YOLO! (2), Carpe Diem and “the walls of death”.

“Tu ne quaesieris, scire nefas, quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. ut melius quidquid erit pati,
seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare
Tyrrhenum: sapias, vina liques, et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.”

[Non domandare (è nefasto il saperlo) che fine gli dei riservino a me, quale a te, o Leuconoe, e non pensare agli oroscopi babilonesi. Infatti e’ meglio sopportare qualsiasi cosa capitera’, sia che Giove ci conceda molti altri inverni, sia che questo sia l’ultimo, che s’infrange contro le opposte rocce del mar Tirreno: sii saggia, allunga il vino, e riduci una speranza troppo lunga in uno spazio breve: cogli l’attimo, fiduciosa il meno possibile nel futuro.

Never ask (since knowing is impious) what fate the Gods have prepared for me, what for you, Leuconoe, nor care about the Babylonian horoscope. It is better to endure whatever will be, whether Jupiter will allot us many more winters, or if this current winter will be the last one, which it is now consuming its waves against the Thyrrenian rocks: be wise, pour the wine, and cut a too long hope to fit into a smaller space. While we are speaking, the envious time is running away: seize the day, trusting tomorrow as little as possible.]


So. Horatius, first century Before Christ, Rome. He had had quite a troubled life before writing this poem; basically, he was poor and he could always feel a sense of impending death upon him. Nonetheless, he was quite a happy man, smiling at a cup of warm wine or a salad with a nice dressing. His philosophy is quite complicated, but the main point is that he aspires to an “aurea mediocritas” (‘golden mediocrity’ as in ‘perfect mediation’): do not go into any excess. Love life’s pleasure but do not have too much of them. “Il troppo stroppia”. “Est modus in rebus”. To some extent, “Less is more”.

He also thought that death is always around the corner -so you’d better get the most out of your days while you are still alive: the opportunity may still be there tomorrow, but you may not (it does sound a bit like Cat Stevens). It is not exactly “YOLO”, but we’ll come to state this towards the end of our analysis: for the moment, let’s say it is pretty much a “YOLO”thing, but it is so just because you can always, always feel that Death is drawing closer so you cannot really waste your time. As Seneca said, every day that we live brings us closer to our last day, therefore it is like we lived all our life learning how to die. And if you do not want to go through the “Epistulae ad Lucilium” to find out why this is and what would be reasonable to do after realising it, you can just read Tolstoj’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych”.

Enough nonsense. We were talking about Ode 1,11.

I’d now like to analyse it line by line (I know it’s not how you do it properly. It’s been months since I have actually analysed a piece of literature, give me this excuse), because so many people misquote it and it gets on my nerves SO much. At least, after analysing it, you are able to provide a reason for your interpretation, based on the actual passage and not on the “I think he meant” kind of thing.

First of all, it is addressed to a woman: in the common opinion of that time, which is very similar to our days’ common opinion, women are always planning the future while men are able to simply enjoy the moment. This particular woman is named Leuconoe, which sounds a bit like the Greek adjective for “white”: she is naïve, almost pure, enough to believe that it is possible to ask the oracles about the future and get a decent answer out of them. The poet knows better: it is “nefas” to keep asking the Gods when the end will come and what it will be like. The Romans had a very weird calendar, loads of festivities and parties all year round; specifically, during some days doing business was acceptable, and these were called the “fas” days; others were unlucky and you could not get work done during them -those were the “nefas”. Hence the way of saying “per fas et nefas”, meaning “by any means, legal or not”. Broadly speaking, something is “nefas” if the unwritten law prevents you from doing it. Leuconoe should not ask the Gods about the future because it is not respectful of any law. Also, please note how clear it is that Leuconoe is in love with Horatius: she asks for Horatius’ future BEFORE she asks about hers. Cute, ah?

But Horatius just does not care. He knows that trying to know the future is useless and just accepting what the Fate brings is the best thing to do. This is not just closing his eyes and letting things happen to him, though. It is accepting some conditions he cannot change and doing the best he can to enjoy life, even in troubles: Dante (Paradiso, Canto III) knew that some conditions are inevitable; he had realised that the only thing left to mankind is then to decide what to do with the few resources and the many faults it finds in its way through life. For this reason, Horatius explains that Leuconoe, and Everyman (yes, the same as in that Morality play) with her, will have to accept the number of years they will be given, with no saying or complaining on how high or low it will be.

It is quite interesting to notice that the poet refers to the Thyrrenian Sea: he uses images from everyday reality, so that every reader is able to familiarise with them and relate the poem to his own life experiences. Even if you do not know what the rocks in the Thyrrenian Sea look like, you’ll probably have a good idea of what rocks in a troubled sea look like: they stop the waves like a wall; they represent the wall that breaks the last winter of life. Metaphorically, they are the walls of death (the only reason I have written this whole post in English is to be able to use this image, the ”walls of death”. Take time to appreciate it with me, please.).

And then, to what we were concerned with, since the beginning of the poem: what do we do now, after we have realised that we do not know how much time is left and we cannot plan accordingly? We are given not one, vague advice, but three punctual imperatives by Horatius.

First of all, try and be wise: “sapias”. “Sapientia” is not “prudentia”: the latter is about knowing things, but the former is about being wise, that kind of sapiens/wiseman we imagine with a long, white beard. Leuconoe should not grow a beard (or maybe she should, but Horatius is too much of a gentleman to tell her to): she should think about things until she develops the ability to sense what is reasonable and just.

In the second place, “add water to the wine”. I have translated “pour the wine” because it makes a bit more sense in today’s everyday context, but in Rome they usually mixed wine with water in different proportions, depending on by whom and in what situation the wine was served. Horatius means that Leuconoe-Everyman needs to enjoy the pleasures of life, represented here by the Symposium (Banquet/Feast with food, women and alcohol but focused on the philosophical talk, usually around a topic chosen by the guest. The best known example is to be found in Plato’s “Symposium”.); at the same time, this advice follows the “be wise” one, which makes the reader remember the importance of that “aurea mediocritas” we were mentioning earlier.

Last but not least, it is necessary to “cut a too long hope to fit a smaller space” [please, take the time to appreciate how nicely this is said by the author: “spatio brevi // spem longam reseces.” -the first part is separated by the change to another line, and after “reseces” there is a full stop, which is the graphic sign for “cutting” that sentence to its end. The word order would literally say “within a small space // a hope that is long / you need to cut”. Here is an amazing way of reading this entire passage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88hHrMgRn_c ]: life is not as long as we though, we are not eternal as we had believed. All of our plans, dreams, “hopes” need to be adapted to this perception: in other words, Everyman needs to be aware of his limits.

However, there is a tragic note to this. The reason I have started writing here in the first place. By saying that Everyman needs to be aware of his limits, I sound like I imply that, once he is aware of them, he will simply need to adjust his goals accordingly. But that would be silly: he needs to remember that Death is just around the corner. His days are “running away” so fast that he almost does not realise that he has no time.

Hence Horatius tries to remind us one last time: you need to be quick and try and fulfil as much as possible in the “smaller space” you’ve realised you have, because you cannot really trust tomorrow to be there to greet you smiling.

How is then Horatius’s “carpe diem” different from (using this only because it has immediate significance) “YOLO”?

Carpe diem comes from the idea that you do not have time because you do not know whether you do have time and how much you might still have. Complex sentence, I apologise. It is about time being “envious” and helping Death rather than Everyman in its race: “invida” means “that looks at someone with suspect, diffidence, rage”. “YOLO” means to use your time and not to waste any occasion, “Carpe diem” implies not to trust time and try and get as much as possible by the present.

In both mottos, the future is not really here to be considered. But this is another story I will discuss in another post…

And obviously, I have the moral need to also link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQtmGcdSDAI in this post.

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4 Responses to YOLO! (2), Carpe Diem and “the walls of death”.

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