Aphorisms Unplugged: Carpe Diem

This Book is Banned Carpe Diem

This Book is Banned-Scarlet Sometimes that well-worn adage doesn’t really mean what our literal-minded, text-focused, Google-driven world thinks it means. One reason this happens is that, quite simply, language evolves.

To further complicate matters, as with books, all too often the context of these popular wisdoms has been forgotten. Though these aphorisms may still contain some good advice, their original message is typically richer and more profound than our contemporary interpretation.

This Book is Banned proffers a few proverbs, sayings, and other pearls of wisdom that have been unplugged,” as it were. We’ve rebooted, gone back-to-basics, and re-discovered their intended message. For example:

Carpe Diem

This once obscure phrase from a dead language was launched into popular culture by the 1989 Robin Williams film, The Dead Poets’ Society. And now, it can be found everywhere, from spring break t-shirts, to Metallica songs, to the carpe diem tattoo on 81-year-old Judi Dench’s wrist. These days carpe diem conjures images of adrenaline junkies, instant gratification culture, and “get things done” types taking what they can get whenever they can get it.

The phrase was penned by the Roman poet Horace in 23 BCE, making it one of the oldest philosophical mottos in western culture.[1] Unfortunately, it’s also the most misinterpreted Latin tag ever.[2]  And there are a couple of reasons for that. First is the translation factor. Though Williams’ character interpreted carpe diem as “seize the day,” a more precise translation is to pluck, or harvest. [3]  This translation of carpe is not only less aggressive, it implies preparation for the future.

The second reason for misinterpretation is that carpe diem is a truncated version of the actual phrase. In its original context, Horace’s Odes 1.11, it is part of the longer carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero, which translates as “pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one.”[4]

So, much to the chagrin of thrill seekers everywhere, carpe diem isn’t a call to ignore the future for some adrenaline boosting excitement today. What Horace means is that the best way to get the most out of life, or as Robin Williams put it “make [our] lives extraordinary,” is to do all we can, every day, to prepare for the future rather than leaving it to chance.[5]



[1] Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Carpe diem.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/topic/carpe-diem; Krznaric, Roman. “Reclaiming carpe diem: How do we really seize the day?” The Guardian.com. April 2, 2017.
[2]Barchiese, Alessandro. “Carmina: Odes and Carmen Saeculare.” In The Cambridge Companion to Horace. Edited by Harrison, Stephen. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
[3]Barber, Daniel. “Presence and the Future Tense in Horace’s Odes.” The Classical Journal. Vol. 109. No. 3 (February-March, 2014), 353; Knowles, Cora Beth. “Horace, Odes 1.11.” Classical Studies Support.  https://classicalstuddies.support
[4] Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Carpe diem.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019.
[5] Harrison, Stephen. “Carpe Diem.” The Cambridge Companion to Horace. (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 2012).

Image by Alexandre Brondino on Unsplash


Check out more unplugged proverbs, sayings, and other pearls of wisdom here.

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