Considering that Latin is declared a dead language, it is truly fascinating how an expression – that is more than 2000 years old – can still resonate just as strongly today.
The Carpe Diem aphorism was coined by the Roman lyric poet Horace in Poem 11 in the first book of his collected Odes (23 B.C.). The poem is a rebuke to a young and pretty woman, called Leuconoë, who is anxious about the future, and advises her to rather accept her fate and make the best of the present moment: “Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes! Even while we speak, envious time has passed: pluck the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow!”
Usually Carpe Diem is translated into English as ‘seize the day,’ but its meaning is much more nuanced than that. The Latin word carpe translates literally as ‘pluck’, in reference to picking fruits (deriving from the Greek karpos ‘fruit’) and diem as ‘day’, thus Carpe Diem could be rendered as ‘pluck the day when it is ripe, harvest.’
And we all have been there, picturing ourselves happy and content at some future moment – once we finish a work project or retire, pay off our student debt or mortgage, once the kids grow up, and the list goes on…. Unfortunately, many of us spend their lives in a kind of demo mode, building up a puzzle of achievements, hoping that once all the pieces fit together – they will reveal an idealistic picture of happiness and full satisfaction.
The wisdom of Carpe Diem teaches us to not waste precious time building hopes for the future, as it is unforseeen, but to rather make the most of the present moment.
And while many authors have quoted Horace’s aphorism, it was Lord Byron to integrate it into the English language, in his Letters and Journals from 1817, published in 1830 by Thomas Moore: “I never anticipate,—‘Carpe diem’.the past at least is one’s own—which is one reason for making sure of the present”.
In the late nineteenth century, Walter Pater adapted the Carpe Diem philosophy to aesthetic theory, writing in his Conclusion to the Renaissance (1873) that people should perceive life as a “perpetual motion” and sense it intensively, and that we are all under sentence of death, and the only course is to enjoy exquisite moments simply for those moments’ sake, “not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end”.
The same lesson was thought by Oscar Wilde, yet strongly opposed by his contemporary Gilbert Keith Chesterton, known as the ‘prince of paradox,’ who in 1901, in his weekly opinion column in the Daily News wrote that Oscar Wilde’s Carpe Diem philosophy is not the philosophy of happy people.
Centuries before Horace coined Carpe Diem, Solomon in Ecclesiastes (8:15) advises on a synonymous philosophy: “Eat, drink and be merry”, to which the prophet Isaiah adds: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die,” and today the doctrine of enjoying life as much as possible because it won’t last forever sees its modern tranformation into the trending hashtag #YOLO (you only live once).