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Carpe diem (seize the day)

17th June 2021


For me this quotation is forever linked with the film ‘Dead Poet’s Society’. It was released in 1989 starring the late great Robin Williams as John Keating, an inspirational English teacher in an elite boys boarding school. As a young teacher at the time, the film struck a chord both in my desire to inspire and ignite young minds and to challenge the more traditional status quo.

It came as some surprise therefore, that not everyone in the staffroom was as equally enthralled by the message of the film. In fact there was definitely a generational divide with older, more experienced teachers critical of the seeming reckless disregard shown by Mr Keating towards the safety of his young impressionable pupils. In his relative inexperience in wishing to liberate his young charges and seize the day, he exposes them to conflicts with parents and school that they were not yet mature enough to navigate, leading to tragic consequences.

While one feels John Keating’s heart is in the right place, perhaps his own injunction to seize the day is as much to do with his own inability to do just that, or to actually take any risk in his own life. He seeks rather to live vicariously through his young charges and become a ‘hero’ figure in their eyes, and feel validation in doing so.

Carpe diem comes from the writings of Horace, a leading Roman lyric poet who was born in 65 BCE. It can be translated as literally ‘pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one’ but has become more widely understood in translation as seize the day. This idea had appeared before in the Greek Philosophy of Epicurus who taught that the greatest good in life was to seek modest sustainable pleasure on a day to day basis.

The earliest known uses of carpe diem in print in English date to the early 19th century. Robert Frost took on the subject with his poem “Carpe Diem,” first published in 1938. In it children are encouraged by a figure called Age to “‘Be happy, happy, happy / And seize the day of pleasure.’

Carpe diem reminds us not to waste opportunities that may not come our way again. Life is relatively short and we do not want to look back with regret at the things we failed to do or to appreciate. Making the most of now and enjoying what each day offers makes a great deal of sense but shouldn’t we also proceed with an eye to the future? For most, tomorrow will indeed come, and without some thought of the consequences for ourselves and others, as illustrated in the ‘Dead Poet’s Society’, there may be consequences about which we regret.

However for today and especially after a long week of exams for many, let us take time to ‘stop and smell the roses’. Carpe Diem.

Christine Crossley

Carpe Diem