Memento Mori for my Birthday
My birthday passed by recently and I found myself questioning how a Stoic would perceive birthdays. I haven’t read any classic texts on the topic so I can only speculate.
The natural progression of time is out of my control, therefore it is nothing to me. With that, my age is also out of my control. 33 is no more significant than 1, 18, or 65. Therefore, the number also means nothing to me. My birthdays should remind me of my own mortality and serve as an opportunity to pursue virtue.
Memento Mori translates to “remember that you will die.” This is essentially the more morbid version of “carpe diem” or “seize the day.” You only have the time you have, so make the most out of the moment. I have read that Stoic Generals would have servants whisper this to them while on parade after a victory; even when celebrating a great victory you should be mindful and appreciative of what you have. By reminding myself of death I should strengthen my appreciation for the moment and life. What I’d like to strive for is Marcus Aurelius definition of perfect character:
“To live each day as though one’s last, never flustered, never apathetic, never attitudinizing — here is perfection of character.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditation 7.69
There are many translations of that quote, this being one of my favourites, particularly the word “attitudinizing.” I have found that I often proclaim strong attitudes for things simply for effect; often it’s comedic effect, but I wonder if is still wrong? I believe that as long as I know the truth then I can remain virtuous, because there is solidarity in sharing a laugh with your friends so long as no one is hurt in getting the laugh.
My birthday can also remind me to celebrate and appreciate my parents and everyone else that has helped me become who I am and get to where I am—so thanks everyone!
March 10, 2014 at 8:40 am
I don’t care about birthdays in general but my old boss/friend had given me a little hallmark card and wrote in it (have another great trip around the sun) and this reminded me. That birthdays are just markers of your existence, reminding you of the cosmic scale of things and that you are just a little stardust mixed with chance and time. Celebrate that you have made another trip around the sun, and how many have you left?
April 3, 2014 at 4:23 pm
Our birthday (read: chronological age) we cannot control, but our biological age we can influence through lifestyle changes with an eye to longevity.
And hopefully, we’ll reach escape velocity from death in the next few decades.
April 3, 2014 at 10:40 pm
The generals you refer to were not specifically Stoic. When a Roman general was granted a Triumph by the Senate, he led his troops through Rome on a four-horse chariot. He was dressed in the style of the ancient Roman monarchy, with a crown of laurel and toga picta. The slave is said to have held the crown just above the Triumphator’s head, not allowing it to touch the brow, while whispering in the general’s ear to remind him that he was mortal and victory was fleeting.
July 2, 2014 at 11:04 am
I felt the same about my birthday…
February 27, 2015 at 1:30 pm
Buddhism says it’s okay to laugh at someone as long as they’re in the room. Chat rooms okay too. Just kidding. It’s mindful concentration. I would have to agree, certainizing death is as complex as absorbing anger or frustration. Not for the faint of will. Nonetheless, we are counting down to infinity anyway, not counting up, lol, so what’s the difference?
February 27, 2015 at 1:41 pm
“All matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There is no death. Life is only a dream. And we are the imaginations of ourselves.”
September 10, 2017 at 10:26 pm
I would argue that ones birthday is, perhaps more than any other holiday, worth spending the time to celebrate. Or at least reflect on. If nothing else as a yearly reminder to celebrate and show gratitude for your existence. It is not,in and of itself, any better a day than the other 364. But the calendar day of your birth makes as sensible a day as any to reflect on the countless improbable accidents that had to happen for you to be where you are today. And to vow anew to live every day with purpose.