Memento Mori, and Constraining of Executive Power

Dave Hoffman

Dave Hoffman is the Murray Shusterman Professor of Transactional and Business Law at Temple Law School. He specializes in law and psychology, contracts, and quantitative analysis of civil procedure. He currently teaches contracts, civil procedure, corporations, and law and economics.

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4 Responses

  1. John Armstrong says:

    Food for thought, but I’d look for a better analogy in the last paragraph.

    Or, if we wanted to really re-engineer the system, perhaps SOX should be amended to rely less on punishment and more, as in the sexual harassment context, on a system of presumptions that encourages training and socialization of pro-social norms.

    Behind the training and socialization are honest-to-God sticks of job loss, lawsuits, and (in some organizations) a truly Kafkaesque path through them. That system relies on punishment plenty.

  2. DRMPro says:

    In ancient Rome, “Memento mori” was said on the occasions when a Roman general was parading through the streets of Rome. Standing behind the victorious general was a servant, and he had the task of reminding the general that, though he was up on the peak today, tomorrow was another day.



  3. geoff manne says:

    Daniel Akst argues for much the same thing in an article in the NYT on which I comment here.

    Norms are surely useful as far as they go–which may not be all that far.

    One can’t conjure up “memento mori” without also mentioning Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part I. As the victorious general Marcus Vindictus returns from defeating the Cretins at Sparta–make that the Spartans at Crete–he approaches Caesar. As he does, a sycophantic attendant whispers to him repeatedly, “Remember thou art mortal. Remember thou art mortal.” After a few seconds of this the general turns to the attendant and whispers back, “Oh, blow it out your ass.”

    In other words, sometimes the norm is socialized; and sometimes it ain’t.

  4. Nate Oman says:

    Dave: One of the ways that the Romans created their social norms was through ritual. They had a society that was studded with rituals that served to inculcate and reinforce norms without necessarily creating clear carrots or sticks in the rational actor sense. For example, in addition to the slave saying “Momento Mori” the troops of a triumphing general were allowed and expected to sing baudy and insulting songs about their general as they marched in his parade. At the triumph after his Gallic wars, Caesar’s troops apparently sang this song:

    Now we bring our bald whoremaster,

    Romans lock your wives away!

    All your gold and treasure,

    Went his Gallic tarts to pay!

    etc. etc. etc.

    One of the (many) costs of the Englightenment is that it swept much ritual away as irrational superstition and made that ritual that remained into a rather more flacid affair. I’m not quite sure how to create more rituals for corporate executives…