Mr John Keating, played by Robin Williams in the 1989 film ‘Dead Poets Society’ famously urged his students thus:
“Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
Williams was quoting a famous Roman poet, Horace who wrote in the 1st century BC. One of Horace’s works, ‘Odes’ includes the line:
carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero
This line is translated as:
sieze the day, trusting as little as possible in tomorrow.
A more literal translation of carpe diem would be ‘pluck the day, [for it is ripe]’.
Another beautiful Latin phrase – first appearing in a work written by Isidore of Seville in the 7th century AD has a similar philosophical message:
Disce Quasi Semper Victurus, Vive Quasi Cras Moriturus
Which translates as:
Learn as if you were going to live forever; Live as if you were going to die tomorrow.
The modern equivalent of the above phrases may be ‘YOLO’ – you only live once. But this is a rather non-poetic way, quick and simple way of saying the same thing, However, it doesn’t seem to have the same message, with the same implications as carpe diem. Indeed, the abbreviation itself, YOLO may emphasise its message – that we only live once, so live fast? (And shorten eloquent phrases to simple abbreviations whenever possible?)
However, YOLO itself may be contrary to the premise of carpe diem – that in living fast we are not truly enjoying the moment.
What are the Implications of Carpe Diem?
Whether we use the literal or the loose translation of
Does Carpe Diem suggest a rather pessimistic view of one life? Could it imply that there is no afterlife? That our actions in this life have no consequences in the afterlife because it does not exist?
Seize suggests take hold of and to grab. By implication, make the most of every opportunity. It also means to take charge, to take charge of one’s own life and destiny. To rid ourselves from the shackles of doubt and be the masters of our own destiny. Does this then need a hint of courage to pull us through and to fulfil this command?
The phrase also assumes that we have control of our own destiny. Can this philosophy then be applied to everyone? Slavery was rife in Horace’s time, in the Roman Empire – could slaves really live by carpe diem? Or was this a philosophy merely reserved for the upper classes in the empire? Even now, are we in charge of our own destiny, or has
And, by implication, the phrase refers to taking each day as they come. Is it not better to plan ahead of time and be prepared for the future? Indeed, the phrase suggests that there could be no future, no tomorrow, that we ought only to live for the here and now.
The Roman Empire
Life expectancy in the Roman Empire differed according to social status. From the evidence, we regularly see men reaching the age of 60 and beyond. Some even lived into their 80s and doubtless older. Infant mortality was high in the ancient world, 50% of children did not reach their 10th birthday. Horace himself died at the age of 56.
Horace himself led a remarkable life – the son of a freed slave, he was educated in Athens and became embroiled in the Roman wars following the murder of Julius Caesar. He remarked with embarrassment on the day he fled battle without his shield at the Battle of Phillippi. In fleeing from the fight he could certainly be said to have seized that particular day. To use another common phrase, to live to fight another day. Or, was Horace acting contrary to the philosophy of carpe diem and in fleeing concerning himself with his future existence rather than fighting for glory and honour?
When Horace returned from
Could carpe diem mean then to abandon your responsibilities to the future generation, to care only for yourself? If we were to abide by this philosophy, crime would undoubtedly soar. But could the phrase refer to a form of escapism? To indulge in the vices that make us forget our own mortality. To drink the wine and eat the food that makes us feel good for there is only the here and now. We ought not to concern ourselves with our health and old age?
Carpe Diem for Me
In the hectic 21st century, our lives revolve around work. We’re far too busy, or tired, for leisure often times. And what do we work for? To pay the bills, to save for the future? To provide for our children and ensure we have left something behind for them. Perhaps a little spontaneity and risk-taking, a little carpe diem would be a healthy addition to our lives. Have we forgotten to enjoy life?
The pictures I have used in this blog come from one of my recent carpe diem moments. We were throwing stones into Loch Ness. The whole family were in a playful mood and my children were running from the waves. We had a busy schedule but we postponed our plans to spend an hour having fun!
What if we stop and appreciate the present for a moment, rather than always thinking ahead?