The phrase “carpe diem” has two interpretations. The Stoic one, “seize the day,” urges us to make the most of the present moment. Don’t wait for the future to arrive, shape it! Use today, for today is the only day you have.
The originator of the phrase, however, a poet named Horace, was a proponent of Epicurean philosophy, a worldview that is often considered Stoicism’s main “opponent.” Entertaining a more literal translation, one might say we should “pluck the day” (for it is ripe) and enjoy the moment like one might enjoy a tasty grape.
Epicureans are often treated as the hedonistic counterpart to the Stoics’ more ascetic, discipline-focused approach, but actually, the “pleasure” Epicureans chased was mostly the absence of fear and pain. Therefore, Epicurean teachers argued for a life equally simple to that of a Stoic, making the two philosophies much less different in practice than they might sound in theory.
For anyone curious enough to look at the poem surrounding the soundbite, the common thread running through the two ancient philosophies becomes clear: “Strain your wine. Prove your wisdom. No more talking. Don’t trust the future. Seize today.”
In his Moral Letters, Stoic Seneca adds his own twist to the adage: “As each day arises, welcome it as the very best day of all, and make it your own possession.”
What would it take to make today “the very best day of all?” Regardless of which of the two philosophical lenses you apply to the question, one thing is clear: Whatever the catalyst, it must come from your own actions. Hoping to win the lottery doesn’t count – because that’s not a reliable way to make each day the very best.
The very best day is a day you do not wish to be different. That takes some training, the belief that you can own the day – that it was always yours to begin with – and perhaps a well-designed morning ritual, but it is an attitude that’s trainable nonetheless.
The only way to have a good day is to do good things. The only way to have the very best day is to realize that a good day is good enough. Carpe diem. Seize today.