Squeeze the most out of a moment. Live in the now. Grab life by its collar!
What does this grand sounding phrase carpe diem actually mean? Roughly translated from the Latin, it reads robustly in capture-and-hold-mode as ‘seize the day’. The grandness does not, you will notice, diminish in translation, but you do feel a tingle of excitement at the implications. You sense draughts of potentially invigorating intangibles that could gust into your life, if only you learn which buttons to press. There is an urgency about carpe diem that says: mortal that you are, think about it, why don’t you, when you have the power to introspect, given only to you amongst all the creatures of the earth.
The first mention of carpe diem, in the Latin aphorisms from Horace had more of a pluck rather than seize about it, reflective perhaps of the confidence of a surer age. Today the phrase suggests, at one level, a kind of gladiatorial or wartime-morality grasping – an exhortation to eat, drink and be merry because tomorrow we die. This idea derives its sanction, in part, from certain verses in Ecclesiastes and Isaiah, books in the Old Testament. Usually, conveniently taken out of context, the old prophets only meant us to lighten up at the end of a day’s labor rather than take to lotus-eating full-time. But this hasn’t stopped the legions of arty carpe diem bars and cafeterias from putting out their shingles, has it? Not to forget brand consultancies, scholarship programs, annual cultural programs – all busy seizing the day as if it were some kind of frisbee in the park.
But like everything innately grand, pure and exalted, well nigh impossible to sully, carpe diem has ruled the imaginations of men for over 4,000 years. The sheer mystery and power of this phrase, more suggestive of the cathedral than the pub or boudoir, all the lascivious carpe diem poetry notwithstanding, is what has kept it going. Carpe diem is about all that is best in ourselves, our capacity to love, this faith-driven ability that can raise us above insignificance and mortality and give us a fighting chance at greatness.
Carpe diem encapsulates our deepest yearnings and has given expression to a very pluckable flowering in the arts. Robin Williams plays English master John Keating in the celebrated carpe diem film Dead Poet’s Society (1989). Amongst all the Whitman and Herrick poems he uses to awaken the imaginations of his young charges, is one pure gem of his own:
’tis only in their dreams that men truly be free,
’twas always thus, and always thus will be.
But carpe diem goes back a long way. It features in the earliest known literary work, the third millennium B.C. epic about Gilgamesh, a Sumerian king, a great warrior and bon vivant. After many heroic adventures in the company of his friend and alter ego Enkidu, Gilgamesh is plunged into gloom and despair when Enkidu dies suddenly. Thereafter Gilgamesh roams the earth disconsolate, seeking answers to life’s deepest questions only to eventually meet Siduri, significantly employed as the wine maker for the gods. She tells him: ‘Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this is the lot of man.’
So, carpe diem, at its best, is also about courage, about how to take it on the chin and move on – smiling, affirming love and beauty and the future in the face of loss. Ezra Pound, the poet’s poet, had this to say in his Erat Hora: ‘Thank you, whatever comes.’ And later in the same poem:
… Nay, whatever comes
One hour was sunlit and the most high gods
May not make boast of any better thing
Than to have watched that hour as it passed.
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