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The famous phrase memento mori (the subject of this question) means something like "remember that you will die, remember you are mortal". But this use of the infinitive seems odd.

Memini is often used with an infinitive, but (as per L&S) these uses fall into two classes: (a) "remember that (a thing happened)", and (b) "remember to do something, be sure to... do not fail to...". Memento mori falls into neither class. It's certainly not (a), but it isn't really (b) either -- the meaning isn't "Don't forget to die!". For the sense of "remember that something will happen", one would have expected an accusative with future infinitive: Memento te moriturum esse.

Is this just a quirk of this single phrase? But if so, how would Latin speakers have known to interpret it correctly? It seems like there ought to be comparable uses of the infinitive, either with memini or with other verbs. Are there such comparable uses?

  • I have seen many unusual constructions with the infinitive in poetry, ones that seem as free as the Greek infinitive. So perhaps a similar construction could be found in poetry. In classical prose, I would indeed be surprised to find it. – Cerberus Dec 23 '16 at 4:14
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I agree that the construction is a little irregular at first, especially since the English translation favors the future: "Remember that you will die."

We are clearly dealing with the first sense of the phrase that you mention ("remember that X" or "bear X in mind") rather than the second ("remember to X").

Here are two examples of a construction more like what you would expect, using the future active participle with an (understood) esse.

tu quotiens aliquid conabere, vita, memento
venturum paucis me tibi Luciferis. (Propertius, Elegiae 2.19.27-28)

Also:

Sed iam nunc memento non defuturam mihi constantiam.... (Pliny, Epistulae 5.1.4.3)

In this case, I would venture to call this use of the present a gnomic present:

Used to denote a general truth, i.e. something true not merely in the present but at all times

Or perhaps an immediate future expressed in the present tense, as in the below quote:

primitur, interdum etiam sine uoluntate prorumpit. Ex eiusmodi casibus, ut tardius quam ex capitis, sic tamen intra triduum homo moritur. (Celsus, De Medicina 8.14.2.7)

It is thus not too difficult to understand the phrase in this light: memento mori becomes: memento te mori or memento hominem mori and can be translated as:

Remember that man dies.

Remember that you die.

Remember that you will die soon.

I can think of two reasons why memento mori was favored:

  • The alternative lacks the punch of the original phrase: memento moriturum is ambiguous ("remember the man who is about to die?"), so it would have to be amended to something like memento te moriturum [esse].
  • Traditionally, an object symbolizing death (like a skull) is depicted as conveying this truth: the understood "us" ("remember that you, like me, die") is obscured by the future tense.
  • Oh, I like the reading with implied hominem -- that hadn't occurred to me. – TKR Dec 23 '16 at 18:08
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In addition to Brian's excellent and thorough answer, I'll point out that it's a future imperative here, rather than a present imperative, which gives it a flavor not just of "remember" but of "always remember!" "Always remember to die!" is nonsensical, and "Always remember that you died!" would require a perfect infinitive. This leaves only "Always remember that you will die."

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    The verb meminisse is irregular, and this is the only imperative it has. I don't know if it has the tone of a future imperative even if it has its form. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jan 1 '17 at 16:29
  • @JoonasIlmavirta I didn't think of that. I suppose the answer could be found by searching the corpus for instances of memento used as a present v. a future imperative. If overwhelmingly one or the other is found then we have a clue. If not, then we're screwed. – Joel Derfner Jan 1 '17 at 17:39
  • If the two types are tied, that's still useful information. I fear that most instances are ambiguous like the one here. But it's worth a separate question. At least we could learn that no one here knows. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jan 1 '17 at 18:49

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