Carpe Diem


The phrase carpe diem, extolled by Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets’ Society and by songs from Metallica and Green Day, was first coined by the Roman poet Horace more than 2,000 years ago and as such ‘seize the day’ is one of the oldest philosophical mottos in Western civilization. 


Roman Krznaric, in a book titled Carpe Diem Regained : The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day,  found a range of definitions “…from seizing opportunities, to spontaneity, to hedonism, to being in the present moment; as well as a collective political form of carpe diem. They’re all different ways of having agency in the face of death, of feeling that you’re fully alive.”


The popularity of carpe diem in modern culture has been sabotaged by the language of the advertising slogan and the hashtag ‘Just do it’ or ‘Yolo’ (you only live once) and as such has helped strip the concept of its true meaning. “The hijacking of carpe diem is the existential crime of the century – and one that we have barely noticed,” Krznaric writes.   “That idea that instead of just doing it, we just buy it instead: shopping is the second most popular leisure activity in the Western world, beaten only by television. Instead of seizing the day, we’re seizing the credit card.”


Carpe diem has also been commandeered by our culture of hyper-scheduled living, he argues.  ‘Just do it’ becomes ‘Just plan it’ as we fill up our electronic calendars weeks in advance with no free weekends, to the point that we no longer realize our spontaneity has been stolen from us. 


People had more spontaneous lives in the Middle Ages  “… partly of course because death was so much closer,” he says. But the Reformation argued that wasting time is a sin as the churches, both Protestant and Catholic, banned carnival and summer fairs, public dancing and games. 


“Then came the Industrial Revolution with its great weapon, the factory clock,” says Krznaric, with an emphasis on measured productivity and our to-do lists. 


An antidote for Victorian Britain was a craze for ‘the East’ , which was far more than a fad for Persian carpets and Japanese lacquer furniture. The Orient evoked fantasies of sensuality and passionate carpe diem living that were the opposite of sober Victorian Christianity.


One of the key texts was Edward FitzGerald’s loose translation of verses by the 11th century Persian poet and mathematician Omár Khayyám,  which took the form of a poem called the Rubáiyát of Omár Khayyám. After a copy was passed to the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who shared it with his Pre-Raphaelite circle, there began a cult of Omár Khayyám that lasted at least until the sobriety of World War One. The poem was an “outcry against the unofficial Victorian ideologies of moderation, primness and self-control”, in their place offering “sensuous embraces in jasmine-filled gardens on balmy Arabian nights, accompanied by cups of cool, intoxicating wine”. The Rubáiyát even appeared to be rejecting religion itself, suggesting there was no afterlife, its message being that “since human existence is transient and death will come much faster than we imagine, it’s best to savour its exquisite moments”. Oscar Wilde described it as a “masterpiece of art”, placing it alongside Shakespeare’s sonnets as one of his greatest literary loves. 


And in the late 19th century began the era of organized sport and entertainment as we became increasingly a society of watchers rather than participators, which fed neatly into the age of television, of i-Pads, i-Phones and digital distraction.


It is interesting to muse on how honey bees experience time.  We know that they have a sense of the seasons based primarily on day light time, and a sense of day and night based on temperature and a light source.  It was intriguing to see all of the bees retreat into their hives during the eclipse on August 21st, responding instinctively to the lack of light rather than any 24 hour clock. I doubt that they have a sense of passing daily time as we perceive it, even if they know (as Diane Ackerman writes in Dawn Light,) “… dandelions and water lilies open at 7:00 am, marigolds at 9:00 am and evening primroses not until 6:00 pm.” Rather they respond to a series of stimuli (pheromones, nectar and pollen intake and the presence of brood, for example) and their natural biorhythms, (such as the duties of a worker bee) rather than any internal clock.   For them they are probably not conscious of either past or future, and postentially they are always ‘in the moment.’


Leaning on the rail of a yacht in 1968, looking at the “rocky cliffs, rolling seas, dazzling sky” of the Dalmatian Straits, Jerry Mander had an epiphany. “It struck me that there was a film between me and all of that,” he wrote in his 1977 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. “I could ‘see’ the spectacular views. I knew they were spectacular. But the experience stopped at my eyes. I couldn’t let it inside me. I felt nothing. Something had gone wrong with me … I felt dead. “Nature had become irrelevant to me, absent from my life. Through mere lack of exposure and practice, I’d lost the ability to feel it, tune into it, or care about it. Life moved too fast for that now.”


As beekeepers we can rush through a hive inspection, conscious of the to-do list on our phone, or take time to treasure the moment and truly present with these marvelous insects that reflect so much of ourselves.  The joy that can come from watching forager bees return to the hive laden with pollen is wonder-full. 


Is this an argument for hedonism, for self-indulgence and self-gratification? Or for sheer escapism, savoring so many exquisite moments as to leave all of one’s responsibilities behind? Not at all, argues Krznaric.  It’s not about excess so much as rediscovering the senses, rediscovering direct experience, whether it’s honey bee society, a renewed awareness of the small things found on a walk, or appreciating the subtle flavors in honeys collected at different times of the year. 


Space does not allow me to expand on Jean Twenge’s new book, iGen, in which she argues that the post-Millennials, raised on the i-Phone, are on the brink of a mental health crisis; nor on Naomi Klein’s new book, No Is Not Enough, in which she explains (powerfully for me at least) the impact of reality television on the political climate of this country in recent years.  Perhaps in a later column. 


Its was 50 years ago that Jerry Mander reflected on his reaction, or lack thereof,  to the cliffs, seas and skies of the Dalmatian Straits.  The pace of life has been accelerating since, and what Mander described is increasingly widespread.  “Human beings have always had mediated experiences, ever since the invention of reading,” said Krznaric, “but now things like TV have so removed us from direct experience of life that we’ve almost forgotten what it’s like.”  His solution?  “It’s vital to try and recover this carpe diem instinct which is in all of us.”


Honey bees are, for me, vital agents in that recovery process.


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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my