***A memento mori is a reminder of death. It is a key practice in Stoicism but is not unique to it. It can be a simple visual reminder or quote or a more serious mediation on death. Stoics use it to remind themselves of how short and fragile life is and therefore how much we have to be grateful for, to live virtuous lives, and not to waste our time.
In this series, each Monday, I will post a memento mori from various sources, either from the primary Stoic texts themselves or other sources.
“It’s only when you’re breathing your last that the way you’ve spent your time will become apparent. I accept the terms, and feel no dread of the coming judgement. That’s what I say to myself, but assume that I’ve said it to you as well. You’re younger than I am, but what difference does that make? No count is taken of years. Just where death is expecting you is something we cannot know; so, for your part, expect him everywhere.”
Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, LETTER XXVI
Death and the Miser
The painting titled “Death and the Miser” is one of my favorite artistic memento mori. It was created around c. 1485 by one of my favorite artists – Hieronymus Bosch.
Death and the Miser depicts a sickly figure of a Miser on his deathbed. We see him reaching out toward a bag of money, and death lurking close by, in this final moment before death launches its fateful arrow and takes his life.
This painting serves as a poignant reminder of the inevitability of death and the futility of collecting earthy goods and making them a focus of our lives – whether it be money, objects and even some of today’s most prized possessions – attention and likes. Ultimately, what matters is how we live our lives, and our impact on those close to us.
Our attachment to ‘things’, while we are alive is not worth ruining our lives or characters for over their acquisition, or obsession of them. We should rather be more concerned with our character and quality of the lives that we lead.
When death comes to us, the wealth and material objects which we’ve collected, often just to impress others, will be useless in our final moment and they will have very little actual meaning to us.
Many of us get wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of lives that we take for granted what we have. But also we tend to value ‘things’ (whether we own them yet or not) with more weight than they deserve.
Our perception of what we value and the value of our belongings, is often inflated and distorted by our short term decision making, emotions, and cognitive blindspots.
Is the energy you are putting toward acquiring this or that object worth it? Or will you come to regret the time wasted and anxiety over feeling the ‘need’ for so many things? As we remember our mortality we should bear in mind that the quality of our lives is more important than any lie we tell ourselves about what the next purchase we are chasing will bring us.
This painting encourages us to be critical of the things which we feel we ‘need’ and ‘must have’ knowing we have it only for an unknown but finite amount of time, and that death could launch its arrow whether we are ready for it or not.
This painting has many layers of meaning and different interpretations. Such as whether the figure at the foot of the bed is a doppelgänger, or actually a younger version of the Miser and we are in fact seeing multiple timelines. There are also many other symbolic details.
Regardless, it has always stuck with me as a memento mori and a warning of the futility of spending our lives accumulating things and placing too much worth on material objects.
While Death and the Miser is not Stoic in origin, I can’t imagine that the great Stoics of antiquity would be dogmatic about the source rather than the content of a memento mori. Their world was far more insular than ours. We have a much greater variety of social contexts that we are exposed to and operate within.
I like to think that they would apply their habits and philosophy whether in ancient Greece or Rome or exiled in no mans land, and draw on whatever memento mori that they encountered or created wherever they were. Whether through artistic expressions or witnessing death in nature around them.
To see last week’s memento mori, click here.