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2017-09-15 16:45
By Lee Hyon-soo



A friend of mine impressed me by saying that his guiding philosophy is “Carpe diem.”

“Carpe diem” is a Latin aphorism taken from the Roman poet Horace’s “Odes.” This phrase is part of the line that reads, “carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero,” which is translated as “pluck/seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow.” It is interesting to note that “carpe diem” is interpreted in two different ways, as outlined below.

(A) Enjoy yourself while you have the chance.

A literal translation of “carpe” is “pluck” with particular reference to the picking of fruit. So “carpe diem” is translated literally as “pluck the day,” which means “enjoy the day, while it is ripe,” that is, you should enjoy the pleasures of the moment without concern for the future.  

(B) Life is what you make it. You should take full advantage of present opportunities today for the future.

“Carpe diem” can be translated loosely as “seize the day,” which means “do all you can today to make your future better” because the future is unforeseen and you cannot trust that everything is going to fall into place for you.

Given the foregoing, the meaning of “carpe diem” can only be ascertained on the basis of the context in which the phrase is used.

My friend did not know that “carpe diem” comes from Horace’s poem. He told me that he came to know this phrase from the 1989 movie “Dead Poets Society” that he watched.

Set in 1959 at a fictional boarding school in Vermont, the movie is about an exceptional interaction between an English teacher, John Keating (played by Robin Williams), and his students. Keating says to his students, “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Keating is an eccentric teacher and his teaching methods are unorthodox. In the class, he does things which are unheard-of in this elite conservative school. For instance, he makes his students stand on their desks to teach them how they must look at life in a different way.

Unlike other teachers, Keating is so inspiring that the students are fascinated by him. They restart Keating’s old secret club, Dead Poets Society, and sneak to a cave where they not only read poetry and their own compositions but hold spirited discussions. Such club activities and Keating’s lessons encourage them to try to live their lives on their own terms.

Neil, one of the members of the Dead Poets Society, discovers his passion for acting and lands a lead role in a stage play. Neil’s father finds out his son’s involvement in the play and tells him to quit it because he thinks that acting is a waste of time for Neil for whom he has high hopes. Not knowing what to do, Neil seeks Keating’s advice. Keating tells him that he should stand his ground if he really takes acting seriously

Neil’s father shows up at the performance. He takes Neil home and tells him that he will be transferred to a military academy known for strict discipline. Lacking the courage to stand up to his domineering father, Neil commits suicide.

Stricken with shock, the school investigates what prompted Neil to take his own life. His friends blame his death on Keating to escape punishment for their clandestine involvement in the unsanctioned Dead Poets Society. 

Fired by the school, Keating comes to the classroom to collect his belongings. Before he leaves, one student shouts that all of them were forced to sign the letter that resulted in his dismissal and that Neil’s death was not his fault.

Many students climb onto their desks and salute Keating with the words “O Captain! My Captain!” Touched by their show of support, Keating thanks them and exits.

 

The writer is a retired international banker who lives in Toronto, Canada. His other writings are posted on his blog, http://blog.daum.net/tom_hslee.

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