Douglas: Why ‘carpe diem’ trumps ‘YOLO’ every day of the week


How do you get the best college experience? And how do you know if you are getting the best college experience? These are questions I’ve been having throughout my time at Northwestern, and I think I may have found the answer.

Please, let me share.

In today’s popular culture, it became stylish to do things based on impulse in response to the recent discovery that humans are mortal. This phenomenon is typified by the quaint phrase “YOLO,” or “you only live once.” Many of you who read this will have tired of the phrase being used on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to justify (ironically or not) bad decisions, but before you turn the page or click away, take a moment to learn about YOLO’s etymological roots.

In 23 B.C., the Roman poet Horace used the now-ubiquitous phrase “carpe diem” to tell his readers to make the most of the time that they have on earth. Horace’s words have served to inspire many people, notably in the film “Dead Poets Society,” in which Robin Williams exhorts his students to make the most of their lives in the face of death.

Though tweens would perhaps prefer not to think about etymological explorations into the tenets of Epicureanism and long-dead poets when posting photos or statuses for their friends, it is important to understand the meaning behind a way of life ingrained deeply into our culture. However, because the phrase is so old — and in a language no longer spoken — we have imposed our own ideas of what it means to “seize the day.”

For many people, carpe diem could easily be a synonym for YOLO. But how does one actually live fully? Does it mean that we should go out, party every night, hook up with everyone and follow our impulses without regard for possible consequences in the future?

I think it means more.

Rather than conveniently (and unrealistically) forgoing thought of the future because we have no way of knowing it, we should savor the moments of the present. Indeed, the Latin  verb “carpere” — the root of “carpe” — is used less for seizing or capturing, and more for plucking a fruit when it is ripe. The phrase in which the two heartening words appear, “carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero” translates to “pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next.”

We undergraduates are at NU for four years; it’s here that we gain the tools to create the futures we’ve dreamt for ourselves. According to Horace’s Epicurean philosophy, our happiness or pleasure depends on the “absence of bodily pain and mental anxiety”; that pleasure only exists with “living prudently, gracefully, and justly.” Horace wanted us to live in the moment by doing tasks that the moment calls for because none of us knows whether he or she will be able to do so tomorrow.

Here’s a short translation guide for you if you decided to skip to the end: YOLO is a rationalization of bad behavior; carpe diem is a justification for savoring diligent behavior.

What if the answer to the college experience lies not in reckless living, but in plucking moments from the tree of life to savor? Wouldn’t that make the time we have beside Lake Michigan more pleasant and easier to remember? We do only live once, so let’s make it a priority to relish the opportunities offered to us, not squander them in frivolity.

Sam Douglas is a Communication sophomore. he can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].