Annibale Carracci, Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne

Carpe diem quam minime credula postero

The famous phrase in the most famous Latin sentences

"Seize the fleeting moment, trusting as little as possible in the future". The motto, well known and present in everyone's culture today, is commonly employed as an exhortation to adopt a mental attitude that, unscrupulously attitude of mind that, without scruples, is unconcerned about the future and aimed only at the enjoyment offered by the tangible pleasures of the present. But who is responsible for the paternity of its coinage?

Seize the moment: Horace's invitation

The earliest formulation of the saying is to be found in the Horatian Odes. Here (I, 11) the verse very effectively condenses one of the Latin poet's main themes, the brevity of life, the awareness of which makes it necessary to promptly appropriate the joys of the moment in order to derive the greatest good from them.

One must not, however, lapse into misunderstanding. Horace's words should not be read in the sense of a banal invitation to pleasure: the ability to seize the moment coincides with one of the greatest virtues of the wise. one of the greatest virtues of the wise man, who faces events, whatever they may be, and accepts them counting only on the present, living each day as if it were the last and arming himself with the solid memory of happiness already lived and enjoyed. of happiness already experienced and enjoyed against the fear of death and misfortune.

Confirming the centrality of the motif in Horace's production, similar solicitations are found in several other textual places of the author, such as, for instance, beyond other Odes (I 4, II 16, III 8, IV 7), the Satires and the Epodes:

Rapiamus, amici,
occasionem de die

We grasp, my friends,
the opportunity on the instant
Epodes, 13, 3
Carpe viam, mihi crede, comes, terrestria quando
mortalis animas vivunt sortita neque ulla est
aut magno aut parvo leti fuga: […].

Take the road, in my company, believe me, for earthly creatures live by having mortal souls and there is no escape from death for the great or the small: […].
Satires II, 6, vv. 93-95
quadro di Giacomo Di Chirico, Quinto Orazio Flacco (1871). Venosa, Municipal Art Gallery.
Giacomo Di Chirico, Quinto Orazio Flacco (1871). Venosa, Municipal Art Gallery.

Today, the saying is used commercially in song titles, as the name of companies and shops for non-essential goods, of tourist agencies, restaurants, hotels and wine shops. It gained greater fame, however, thanks to Peter Weir's 1989 film, The Dead Poet's Society. In literature, a similar formula is found in the Song of Bacchus (or The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne) by Lorenzo de' Medici.

Many other Latin authors expressed the same vitalistic encouragement. These include Ovid with Utere temporibus ('Make the most of the happy moment', Tristia IV 3, v. 83), Seneca with Protinus vive! ('Live without uncertainty', De brevitate vitae IX, 1), Martial with Vive hodie! ('Live without uncertainty'), Martial with Vive hodie! ('Live today', Epigrams I 15, v. 12), and Persius with Carpamus dulcia ('Seize what is sweet', Satires 5, v. 151).

Escaping the occasion

To seize the moment means to be able to make the most of the moment and thus the propitious occasion it heralds. It is precisely the importance of seizing the moment that has left its mark in the repertoires of sentences and proverbs.

Cato, in itsDisticha (o Dicta), writes:

Rem tibi quam scieris aptam dimittere noli
Fronte capillata, post haec occasio calva.

Don't let go of something you know you're good for
The opportunity has a hairy forehead and a bald nape.
Cato, Disticha, 2, 26

The Censor here recovers a rather widespread ancient iconographic tradition, according to which the occasion is possessed of a bushy hair only on her forehead that allows her to be grasped but only when it presents itself in front, escaping definitively once it has passed (since it is bald, instead, on the nape of the neck).

Again, in the Middle Ages this topos is found in one of the Carmina Burana, Fortunae plango vulnera, and later, in the Mannerist era, to it Giovan Battista Marino dedicates an octave of his Adonis:

L’Occasion, ch’è nel fuggir sí presta,
vide un giorno per l’aria ir frettolosa.
Suora minor de la Fortuna è questa,
e tien le chiavi d’ogni ricca cosa.
L’ali ha su ’l tergo, e di vagar non resta
sempre andando e tornando, e mai non posa.
Lungo, diffuso e folto il crine ha, salvo
verso la coppa, ov’è schiomato e calvo.
Marino, Adone, VI, 193
Kairós, Marble bas-relief from the Hellenistic period. Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum.
Kairós, Marble bas-relief from the Hellenistic period. Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum.

Ancient Greek has two words for time: kronos, 'duration', and kairós, the opportune moment. Like the first, the second concept was also embodied in a deity, whose representation was provided by the last great classical sculptor Lysippus (4th century BC), who, for Alexander the Great, erected a bronze statue representing kairós as a naked young man, with his left foot on a sphere or wheel and in his hand the razor and scales, his attributes.

The flight of time

The thoughtfulness of being able to seize the moment is closely linked to the awareness of the gradual consumption of life towards death and, therefore, of the fleeting nature of its time. And the past has also made it an ever valid maxim.

A particularly successful expression is the one found in Georgica by Virgil: fugit inreparabile tempus (or, more simply, tempus fugit). Despite the existential meaning it has taken on over the years, the poet's use of it appears far removed from any reflection of depth. In fact, the phrase derives from the simple observation that time, to the farmer engaged in his work, passes quickly:

Sed fugit interea, fugit inreparabile tempus,
singula dum capti circumvectamur amore.

But in the meantime, time flees irreparably, while caught up in love we linger to describe it.
Virgil, Georgica, III, vv.284-285

It is no coincidence that Seneca, in the Epistles (108, 24), quotes this verse declaring that it is useful to a grammarian rather than to a philosopher because it provides an example of the verbal form of fugit. And Dante also moves along the same line, who re-proposes the Virgilian sentence not referring spiritually to the time of human life but to that of the soul wholly absorbed in a specific interest:

E però, quando s’ode cosa o vede
che tegna forte a sé l’anima volta,
vassene il tempo e l’uom non se n’avvede;
Dante, Purgatory, IV, vv. 7-9
Otto van Veen, Allegory of Time (1607)
Otto van Veen, Allegory of Time (1607)

Not to classical Latinity but to the Middle Ages dates the Hora ruit ('time runs away'), whose notoriety is mainly due to the fact that the famous Dutch jurist and theologian Huig de Groot made it his motto. In general, it is widely used on antique clocks (especially in the Baroque era) and sundials, as a name for wines, inns, wine bars, and finally in the literary sphere from the 19th and 20th centuries onwards. Two Italian examples are Carducci (who made it the title of one of his Odi barbare) and D'Annunzio:

It was a small dead man's head carved in ivory with an extraordinary power of anatomical imitation. Each jaw bore a row of diamonds, and two rubies glittered at the bottom. On the forehead was engraved a motto: RUIT HORA; on the occiput another motto: TIBI, HIPPOLYTA. The skull opened, like a box, although the fissure was almost invisible. The inward beat of the device gave that little skull an inexpressible appearance of life. That mortuary jewel, an offering from a mysterious maker to his woman, had to mark the hours of drunkenness and with its symbol warn the loving spirits.
D’Annunzio, Pleasure, cap. III
Gabriele D'Annunzio's most famous novel, first of the so-called "Three of the Rose"

A proposito di Gabriele D'Annunzio :

Pleasure by D'Annunzio

Gabriele D'Annunzio's most famous novel, first of the so-called "Three of the Rose"

Huig de Groot (Italianised Ugo Grozio, 1583-1645) was a Dutch jurist, theologian, philologist, historian, poet and politician. He is best remembered as the founder of the 'school of natural law', better known as naturalism.

To conclude, a passage from the First Epistle of John (2:17) reads: "Et mundus transit, et concupiscentia eius" ('The world passes along with its concupiscence'). From it derives the formula Sic transit gloria mundi ('Thus passes the glory of the world'), also popularised by the papal coronation ceremony in which it was pronounced: the master of ceremonies, in fact, showed the pontiff-elect a tuft of tow over a silver reed and, after lighting it, recited these words.

The pleasure of present things

The vital impetus of the Horatian motto, although foreign to any possible hedonistic intentions, has nevertheless not been spared attempts to read it in this sense, which have produced from it a whole series of sentences with a strong worldly flavour, far different from the intimate meaning of the original saying.

One of these is the famous Edamus, bibamus, gaudeamus! ('Let us eat, let us drink, let us enjoy!', sometimes completed with Post mortem nulla voluptas, "After death there is no pleasure") present, according to the testimony of the Greek historians Strabo and Arrian, in the epigraph placed on the tomb of the mythical Assyrian king Sardanapalus, renowned for his lustful lifestyle. Its success, however, is due to its use, in the biblical context, in a passage from the book of Isaiah (22:13) and by St Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians (15:32).

detail of the artist's painting Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus (1827).
Eugène Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus (1827), detail.

The invitation to drink constitutes the incipit of a medieval song, later made famous by Goethe's application in one of his poems of 1810, which reads:

Ergo bibamus, ne sitiamus, vas repleamus,
vas vacuemus, dilapidemus, quidquid habemus.
Morte gravabimur, expoliabimur.

Let us therefore drink, lest we be thirsty; let us fill the glass, let us empty it, let us squander all that we have.
We shall be oppressed by Death, we shall be stripped.

In connection with Virgil's tempus fugit is the Dum fata sinunt, vivite laeti! taken from the Hercules furens senecano (also in circulation in the form of Dum vivimus vivamus!, 'As long as we live, let us enjoy life!').

They take up, finally, Horace's recommendation not to care about what will be, concentrating only on the present time, maxims such as In diem vivere, taken from a letter by Pliny the Younger (Qui, voluptatibus dediti, quasi in diem vivunt, vivendi causas quotidie finiunt, 'Those who, devoted to pleasures, live, as it were, by the day, exhaust the motives of life every day'), or that taken from the Gospel of Matthew (Sufficit diei malitia sua, 'To each day his toil suffices').