I first heard the phrase carpe diem in middle school, and then I heard it throughout high school, college, and among my friends and partners. It’s from an ancient poem, written by Horace. Like many people, I anchored myself to this philosophy, believing that it was the axiomatic wisdom for making the most of life—all I had to do was seize the day.
Furthermore, like many people, I was under the impression that the phrase translated to seize the day, but in the full context of Horace’s poem, the phrase translates to plucking the day, and it has a different meaning than how popular culture has represented it. In the original poem, carpe diem is part of a horticultural metaphor. It means more like, finding sensory joy in the moment as you experience nature. Its meaning is closer to ‘stop and smell the roses’ than ‘exercise dominion over things before midnight.’
This misappropriation of Horace’s poem is deeply embedded in our thinking. I asked chatGPT what carpe diem meant, and I was told that it meant seize the day:
Dissatisfied with this popular response, I pressed the language model for more clarity:
Ah ha! There it is. Even the language model knows the actual meaning, and chatGPT will say so if pressed to do so, albeit reluctantly.
Though we and the language model are often incorrect about carpe diem, I want to riff on seize the day, because if not the phrase carpe diem, we rely on an arsenal of motivational maxims of similar meaning. It’s as if we have developed pithy statements secondly, for having undeveloped philosophies firstly.
- carpe diem
- YOLO (you only live once)
- now or never
- live every day like it’s your last
- take the cash and let the credit go
- life’s too short
- no day but today
- que sera sera
- enjoy yourself while you can
- take advantage of life while you’re young
These phrases are insightful and probably invigorating, but they are problematic as tenets and philosophies. The problem is that they assume the importance to today while not referring to the very thing that makes today important: tomorrow. Today is not important because it is today. Today is important because it’s always the day before tomorrow.
Tomorrow is our planning tool for today. We need tomorrow so that we can try to make the most out of today. When we don’t consider tomorrow, then today is unproductive. Action today without regard for tomorrow is impulsivity no matter how we spin it. What is today but the preparation for future todays? Teleologically, today isn’t about today. Today is for tomorrow. Tomorrow is, too, morrow.
Though we should take care not to make our plans too specific, and to be flexible when circumstances dictate our life’s direction, tomorrow is a worthy cause to plan for. What if I respected each upcoming day as worthier than the day I was living? I would no longer live as if each day was my last nor would I believe in the circular reasoning that today is important because it is today; I would live as if each day was my first, because it would always be followed by something else, and I would be living in preparation for that something else.
I know what it is like to live for today, and it was a terrible way to live. Among other afflictions in my life, I had a seizure disorder that lasted from my late 20s to my early 30s. I thought that I was going to die. Each month, week, and day could have been my last, I thought.
Instead of living a fulfilling life, I lived a selfish life, with increasing amounts of self-destruction. I think most people would have too. You can look on the internet, on the news, and in your immediate environment, and you will see people living as if today will be their last—as if today’s importance is self-affirming. They are not using the future as a planning tool, because they believe that today is what is to be seized, when it is tomorrow that needs their attention. When we realize that today is for tomorrow, our lives gain new meaning and expression, and the selfish, parochial way of life that keeps us stuck in a daily samsara becomes noticeably absurd. Don’t live for today. Live for tomorrow.
In “The Parable of the Ten Virgins” (Matthew 25:1-13), Jesus of Nazareth tells his disciples, in figurative terms, that they ought to be prepared for the future. The day on which they need to be ready will come unexpectedly, so they may not have time to make things right.
10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet.(G) And the door was shut.
11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’(H)
13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.(I)Matthew 25 (NIV). (n.d.). Bible Gateway. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%2025&version=NIV
Today is important, but tomorrow is the reason why it is important. By excluding the significance of tomorrow, our maxims about today’s importance are self-defeating.
Three questions: How can I live today without getting stuck in the present? How can I prepare for tomorrow without getting stuck in the future? How can I recall yesterday without getting stuck in the past?
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