Subject: Mortality – Steve Jobs’ Commencement Address
Event: Memento Mori, January 3
Today is Memento Mori, a day to remember our mortality. In Latin, memento mori translates, “Remember that you must die.” The Latin phrase was put to use in ancient Rome to prevent leaders from falling prey to hubris. When a Roman general paraded through the streets after a victorious battle, a slave was strategically placed behind the general in his chariot. As the general basked in the cheers of the crowd, the slave’s job was to whisper in the general’s ear: “Memento mori” or “Someday you will die” (1).
Memento Mori is not just for Roman generals. And although it was just one day on the Roman calendar, there’s an argument to be made that it should be honored every day of the year.
After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, Apple Founder Steve Jobs gave a moving commencement address at Stanford University, reminding graduates that facing our own mortality is no morbid exercise; instead, it is motivating:
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart (2).
The practice of reflecting on our mortality is an ancient one, going as far back as Socrates. For the Stoic philosophers, memento mori was essential. Instead of facing death with fear, they sought to reframe death, transforming it from a negative to a positive. Like Jobs, they viewed death as a tool that helped them stay humble and stay awake to the gift of each new day’s opportunities to live life to its fullest. As the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius said, “It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live.”
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What is memento mori, and how might it help a person live a better life?
Challenge – Skulls for Sale: Imagine you are marketing a model of the human skull meant for display in classrooms. You think that this model should be placed in every classroom in America to remind students of memento mori. Write the text of the catalog description of your skull, making the case for why teachers should need it in their classrooms and why students should be familiar with memento mori.
Today’s Word Day: Happy Latin Phrase Day.
1-Crosby, Daniel. Memento Mori – The Ancient Roman Cure for Overconfidence.
2-Jobs, Steve. “Death is Very Likely the Single Best Invention of Life.” The Guardian. 10 Oct. 2011.