‘Carpe Diem’ Is the Perfect Message for Our Times — but It Doesn’t Mean What You Think

The Latin phrase is less about ‘YOLO’ and more about stopping to smell the roses

It’s the hashtag of a hundred thousand sunrise photos. It’s spray-painted on walls, emblazoned on T-shirts, and tattooed across chests. In just two words, it has become a productivity mantra, a philosophy for life, a mentality of a generation.

Carpe diem.

The Latin phrase — given a boost in popular culture by the 1989 film Dead Poets Society — is commonly translated as “seize the day.” For many, it has come to mean “do whatever the hell you want to do, right now.” Move to Paris, tell off your toxic co-worker, eat the damn doughnut, because who knows if there will even be a tomorrow?

Yet few know the source of the phrase, let alone the real philosophical message behind the words. A closer look at the roots of carpe diem shows that it’s less about YOLO and grabbing life by the bullhorns, and more about finding pleasure in the moment. That message is subtler, but it’s one that is perfect for our chaotic times.

Carpe diem first appeared in Odes, a collection of poetry from 23 B.C. on an assortment of Roman subjects, from the myths of the gods to the emperor. The author of the book was Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known to modern readers as Horace, a Roman poet and senior army officer at a time of civil war.

Before he joined the military, Horace received an education in philosophy at the Academy in Athens and studied a number of doctrines with Greek origins, including Stoicism and Epicureanism. He was particularly taken to the latter, founded by the philosopher Epicurus. Like many Romans coming of age as civil war tore the Republic apart, Horace likely found peace of mind in the philosopher’s teachings.

Epicureans did not believe in the afterlife or anything supernatural. Their philosophy taught that everything in existence is made only of matter. “Death,” Epicurus wrote, “is nothing to us. When we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist.” Life, the philosopher thought, is the here and now; there’s no heavenly reward and no punishment for the damned.

Therefore, the Epicureans considered pleasure to be the greatest good and the state we should constantly seek to attain. “You have no power over tomorrow,” Epicurus wrote, “and yet you put off your pleasure. Life is ruined by procrastination and every one of us dies deep in his affairs ” The Epicureans believed that artificial desires — our wants that go beyond our needs — pull us away from a natural or default state of happiness. As Epicurus put it: “Nothing is sufficient for the person who finds sufficiency too little.”

Epicurus taught that to achieve happiness, we must change our desires and lower our threshold of pleasure. In today’s world, that might mean you can learn to be as satisfied with a glass of tap water as you would be by an artisanal fruity seltzer. In pandemic times, it might mean treating a home-cooked meal with the same specialness once reserved for a fancy dinner out.

With this context, we find the sentiment behind carpe diem. Carpe is an obscure Latin verb meaning “pluck” or “harvest.” The full line in Horace’s Odes is: Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero — literally translated as “pluck the day, place little trust in tomorrow” or “gather in today’s harvest, place little trust in tomorrow.” It’s about experiencing the fullness of what’s around us while it’s still here, not living extravagantly or blowing up our lives for better ones. No matter the circumstances, we can choose to see the good and return to our default state of happiness.

So carpe diem. Grant yourself some pleasure today. Gather in today’s harvest, because we have absolutely no clue what tomorrow holds.

The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch: stevengambardella@gmail.com

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