‘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

Steven Gambardella
Forge
Published in
3 min readSep 12, 2020

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Photo: GrapeImages/Getty Images

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…

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Steven Gambardella
Forge
Writer for

History PhD. The lessons of history and philosophy for your life and work. Writes The Sophist: https://sophist.substack.com/