You’ve heard the old saying: Carpe Diem! Seize the Day! Films, songs and reams of poetry all express this same basic sentiment—but is it true?
Here, for your consideration, are a few more variant versions, all with the same basic message: The Future is Uncertain—Eat Dessert First. You Only Live Once. Tomorrow Never Comes. All We Have is Now. Live for Today. No Such Thing as Tomorrow. Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May. Momento Mori—Remember, You’re Mortal. Just Do It. Life is Short—Enjoy! Take No Thought of Tomorrow. Be Here Now. Savor the Moment!
Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Horace first used the phrase in his line “carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero,” which loosely translated means “Pluck the day, put very little trust in posterity.”
We tend to think of the phrase “seize the day” as urging everyone to live only for the moment—but that’s not what it meant to the original poet, apparently. Horace’s ode, probably his most famous, tells us that nobody can predict the future—so you should do all you can today, right now, to make your future better. The ode does not recommend ignoring the future and living only in the immediate present. Instead, it advises readers to be aware of the fact that time does slip away, and wisely tells them to “strain your wine”—a reference to taking reasonable precautions to insure that you do actually have a future. Here’s one translator’s version of Horace’s whole stanza:
Ask not (’tis forbidden knowledge), what our destined term of years,
Mine and yours; nor scan the tables of your Babylonish seers.
Better far to bear the future, my Leuconoe, like the past,
Whether Jove has many winters yet to give, or this our last;
This, that makes the Tyrrhene billows spend their strength against the shore.
Strain your wine and prove your wisdom; life is short; should hope be more?
In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebb’d away.
Seize the present; trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may. – Horace, The Odes
In contemporary usage, though, it seems that Horace’s sage counsel has turned into a much less nuanced aphorism, meme, slogan or branding device. When we hear “Seize the Day” today, we tend to think of it as urging us to ignore the future, and just to do what feels good right now—to live only for the hedonistic pleasures of the moment.
Time to evaluate—is this good life advice? Should we all spend our time being here now and savoring the present as much as possible, or should we contemplate and plan for the future? Should we live for today, or look forward to tomorrow?
Yes, it’s hard to do both.
So in this series of essays, let’s do a little cost/benefit analysis on Carpe Diem, and see how it comes out.
Basically, the modern seize the day says we have one life to live, and that we should make the most of it. Life, it tells us, is fleeting. You’re only young once. Live without regrets, and don’t put off happiness or fulfillment. Don’t regret what you’ve left undone—instead, experience everything you can and enjoy it today. It has become the exact opposite of Horace’s original idea.
Essentially, it now sounds a lot like the philosophy of pure hedonism—the idea that pleasure and happiness are the primary goals of life.
Admittedly, we humans have long loved the pursuit of pleasure. As far back as history goes, we have evidence of pleasure-seeking behavior. In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, one character said: “Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night … These things alone are the concern of men.”
Spiritually, though, the Carpe Diem mentality only makes any real sense if you don’t believe that life continues after our physical death.
Because “seize the day” obviously presumes something metaphysical: that our days are limited. It assumes that life has limits. But think about it this way: what if our days aren’t limited, but instead are endless? What if you don’t have to seize the day, because the future represents an endless array of days? What if “you only live once” is literally and metaphysically true—and life goes on forever?
Here’s what the Baha’i teachings say about these vital questions:
The conception of annihilation is a factor in human degradation, a cause of human debasement and lowliness, a source of human fear and abjection. It has been conducive to the dispersion and weakening of human thought, whereas the realization of existence and continuity has upraised man to sublimity of ideals, established the foundations of human progress and stimulated the development of heavenly virtues; therefore, it behooves man to abandon thoughts of nonexistence and death, which are absolutely imaginary, and see himself ever-living, everlasting in the divine purpose of his creation. He must turn away from ideas which degrade the human soul so that day by day and hour by hour he may advance upward and higher to spiritual perception of the continuity of the human reality. If he dwells upon the thought of nonexistence, he will become utterly incompetent; with weakened willpower his ambition for progress will be lessened and the acquisition of human virtues will cease. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 89.
Those “thoughts of nonexistence and death,” Abdu’l-Baha said, “are absolutely imaginary…” Instead, we should see ourselves as “ever-living, everlasting.” When that happens—when we realize that our days are unlimited—the idea of Carpe Diem begins to make less and less sense. Why seize the day, if the days never end?
Let’s look a little harder at that essential question in the next essay in this series.