Home > Uncategorized > What if We Followed the TRUE Advice of “Carpe Diem”

What if We Followed the TRUE Advice of “Carpe Diem”

August 9, 2019

Each week I receive a feed from JSTOR, which calls itself “an online publication that contextualizes current events with scholarship“. Invariably there is at least one article that is eye-opening, and this week’s article of special interest was “How ‘Carpe Diem’ Got Lost in Translation” by Chi Luu.

The term “carpe diem” came to national attention as a result of its repeated use in the Robin Williams movie Dead Poet’s Society” 30 years ago and its seemingly endless appearance in graduation speeches, political campaigns, and on greeting cards ever since. Mr. Luu explains our understanding of this phrase as follows:

The phrase is “carpe diem,” taken from Roman poet Horace’s Odes, written over 2,000 years ago. As everyone and their grandmother knows by now, “carpe diem” means “seize the day.” “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary,” encourages Robin Williams in the role of textbook-ripping English teacher John Keating… The phrase, and its accompanying philosophy, has gone on to inspire countless people in how they live their lives.

But, Mr. Luu notes, Robin Williams’ translation is not accurate!

…Latin scholar Maria S. Marsilio points out, “carpe diem” is a horticultural metaphor that, particularly seen in the context of the poem, is more accurately translated as “plucking the day,” evoking the plucking and gathering of ripening fruits or flowers, enjoying a moment that is rooted in the sensory experience of nature.

He then goes on to explain just how different “plucking” the day is from “seizing” the day:

Gathering flowers as a metaphor for timely enjoyment is a far gentler, more sensual image than the rather forceful and even violent concept of seizing the moment. It is not that as a culture we can’t understand what it means to harvest something when it’s ready—we do have related metaphors like “making hay while the sun shines,” after all. But there is something in the more Hollywood phrasing “seize the day” that has clearly resonated with people in the last thirty years. We understand the phrase to be, rather than encouraging a deep enjoyment of the present moment, compelling us to snatch at time and consume it before it’s gone, or before we’re gone.

As I read this, I couldn’t help but wonder how our world might have been different if the Dead Poets Society had based the scene in the movie where Robin Williams whispers the phrase to his students on the TRUE meaning of the phrase. What if Robin Williams had taken the students in his movie out to a field of wildflowers after the sun fell and a full moon rose told them to smell the flowers… to observe their luminescence in the moonlight… to feel them brush against their legs as they walk silently through the field… and THEN whispered “carpe diem”? What if Robin Williams had told the students that this moment, the present moment, was the only moment and was a wonderful moment. What if he told them the past cannot be changed and the future cannot be controlled… but in the present moment we are alive and we should be grateful for that?

“Seize the Day” fits American ideals much more than “Pluck the Flowers”… but maybe if we plucked flowers in a nearby field instead of extracting oil out of the ground so we could drive to a big box store to buy the latest video games our attitude about what is REALLY important in life would change. We might worry less about the mistakes we made in the past, less about the plans we have for the future, and more about what we are experiencing in the here and now.

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