Reclaiming “Carpe Diem”

The ancient Roman ideal has been hijacked

April 27, 2017
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It’s the name of a heaving nightclub in Croatia, and a tiny guesthouse in Southern China. Judi Dench even had it tattooed on her wrist for her 81st birthday. More than two thousand years’ old, a phrase from a dead language gets 25 million online search results: carpe diem.

Usually translated as “seize the day”—or sometimes “harvest,” “pluck” or “enjoy” the day—carpe diem is one of the oldest philosophical ideals in Western culture. It goes back to a few lines written by the Roman lyric poet Horace in 23BC: “Even as we speak, envious time flies past. Seize the day and leave as little as possible for tomorrow.” With these words Horace raised the ultimate existential question—how should we live in the face of the reality of our mortality?

But there’s a problem: the spirit of carpe diem has been hijacked. It’s been hijacked by consumer culture, which encourages Black Friday shopping sprees and the instant hit of one-click online buying. In essence, Just Do It has come to mean Just Buy It. Horace’s motto has also been hijacked by our culture of digital distraction, where we have become spectators of life on the screen—glued to our iGadgets around ten hours per day—rather than experiencing it directly ourselves. Just Do It has become Just Watch It. Moreover, it’s been captured by a hyperindividualistic YOLO (“you only live once”) mentality that places value on fleeting novelty and thrill-seeking above all else.

The good news is that there is far more to carpe diem than this. It’s time we confronted the hijackers and reclaimed its true meaning.

I spent the past three years delving into the forgotten history of carpe diem, researching how Horace’s phrase has been used in everything from contemporary newspapers to Reformation church sermons. A fascinating pattern soon began to emerge, revealing five essential interpretations of carpe diem through the centuries; an ensemble of ways that humankind has developed to seize the day—and that we would be wise to revive.

The most common meaning ascribed to carpe diem is about seizing opportunities that may disappear and be lost forever—the opportunity, say, to change career direction, or to make amends after an argument with your partner. This is the way the phrase appears in the film Dead Poets Society, where Robin Williams, playing the inspiring English teacher Mr Keating, encourages his pupils to embark on the path of adventurous living: “Carpe diem…seize the day, boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

Back in the seventeenth century, however, carpe diem was more typically associated with hedonism, particularly sensual pleasures. A classic example of what is known as “carpe diem poetry” appears in Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” an erotic rendering of Horace’s poem that celebrates the pleasures of the flesh (from a rather male perspective). The poet impatiently implores his lady, “And now, like amorous birds of prey,/Rather at once our time devour” and “tear our pleasures with rough strife/Through the iron gates of life.” Hot stuff.

A third viewpoint is that seizing the day is about living in the present moment, an immersion in the here and now. This is an historically unprecedented interpretation of Horace’s motto which would have caused confusion a century ago, but today around 20 per cent of media references to carpe diem carry this meaning. This shift is largely due to the rise of the global mindfulness movement, which emphasises “present moment awareness.” We should ensure that this relatively narrow interpretation of carpe diem doesn’t crowd out the rich variety of meanings that have emerged over the past two millennia.

Another popular approach has been to understand carpe diem as a command to live more spontaneously—to throw plans and routines to the wind. This perspective is attractive today when so many people feel trapped by their electronic calendars and are fighting off a digital deluge of emails, texts and tweets that leaves no time left for spontaneous action. Our modern obsession with time management merely exacerbates the problem, offering us clever ways to be more “productive” and “efficient,” thereby fitting more and more into our days without truly liberating us for free, spontaneous living.

A final take on Horace’s ideal, and one which is becoming increasingly important, is political carpe diem. This is the realm of collectively seizing the day, such as by taking to the streets to topple a dictator or mobilising a social movement to tackle climate change. It draws on the long carpe diem traditions of seizing opportunities, spontaneous action and hedonistic revelry, and transfers them from the private to the public sphere. The “pink hats” of the anti-Trump women’s march are a powerful example of carpe diem politics in action.

So let’s not reduce Horace’s philosophical maxim to the electronic thrill of clicking a “buy now” button. It’s time to reclaim the venerable history of carpe diem.

Roman Krznaric’s new book is Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day (Unbound, £14.99)