The video clip above from The Dead Poet’s Society gives a good interpretation of the Latin phrase carpe diem – seize the day. The professor, played by Robin Williams, has a student read the first stanza from the 17th century poem To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.
The idea that time flies is an ancient one, and the poet recognizes that our lives are brief, with smiles one day and death the next. Robin Williams accentuates this by telling the students that we are all food for the worms, and that each one of us is going to stop breathing and die. Then he shares with the students the Latin phrase carpe diem, which one student translates to “seize the day”, from the ancient Roman poet Horace.
The whole phrase used by Horace would be accurately translated as “pluck the day, putting as little trust as possible in the next day.” Although we use the phrase today to remind ourselves of the brevity of life, in antiquity it meant “what will be will be.” Today we use it to encourage ourselves to live life to the fullest, to try to get the most out of it. Rather than procrastinate (which I talked about last week), we should take actions that support what is truly important to us, not just what is urgent, and surely not just settling for a simple mediocre existence.
The phrase carpe diem is related to the Latin phrase tempus fugit as well, often translated as “time flies” although “time escapes” or “time flees” would be more accurate. The 17th century poem we started with talks about old time flying. The idea that time flies is somewhat common on tombstones and mausoleums, as I shared at the bottom of the first post on Don Juan, with a photo of an hourglass with wings on top of a French mausoleum. As I said, carpe diem encourages people to make the most of the time that they have on this earth. But this is done with no attempt to excuse bad behavior.
In contrast, there is another phrase popular with the youth of today – You Only Live Once, which is shortened to YOLO. YOLO has been described as carpe diem for stupid people, and it has been stated that it is used as an excuse for doing something dumb. Back when I discussed Becquer’s three loves, I shared a Spanish refrane – “que me quiten lo bailado.” Literally it would be “let them try to take away the dance I have danced.” But the meaning is that “no one can take from me what I have lived.” There is the sense that there have been some negative consequences, but there are no regrets.
One of the reasons I am writing about carpe diem is that my wife and I have leather journals with carpe diem engraved into the front cover. We are using these journals to write our responses to the thirty some odd exercises in Andy Andrews book Mastering the Seven Decisions. I mentioned the book in More About Great Bosses. The reason we are doing this is to counter the ease with which we fail to recognize what is really important and what we really want to spend our valuable time on, what goals we want to accomplish. This process, along with integrating Andy’s seven decisions into our lives is helping us to be more intentional. What about you? As we start a new year, is there something you really want to be more intentional about, a reason to pluck the day?