Horace and the Latin aphorism Carpe Diem

Quintus Horatius Flaccus, or simply Horace (65–8 B.C.), is often remembered and thought of as an intellectual and lover of both philosophy and poetry alike. While this remains true, it came to be that he eventually emerged through his works as an Epicurean. His works feature frequent elements from the Stoic, Peripatetic, and Platonic schools of thought; Epicureanism however is brought up more than twice as often in all of his works than the second most alluded to, Stoicism.

Today, Horace is most notably remembered for being the first of all Latin poets to express the famous aphorism carpe diem in the eleventh poem of the first book of his Odes (c. 23 BC). In its literal meaning, the phrase means to “pluck the day [as it is ripe],” or, in other words, to enjoy the moment.

Today, thanks to the many different forms of media, Horace’s original meaning has since been lost. More often than not, when someone shouts carpe diem, it is an excuse issued prologue to some irresponsible act in an attempt to justify it. When Horace expresses his actual sentiment however, it comes across as nearly the opposite:

Ask not, Leuconoë (we cannot know), what end the gods have set for me, for thee, nor make trial of the Babylonian tables!1 How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter allots us added winters or whether this is last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs! Show wisdom! Busy thyself with household tasks; and since life is brief, cut short far-reaching hopes! Even while we speak, envious Time has sped. Reap the harvest of to-day, putting as little trust as many be in the morrow! (Horace, 1.11)

1. Babylonian tables: Referring to the calculations of the Chaldaean astrologers.

The bolded text can alternatively be translated, “Seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow (the future).”

While initially, the sentiment may not appear Epicurean, due to the allusion to Jupiter and the notion of fate, I find that this comes across as Horace’s tendency to provide allegorical allusions for poetic effect, rather than something that expresses his philosophical tendencies. More importantly, the poet is attempting to discourage his friend, Leuconoë, from seeking astrologers and other such mystics who claim to be able to predict the future. Rather, it is best to act right now, during the present, to full effect, since you cannot predict the future as it has yet been determined. Best to act today and let the future worry about itself.

Horace. The Odes and Epodes. Trans. C. E. Bennett. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1914. Print.