This may sound familiar: “We are food for worms, lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold and die… Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” It’s Mr Robin Williams, of course, playing the inspiring English teacher Mr Keating in Dead Poets Society.
That Latin maxim, carpe diem – first used by the Roman poet Horace more than 2,000 years ago (and literally translated as pluck the day) – retains an extraordinary popularity in modern culture. The actress Dame Judi Dench had it tattooed on her wrist for her 81st birthday. You can even buy T-shirts that say, “Carpe That F****ing Diem” (not that we’d recommend wearing one).
But there’s a problem. The spirit of carpe diem has been hijacked. Consumer culture has reduced it to Black Friday shopping sales with seize-the-day messaging such as, “Buy while stocks last!” Our hyper-planning habits mean we’re so busy filling up our electronic calendars that we’ve little time left for spontaneous, carpe diem living. And our phones – which we check on average 110 times per day – have made us live in a state of continuous partial attention. We’ve become spectators of life on the screen rather than living it directly ourselves. Horace – and Mr Keating – would have been horrified.