I’m starting a new series on The Maccabee Society on Latin phrases that men should know and use in daily life and conversation.
Memento Mori: “Thou shalt be mindful that you are to die”
Today we have Memento Mori – pronounced: “moment-oh more-ee.”
memento is the 2nd person singular future active imperative of memini, meaning “to remember.”
mori is the present active infinitive of morior, meaning “to die.”
While usually translated “Remember death,” a literal translation would be: “Thou shalt be mindful [that you are] to die.” Latin says so much with so many less words.
A similar phrase was whispered to Roman Generals as they returned to the city of Rome to celebrate their Triumph. A slave would ride in his chariot, and as the crowds cheered for the general, the slave would repeatedly recite: “Respice post te. Hominem te memento.” or “Look at [the time] after [which] you [will die]. Remember you are just a man.”
The sentiment mirrors the philosophy of the Stoics. And Christians codified the ideas as “memento mori.” The Catholic Hermits of St. Paul of France (1620-1633) would salute each other with this phrase.
Some clocks used to have the following inscription: Vulnerant omnes, ultima necat, meaning “All [tick-tocks] wound, and the last [tick-tock] kills.” The idea that each tickitock of the second hand is a lash against your body, slowly killing you. And finally on one day, they second hand will deliver its final blow, and you’ll be dead.
How Can Men Use the Phrase Today
We should celebrate and congratulate one another. But a somber memento mori is fitting. The next time I lift a new personal best max on the bench or deadlift, I’m going to say memento mori to myself and I’ll say it to my fellow Maccabee brothers to congratulate them but to place all things in context.
Maturity as a man is constant pursuit of excellence. Building families, friendships, businesses, institutes, art, books, and monuments. But time levels them all. All will be forgotten. The only one who sees all and remembers all is Christ our Judge. So all must be done for Him who died with us and for us. Memento mori.