From Carpe Diem to #Yolo – seize the day, urges Litfest philosopher

12 May

Roman Krznaric © Calyx Picture Agency

Carpe Diem is one of the world’s best-known philosophical mottos, according to Roman Krznaric.

It has endured since it was coined by the poet Horace in 23BC, and today is one of the most popular tattoos (Dame Judi Dench, no less, had it inscribed on her wrist for her 81st birthday), been adopted by songwriters (like Metallica’s Carpe Diem, Baby), has inspired inspirational slogans (see Nike’s ‘Just Do It’) and is the defining line in the movie Dead Poets Society.

Google the aphorism, and it throws up 25 million search results.

But, asserts social philosopher Roman Krznaric, it has been hijacked by people wanting to make a fast buck or assert influence – “the existential crime of the century.”

So he’s written a book – Carpe Diem Reclaimed: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day – which is, he says, “the first biography of Carpe Diem,” billed as ‘a rousing call for anyone who wants to have an agency in their own actions and lead a vibrant and even more meaningful life.’

Trawling through 500 years of manuscripts at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, he’s found five main ways to ‘seize the day’, and explored the way each has been hijacked.


Krznaric reckons 75 percent of the references to Carpe Diem are about seeing an opportunity and going for it; like, he grins, calling a snap general election.

But it’s been hijacked by consumer culture; Just Do It has become Just Buy It, as we’re urged to Get It Now While Stocks Last in an age of Black Friday and flash sales.

“Horace wasn’t thinking of getting a bargain at the Forum,” says Krznaric.


Being ‘in the here and now’ is a relatively new meaning’ which coincides with the rise of the Mindfulness movement, says Krznaric. Just Do It has become Just Breathe.

But mindfulness “lacks an ethical framework”. The American military are using the techniques to train their snipers, while Wall Street Bankers are taught mindfulness by their big bank bosses, to better cope in a high-pressure environment.


“We’re battling against an avalanche of emails and tweets and notifications,” says Krznaric. Our spontaneity was crushed by the protestant reformation, when the Church banned carnivals and public dancing, and the industrial revolution, with the factory clock and the introduction of the idea of wasting time, and by the digital revolution.

Today, our lives are planned by digital calendars and event invitations on social media. Just Do It has become Just Plan It, says Krznaric, who keeps a paper diary, and has pencilled out 3pm ’til 6pm every Sunday as ‘spontaneous time’.


24/7 digital entertainment has become a cultural hijacker; Just Do It has become Just Watch It. The average Britton spends 7.5 hours a day looking at a screen. But TV is the biggest hijacker: the average US or European Citizen watches three hours of television a day. This equates to nine years in front of the TV over a lifetime.

“It’s the difference between dancing the tango and watching someone else do it on Strictly,” says Krznaric, who has locked his own TV in a cupboard two storeys up from his living room.


From gay rights marches in 1970s San Francisco to the anti-globalisation demonstrations on the early noughties, via the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, mass social mobilisation has embraced the spirit of Carpe Diem – and turned it from an individual to a collective aspiration.

“We’re living in an age of political dissent,” says Krznaric, who suggests for those interested in social justice, Carpe Diem has become the plural Carpus Diem – let’s seize the day together.

He concedes, however, that the alt-right has hijacked Carpe Diem. He points to the Tea Party movement.

I’d go further, and argue that both Brexit and Trump were a demonstration of Carpe Diem, as practiced by frustrated individuals who have run out of fresh ideas.

Just Do It, I would say, has become both the positive Just Change It, and the nihilist Just Destroy It.

Words: Peter Davison

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