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I'm given to understand that "memento mori" literally translates to "remember dying," which is in turn frequently taken to mean "remember that you will die."

Could someone also interpret it to mean "remember that you CAN die"?

In other words, the usual context is one where the one being exhorted is being warned about their inevitable mortality. Could the same phrase also be used in a completely different context where one is being reminded that death is an option (e.g. an escape from suffering)?

If not, what would the proper formulation be for the second meaning?

(For the record, this is for a literary work, and not a moral question.)

  • Interesting question, may take some mulling over to reply well. My first intuitive interpretation of the phrase, a long time ago, was something like "don't forget to die", in the vein of "don't forget to go to the dry-cleaner" – blagae Mar 24 '17 at 13:35
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The original phrase memento mori is somewhat confusing. People often intuitively read it as "remember dying" or "remember to die", not so much as "remember that you will die". This confusion has been discussed before at this site, for example here and here.

You can form the new phrase with the same structure for the sake of analogy. I would go with memento mori posse or memento posse mori. (The second one scans well if you are into hexameter.) The common Latin verb for being able to is posse, and it's used with an infinitive. The corresponding simple structure is mori potes, "you can die".

I think you can also use an accusativus cum infinitivo (ACI) structure with meminisse. This would lead to memento te posse mori, "remember that you can die". This would be clearer, but the parallel to the original is weaker.

One option is to use licere instead of posse, if the question is more about being allowed to than being able to. This is a good option when death would be a relief from suffering. The simple version would be (tibi) mori licet, "you are allowed to die". This can be combined with memento with an ACI: memento (tibi) mori licere.

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    I like the suggestions with licere! – brianpck Mar 24 '17 at 14:17
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    I've always assumed that memento mori is essentially an accusativus cum infinitivo, with the accusative omitted since the subject of the infinitive is the same as the subject of the finite verb. – Anonym Mar 25 '17 at 0:50
  • @Anonym That's a very good way to read it. Perhaps we ought to call it infinitivus sine accusativo... – Joonas Ilmavirta Mar 25 '17 at 8:34

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