The Misunderstanding of Carpe Diem

“Listen to my body,
We haven’t been in touch much lately.”

I wonder what the Roman poet Horace would make of Carpe Diem being splashed around on t-shirts, posters and in inspo-quotes. I’m not sure he intended for people to use carpe diem – often interpreted as ‘seize the day’ – as an excuse or reason to throw caution to the wind. As social philosopher Roman Krznaric says, “The hijack of carpe diem is the existential crime of the century – and one that we have barely noticed.”

Horace was influenced by the Greek philosopher Epicurus. I rather like Epicureanism. It’s not quite as, well, stoic as Stoicism but it’s still pragmatic. There are two things we can take from Epicureanism that cast a new light on carpe diem:

  1. We should prioritise pleasure, but not just in the short term.
  2. Pleasure is not ecstasy, but either a state of tranquility or the absence of pain and fear.
Prioritise Pleasure

The Epicureans took a long term view of pleasure. For example, many in our modern Western world would consider a night of hedonistic drinking as ‘seizing the day’. However, the Epicureans would look at the displeasure of a hangover the next day and point out that you didn’t prioritise pleasure at all. This is quite a life changing thought. Maybe it’s just a sign of getting older (and as we get older the hangover does have a tendency to last longer than the drinking!). When you take your long term pleasure into account, you realise how foolish hedonic short term pleasure can be.

Horace’s full verse – “carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero” (from Odes I) – translates as “pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the future”. Horace is not saying we should forget about the consequences of our actions. He is pointing out that we cannot trust that tomorrow will be fine, and that we must take advantage of the opportunity to make it better through our actions today. We need to make the best use of our time. Similar English proverbs might be ‘strike while the iron is hot’, or ‘the early bird catches the worm’.

Krznaric continues; “Consumer culture has captured seizing the day. That idea that instead of just doing it, we just buy it instead: shopping is the second most popular leisure activity in the Western world, beaten only by television. Instead of seizing the day, we’re really seizing the credit card.” Sound familiar? This is another example of how our modern version of carpe diem is far from Horace’s intention. Overspending and putting all our hedonic pleasure onto a credit card actually leads to the discomfort and displeasure of having to make payments in the future. The release of dopamine or adrenaline that accompanies the purchase lasts for just a few minutes; the stress and anxiety of debt can sometimes last a lifetime. This surely is the antithesis of ‘prioritising pleasure’?

What Is Pleasure?

Physiologist and researcher Michel Cabanac says, “Pleasure is the common currency that allows us to make any, and I mean any, decision in our lives.” Neuroscientists such as George Stefano and Antonio Damasio would agree that seeking pleasure drives us as human beings. As Stefano points out, we don’t have enough time to make entirely rational decisions, weighing up all the possibilities every time. Pleasure enables us to short-cut this process – “Pleasure leads to pure rationality,” Stefano says.

But what exactly is ‘pleasure’? Epicurus believed that we should live in pursuit of the greatest amount of pleasure possible but his view of pleasure was very different to the hedonism we consider to be pleasure now. In Epicureanism, there are two states of pleasure; ataraxia (a state of calm), and aponia (the absence of physical and mental pain).

When was the last time you really experienced that state of calm? I’ve always been an on-the-go person. I talk about us living a life we don’t need to escape from. But I love those moments when I can stop, take stock and survey the view. Savouring in Satisfaction forms part of my A.C.T.S. system (read more about that here). I don’t see them as escapes from my life. I see them as an intrinsic and vital part of the ebb and flow of my life. How do you know where you need to go to next if you don’t know where you are?

And this doesn’t mean not finding enjoyment in the rest of your life. Pleasure and enjoyment are slightly different things. (I’ve written about this previously and about the concept of flow, you can read it here.)

So what of aponia? The work of Cabanac and Stefano backs up the Epicurean idea of pleasure being the absence of pain. And you will definitely have experienced that. The pleasure of a warm bath when you are feeling cold, or a cool breeze when you are feeling hot. The pleasure of a drink when you are thirsty or food when you are hungry. The pleasure of a comforting hug when you are upset. You can see why Stefano makes his bold statement. Both aponia and ataraxia tell us that we are in a neutral state, in homeostasis. Pleasure is by it’s nature a transitory experience, and that’s why the pursuit of it has become such a problem.

Hedonistic ‘pleasure’

So why has carpe diem become so distorted? Cabanac has one theory; we don’t need for anything any more. Our primal ancestors would have almost always been in a state of discomfort and their lives of finding food and shelter would mean that these seemingly simple pleasures would be sufficient. But in a world where food and shelter are abundant, those pleasures are less satisfying. This has resulted in us seeking increasingly extreme hedonistic pleasures, often to the detriment of longer term pleasure. It’s almost as if we have to create a ‘low’ in order to experience coming back to an equilibrium.

It’s perhaps important for me to note that I am meaning there is an abundance for humanity as a whole, not necessarily individuals. I am well aware that the inequalities of society mean that sadly we are regressing to a point where aponia once again does become the only pleasure for some people. While I believe it is useful for us to be aware that this is where our pleasure lies, I absolutely do NOT support being in a human society where the only pleasure or enjoyment should come from the temporary relief of a lack of someone’s basic needs being met.

And while I don’t intend this blog to be a political commentary, it is money which has also hijacked carpe diem. You can’t sell people contentment or a neutral state of calm. There’s no money in people not desiring more. And this, for me, is why carpe diem has been hijacked. It’s a sales pitch, designed to make you throw caution / money to the wind for the latest thing that will make you feel better. But pleasure is transitory. No purchase will sustain your happiness. You know that. The people who sell you it know that. And that’s why, once they’ve persuaded you once and you’ve felt that initial hedonistic high, it’s easy to persuade you again. And again and again.

So can you re-assess pleasure? Can you find pleasure in neutrality? And can you truly prioritise your pleasure, for the long term as well as for the present?

Lyric title from Prioritise Pleasure by Self Esteem, written by Rebecca Lucy Taylor, Jacob Vetter & Johan Karlberg.

Published by Finding Felicity

I am Felicity, a satisfaction expert, yoga teacher and reflexologist who is empowering disillusioned people to take ownership of their happiness, having learnt from my own experience of falling off the hedonic treadmill that happiness is far deeper than just pleasure. My personal journey of deconstructing and reconstructing my life through studies of neuroscience, psychology, philosophy and yoga, opened my eyes to the complexity of human emotions. Based in Lancashire and teaching online, I am passionate about passing that knowledge on to others who feel out of touch with themselves and are wondering, “is this it?” I'm obsessed with helping people to build and live a satisfied life we don’t need to escape from.

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