing through the first few results on Google, you might have seen this:
…the medieval Latin Christian theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits…
…the ancient practice of reflection on mortality that goes back to Socrates, who said…
(You have to click to see how that sentence finishes but I’m guessing, from my recollection of Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, that it has something to do with Socrates’ belief that the body is the ‘prison house of the soul’.)
But that wasn’t what you wanted to know, Clint, was it? Why do we have to reflect on our inevitable death? Really? What’s the use of it?
As philosophers do, I’d like to consider a thought experiment, as a way of aiding our imagination, or ‘pumping intuitions’. Suppose that you found out about an evil conspiracy involving your death, or apparent death. You are going to be secretly kept alive and tortured, for weeks, months, years, incessantly without mercy or relief. But until then, you still have your life to live — supposedly?
There are various ways you might try to fight this, refuse to accept that this will happen to you, or look for ways to escape (a kind of ‘Logan’s Run’ scenario). But let’s assume that the conspirators are some powerful alien species that holds all human life in contempt. They are super beings — and you don’t have any Kryptonite.
Wouldn’t the best course of action be to forget? The time for the execution of your sentence is approaching, day by day, hour by hour. How could one think of anything else but how all this is going to end? If, maybe, you could get hypnotised so that the knowledge was erased from your memory at least you could enjoy the life you had left. That seems to me the only rational thing to do under the circumstances.
The torture scenario isn’t just something I made up. It is very real. It’s called ‘going to Hell’. And even if you are Heaven bound, there’s possibly thousands of earth years (according to one estimate) of painful Purgatory where every sin you ever committed is examined from every angle, like in a court case but a thousand times worse.
People believe this stuff, and still go on living regardless. You try to reduce your sinning to a minimum, repent and repent, etc. Personally, I think hypnosis is still the better alternative.
To me, necessary reflection on death only really makes sense if death is really death, the end of everything, no afterlife, no post mortem examination of how well or badly you lived, just… nothing.
Just Nothing. Can you imagine Nothing? Can you conceive of the possibility that at some point in the future there will no longer be any ‘you’?
Speaking for myself, some days I can and some days I can’t imagine it. I wonder whether knowing I am going to die does, or should make me pause before spending my time in frivolous pleasures like going down the pub, or glorying in my academic achievements, or gloating over my priceless collection of early Star Trek figurines.
It’s all going to go, will be gone when Nothing comes. No more beer. No more glittering prizes. No more Star Trek.
Then again, I wonder whether my being here at all isn’t the bigger mystery, considering how vastly improbable it was that I should ever have come into existence. Have you ever considered that, Clint? It’s a doozy.
All in all, I think the jury’s still out on whether we should spend much time, or any time thinking about death and what it means. I guess part of assuming the role of the ‘philosopher’ it is inevitable that one will spend more time thinking about death than the average, and possibly more than is good for you. But there you have it.