It is one of the oldest pieces of life advice in Western history: carpe diem, seize the day. First uttered by the Roman poet Horace over two thousand years ago, it has become our cultural inheritance, reflected in mottos from ‘live as if you might die tomorrow’ to ‘be in the moment’, from the iconic advertising slogan ‘Just do it’ to the Twitter hashtag #yolo (‘you only live once’).
Why is the call to seize the day so compelling to us? Because it promises a remedy for that instinctive – but often fleeting – awareness so many of us have that life is short and our time is running out. It asks us to live with greater passion, consciousness and intention, so we don’t reach the end of our days and look back on life with regret, viewing it as a series of paths not taken.
But here’s the problem: the spirit of carpe diem has been hijacked and we have barely noticed. It’s been hijacked by consumer culture, which has transformed seizing the day into impulsive shopping sprees and the instant hit of one-click online buying. It’s also been hijacked by 24/7 digital entertainment that is replacing lived experience with vicarious second-hand pleasures and an era of proxy living. And now it’s being hijacked by the mindfulness movement, which reduces seizing the day simply to living in the here and now.
This book is about how we can take on the cultural hijackers and reclaim the power of carpe diem. It explores five very different ways humankind has discovered over the centuries to seize the day, which we urgently need to revive. These include the art of grasping windows of opportunity, hedonistic experimenting, immersing ourselves in the present, becoming more spontaneous in daily life, and the forgotten realm of carpe diem politics.
It tells the stories of great carpe diem adventurers, from Oscar Wilde to Maya Angelou, and delves into everything from medieval carnival to the neuroscience of procrastination. At the same time, it looks at whether we can overdose on seizing the day, and how it may be used and abused.
This book is the first ever cultural biography of carpe diem. But it goes further, with a call to arms: the time has come to seize back seize the day, and recover it for the art of living and social change.
“Inspiring, bracing, and elegant: a timely corrective to contemporary follies, from mindfulness to workaholism. Carpe librum!” – Sarah Bakewell, author of At The Existentialist Café and How to Live: A Life of Montaigne.
Roman Krznaric is a cultural thinker and writer on the art of living and social change. His bestselling books, which include Empathy, The Wonderbox and How to Find Fulfilling Work, have been published in over 20 languages. His writings have been widely influential amongst political and environmental campaigners, education reformers, social entrepreneurs, psychologists and designers. He is founder of the world’s first Empathy Museum and is also a founding faculty member of The School of Life. Roman has been named by The Observer as one of Britain’s leading popular philosophers.
After growing up in Sydney and Hong Kong, he studied at the universities of Oxford, London and Essex, where he gained his PhD. He has taught sociology and politics at Cambridge University and City University, London, and has done human rights work in Central America with refugees and indigenous people. For several years he was Project Director at The Oxford Muse, the avant-garde foundation to stimulate courage and invention in personal, professional and cultural life.
Roman’s media work includes articles in The Guardian and the Wall Street Journal, and interviews on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, Channel 4 and PBS television in the United States. He has given talks everywhere from Google’s HQ in California to prisons and primary schools, and was described as one of the ‘breakthrough stars’ at the 2014 Hay Literary Festival. Over 750,000 people have watched his RSA Animate video The Power of Outrospection.
Roman is a fanatical real tennis player, has worked as a gardener, and has a passion for making furniture.
When Death Burns the Lips
Given that the one certitude of life is our inevitable death, it is curious that we don’t dedicate more of our time to seizing the day. We are extraordinarily willing to give over hours to watching television, flicking idly through Facebook updates, following random web links to videos of cats switching on light switches, keeping up with celebrity gossip, and just generally mooching about in our dressing gowns. Think of those who died tragically young – a budding teenager destroyed by leukaemia, a talented ballet dancer killed in a car accident – and how much they would give to be granted just one extra day of being alive. Don’t we owe it to them to make more of the precious gift of human existence?
Then again, maybe we should not be surprised by how easy it is to put carpe diem on the existential backburner. We have lost the preoccupation with death that was so prevalent in medieval and Renaissance culture, when church walls were covered with frescoes of dancing skeletons, and people kept human skulls on their desks – known as memento mori, Latin for ‘remember you must die’ – as a reminder that death could take them at any moment. It was an age of deadly plagues, shocking child mortality and endemic violence for which we should hardly be nostalgic. At the same time, knowing that their mortal existence might be only the briefest of candles propelled people to live with a passion and intensity that we no longer possess – evident, for instance, in the vibrancy of pre-industrial Europe’s carnival tradition. That is why the historian of death Philippe Ariès concluded, ‘the truth is that at no time has man so loved life as he did at the end of the Middle Ages’.
Modern society, by contrast, is geared to distract us from death. Advertising creates a world where everyone is forever young. We shunt the elderly away in care homes, out of sight and mind. Dying in hospital, covered in tubes and wires, has eclipsed the old custom of dying at home, which is one of the reasons that children so rarely come face to face with death. The question, ‘Are you afraid of dying?’ is hardly a favoured topic on TV talk shows. Discussing death is not completely off the agenda: the dilemmas of euthanasia and palliative care are making their way into public debate, and there is a recent trend of Death Cafés in cities ranging from Boston to Beijing, where people gather to ponder mortality and the meaning of life over tea and cake. But in general, death remains a topic as taboo as sex was during the Victorian era. The newspapers are full of lifestyle supplements, but where are the ‘deathstyle’ supplements?
On a more subtle level, much of social life can be interpreted as an elaborate means of shielding us from our inherent anxiety about death. The way so many of us desperately seek career success or lasting fame, our tendency to accumulate possessions that give us a sense of permanence, our wish to pass on a trace of ourselves to the future by having children, or the way we simply fill our time with so many diversions, from collecting stamps to foreign travel – these are all, at least in part, strategies for dealing with the stark reality that one day, sooner or later, we will cease to be and the worms will claim us. Studies in the US have shown the higher people’s self-esteem, the less likely they are to think about death – in other words, efforts to boost our sense of personal worth serve to protect us from our existential fears. There is also evidence that the more people think about death, the more likely they are to want to have children – presumably as a way of transcending their own mortality. As the psychiatrist Irvin Yalom writes, ‘The terror of death is ubiquitous and of such magnitude that a considerable portion of one’s life energy is consumed in the denial of death.’ Or as Woody Allen put it, ‘I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’
When it comes to thinking about our own deaths, most people live in a twilight between knowing and not wanting to know. Like the Sword of Damocles, death hangs in the air ready to pierce us. But allowing this thought to inhabit our minds is simply too much for our psyches to bear. So we bury it, we deny it, we distract ourselves with the challenges and joys of everyday living or the solace of religion. Yet in doing so, we rob ourselves of the most exquisite existential elixir – a taste of death that inspires us, or even compels us, to make the most of the limited time we’ve got before the Grim Reaper takes us away to heaven, hell or oblivion.
This leaves us with a delicate task, which is to bring the reality of death close enough to wet our lips without burning them. We need to become like the young woman in Gustav Klimt’s 1916 painting Death and Life who is willing to stare death in the face with her eyes wide open, seemingly unperturbed. She, alone amongst the other figures, has the courage to begin a dance with death. The question then is how to think about our mortality in ways that open us to seizing the day. For this we can turn to an intriguing range of carpe diem thought experiments, or death teasers, which have emerged over the past two thousand years. We will begin our journey by exploring the best known – yet perhaps the most flawed – of them all: to live every day as if it were your last.
It’s short. It’s snappy. It’s the new trailer for my book Carpe Diem Regained, which you will shortly have in your hands.
Do take a mere 20 seconds of your day to check it out. And I would be hugely grateful if, as esteemed Ambassadors of Carpe Diem, you had a moment to share the video link on social media: https://www.facebook.com/romankrznaricauthor/videos/1643197975984199/
If you have another…
Good news. My forthcoming book Carpe Diem Regained now has a cover, which I absolutely love (big thanks to the fabulous designer Mecob).
The dancer on the bull seems to me to embody so much of what carpe diem is all about: a vibrant seizing of the moment that is at the same time both defiant and beautiful. She is a modern embodiment of the medieval carnival tradition that calls on us to let…
Hello to you all. I hope you managed to seize plenty of days over the summer. For my part, I've been seizing a new title for the book. After much debate and soul-searching, it will now be called Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day, rather than the original title used for the crowdfunding campaign, Carpe Diem Reclaimed: The Story of a Cultural Hijack. Fingers crossed that…
So where are we with Carpe Diem Reclaimed? Thanks to you all, the funds have been raised, and the manuscript is now under the fine scalpel of my editors at Unbound. I remain sitting in my study, surrounded by the detritus that accompanies a near-finished book project: piles of notes, books read and unread, newspaper clippings, obscure scholarly articles, and multiple chapter drafts covered with corrections…
Hello Carpe Diem Reclaimers!
Now that Carpe Diem Reclaimed is fully funded, I'd like to send you some occasional updates as we progress towards publication of the book.
The photo you can see is a snapshot of one of the whiteboards in my study in Oxford, where I plan out each chapter. This image shows the thinking behind the final chapter, which I've recently completed writing. As you can…
Carpe Diem Reclaimed is now 100% funded! I feel completely overwhelmed and honoured by the backing given to the book. It's been an amazing process in which I've received incredibly generous support from a huge range of people - old high school friends, neighbours, readers of my previous books from around the world, and others who've simply believed in the project of reclaiming carpe diem from…
Live each day like it’s your last. It’s been the mantra of everyone from the Ancient Roman philosopher Seneca to the digital sage Steve Jobs. In my humble opinion, however, there are five fundamental reasons why it is one of the most misguided pieces of life advice to have emerged in Western history. You can find out more by reading a new article I’ve written over at YES magazine.
Inspired by the experience of crowdfunding, I've decided to crowdsource a playlist of Top Ten Carpe Diem songs to be included in my book Carpe Diem Reclaimed. I'd love your contribution - please pop over to my blog, where you can nominate your favourite seize-the-day song for inclusion.
For a bit of inspiration, have a listen to Pink Floyd's 'Time'.
And just to let you know, the crowdfunding…
It’s just four days into the crowdfunding for Carpe Diem Reclaimed and more than a quarter of the total has already been raised – thank you everyone for seizing the day and giving such fantastic support!
Many people have asked me what inspired me to write a book about carpe diem. Usually it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact moment that the idea for a book is born. But for this one, the origin…
These people are helping to fund Carpe Diem Regained.