Memento Mori: Are we willing to die fighting for injustice?

Memento Mori is an object representing a reminder or warning of death like a skull or an hourglass. It translate from Latin into Remember your mortality. Thoreau says that we have forgotten how to die because we do not know how to live. He lists off a few memorable names of iconic individuals who have truly lived and have truly died. for those lesser individuals who stand by and let injustice reign supreme, Thoreau bluntly declares that they are already dead.

This extreme and radical denunciation of life poses the question: Is fighting for the extermination of injustice something people are willing to die for? Thoreau would think so. He says, ” I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable” (133). Knowing that humans are immortal and that injustice is rampant in society, what should our roles be to curb injustice? Should we acknowledge it but return to our normal ways or should we be as violent and vehement as John Brown knowing that death will come eventually?

Thoreau tells us “only half a dozen or so have died since the world began. Do you think that you are going to die, sir? No! there’s no hope of you. You haven’t got your lesson yet…But be sure you do die, nevertheless. Do your work and finish it. If you know how to begin, you will know when to end” (134). The mere acknowledgement that injustice exists among you should be the call to action. This first beginning will translate into some action of opposition to injustice that will eventually lead you to an actual death within Thoreau’s definition. He suggests that we need first, live, and by living that means standing up to the tyranny of a democratic government. Secondly, the inevitability of death is reassured and vindicated through living. However he uses John Brown as the ideal example of living and dying similarly. But Brown murdered U.S. marshals protecting the federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry. Those murdered had nothing to do with upholding the institution of slavery. In mob-like fashion, Brown and his gang murdered them. Thoreau is referring to Brown as an already dead man knowing that he has not yet been executed. This textual memento mori shows that Brown was willing to die for the cause.

The problem with dying for a cause is the fact that people are set in their ways. With Thoreau’s transcendentalist moment with his night-long stay in jail, he came to the realization that unjust laws are meant to be broken. But is death the price for breaking an unjust law? Knowing that all human beings lack such a transcendental experience in their lives, they usually contented with their lives even though injustice is everywhere around them.

Gandhi, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr have all died while fighting gross injustices of our world. Being assassinated while preaching peaceful non-violence protest is drastically different than taking the problem into your own hands like John Brown did. However, knowing that death is unavoidable, should individuals take it on themselves to fight for injustice as fellow men even though it may not affect them directly?

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4 Responses to Memento Mori: Are we willing to die fighting for injustice?

  1. vanessabarton says:

    After discussion yesterday I feel that is sort of up for debate, or lies within a gray area. Fighting for a cause can’t be black or white as it may seem. You either do it or you don’t, but there may be something holding you back or complicating your particular circumstance. The idea proposed that if you feel passionately about a severely unjust issue you should fight for a change. However if you simply recognize that the issue is unjust then you wash your hands of it and do not take part of any unjust action. That is an answer I am willing to live with since those issues tend to be the most polarizing. The world needs people to take some sort of action, although I do not feel John Brown’s action was justified. while not all people are capable of action, everyone can simply not take part in it’s progression or continuance.

  2. dfox13 says:

    I really enjoyed this post andy, you bring up some interesting ideas. Thoreau’s ideas regarding life and death bring up some controversy regarding the requirements for being “alive”. He believes death is a privilege and an honor, and that there are very few who have truly lived and died. The previous comment is right in suggesting that a very large amount of the population is incapable of bringing about an end to certain injustices, making them incapable of living and dying according to Thoreau’s standards. Why can’t those who are incapable have reduced expectations to “live”? It’s rather pessimistic to think that people don’t truly live, and can only achieve life through standing up to injustice, but what if a person spends their time doing good deeds? If those good deeds do not involve risking life to bring an end to injustice, then Thoreau would see that person as never having lived. The standards are far too strict, and they create a society that could be unmotivated to do anything productive because only a select few truly live and die.

  3. tremble53 says:

    I believe that there is a very large difference between the loss of life in cases such as Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi and Malcolm X and the loss of life incurred by the members of John Brown’s group. Both died because they were fighting injustice however the deaths occurred for largely different reasons. I don’t believe that to die in an active engagement for injustice is necessary, as in the case of the Militia men that joined John Brown and lost their lives. However you should work against injustice through non violent channels. I believe this is what is necessary and this is how we should live our lives. While this does sometimes pose dangers to us we should stand by what we believe.

  4. brt001 says:

    This is an interesting thought about what people are willing to die for. I find it interesting that we discuss Thoreau’s idea of whether people are even “alive.” While I feel that even those who wouldn’t be classified as necessarily “alive,” per se, are disposable, I do feel that there is a woeful lack of conviction in our nation these days. Although I share Mr. Lincoln’s perspective in one way in that I do not see John Brown’s model as ideal, I find it a sad state of affairs in today’s society. Where is the willingness to sacrifice for something greater than oneself. The materialism of today’s culture leads to an ineffable degree of self-centrism; this gives rise to a dogged insistence by the citizens of the modern United States that their needs be met first and foremost. I find this selfishness to be disconcerting. Where are the days when men were willing to fight for a cause? Where are the days when people believed in sacrifice as an ethic. Unlike Brown, today’s culture tells its inhabitants that the highest good is the comfort of self, not to fight for what is good and decent. Though Brown’s method was wrong, his motivations were right, and his willingness to lose his life in the process was noble, not foolish.

    I am but one life, but I pray that I should use this one life well, and be prepared to lose it, if necessary. What fool should want his epitaph to read “He had a comfortable life. It didn’t really mean much to anyone other than himself.”?

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