The ancient Roman ideal has been hijackedby Roman Krznaric / April 27, 2017 / Leave a comment
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…