Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero: Seize the day and place as little faith as possible in the hours to come. Horace’s most famous line comes at the end of Ode 1.11, in an address to a girl called Leuconoe. He warns her against trying to read the future; for no man can know his fate. So instead humankind must seize the day, make the most of the present moment. Keep pouring the wine, for even as we speak our short time on earth is flying past.
Leuconoe, do not ask, it is wrong to know, what fate the gods grant us,
whether your fate or mine, don’t waste your time on Babylonian,
futile, calculations. How much better to suffer what happens,
whether Jupiter gives us more winters or this is the last one,
one debilitating the Tyrrhenian Sea on opposing cliffs.
Be wise, and mix the wine, since time is short: limit that far-reaching hope.
The envious moment is flying now, now, while we’re speaking:
Seize the day, place in the hours that come as little faith as you can.
Translation by David West (2008)
Horace’s philosophy is called Epicureanism, which argues that mankind must – uncomplaining – accept life’s unpredictability and the misfortunes that come with this. It was a very popular philosophy and Horace expounds Epicurean ideas in lots of his odes. In this ode he uses nature as a metaphor for life, where the storm outside represents life’s vicissitudes. The storm can also be read as a metaphor for the dangers and discomforts that threaten the philosopher’s inner tranquillity. His conversation with Leuconoe is a safe haven; with wine and company it is an attractive contrast to the wild outdoors, and so emphasises the need to snatch such moments and enjoy their shelter from life’s storms.
So why in my title have I put this ode with To his coy mistress, a poem written by the 17th Century metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell? The similarity between the two has been noted by the scholar Anderson. As Horace senses time flying past even as they speak, so Marvell says:
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity
There is also the possibility that Horace, like Marvell, is attempting to seduce his companion. They are both drinking together, but there is no slave present for otherwise Horace would ask the slave to pour the wine and not Leuconoe. This suggests an intimate scenario. The fast tempo of the line:
The envious moment is flying now, now, while we’re speaking
could also suggest that Horace is getting impatient with conversation, he wants to move things along a bit. He is encouraging Leuconoe to be impulsive, to make the most of the here and now.
Horace is therefore perhaps not quite able to humbly accept what Fortune has in store for him, as a true Epicurean would. His is a very human philosophy, and faced with his own mortality he is driven to enjoy life while he can. Both men can sense the “deserts of vast eternity” that lie before them, and for both their response to this terrifying thought is only too human:
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Further reading: Anderson, W. “Horace’s different recommenders of Carpe Diem in C. 1.4, 7, 9, 11” in The Classical Journal, Vol. 88 (1992).