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Memento mori

By Steven Schwartz - posted Thursday, 17 February 2022

A newspaper editor sent a cadet journalist to cover the 1937 funeral of John D Rockefeller, the richest man in the world. The editor was particularly interested in the oil man's estate. So, the journalist found Rockefeller's accountant and got right to the point, "Please tell me, how much did Mr Rockefeller leave?" The accountant smiled, thought for a moment, and replied, "All of it. He left all of it."

And so will we.


When our time comes to exit the world, we will be as naked as the day we entered it. Until then, like the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, we spend our years trying to find some meaning in our lives. At least, that is what we should be doing. Mostly, we procrastinate. It is only when our days draw to their inevitable conclusion that we realise our mistake. We comfort ourselves by saying time flies, life is short, and there is never sufficient time to accomplish all of one's goals.

Writing 2,000 years ago, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a Roman philosopher of the Stoic school, had little time for "time flies" and "life is short" excuses.

Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.

According to the great Stoic philosopher, the issue is not the length of life but what we do with the time we have.

In guarding their fortune, men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal.

Instead of searching for meaning, Seneca believed that most people


keep themselves very busily engaged so that they may be able to live better; they spend life making ready to live! … There is nothing the busy person is less busied with than living: nothing that is harder to learn.

Fast-forward to the present, and nothing has changed. We still devote many of our hours to empty and mundane pursuits rather than to cultivating our talents, deepening our relationships, and achieving our dreams. According to Seneca, putting off these vital parts of life until tomorrow, next year or retirement is a "foolish forgetfulness of mortality."

Mortality will certainly not forget about us. In 1968, Robert Kennedy made a speech to the students of the University of Kansas. He exhorted them to think about things far nobler than amassing wealth.

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This article was first published on Wiser Every Day.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz AM is the former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University (Sydney), Murdoch University (Perth), and Brunel University (London).

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