Memento Mori

“A frequent and attentive prospect of that moment, which must put a period to all our schemes, and deprive us of all our acquisitions, is indeed of the utmost efficacy to the just and rational regulation of our lives; nor would ever any thing wicked, or often any thing absurd, be undertaken or prosecuted by him who should begin every day with a serious reflection that he is born to die.”–Samuel Johnson, Rambler, No. 17

Johnson’s essay is a classic “memento mori” (reminder of death). However, unlike the postmodern fascination with skulls and the macabre – which only trivializes the facts of human mortality – it is intended instill a sense of humility and moral proportion to our actions in the light of eternity. The same sentiment was more bluntly stated by Cicero and Montaigne: “to philosophize is to learn how to die.”

This sobering meditation was brought home to me during a recent illness. As Johnson states, “a sharp or tedious sickness” tends to have a salutary effect. In this case it was a fairly mild indisposition that made me more reflective. Sickness may not hold out many advantages, yet one benefit is that by dulling our appetites it causes us to view life with slightly different priorities. Epictetus the Stoic (whom Johnson frequently quotes) reminds us that if we must “suffer a fever” we should at least “undergo it in the right spirit” using it as an opportunity to strengthen and purify the soul even in the midst of physical weakness.

For related comments, see my previous entry on Johnson’s ethical writings.

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