Making life better, becoming happier

In a poem addressed to a female figure named Leuconoë, the Roman poet Horace (65-8 BC) says that we are not allowed to know how long our lives will be and we should not try to find out. It is better to endure whatever may come, whether we have one winter or more. He bids the girl strain the wine and adjust her hopes to the brevity of time. Time will have fled while we are speaking, and so ‘seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one’ (carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero, Odes 1.11, line 8).

The French poet Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585) echoes the theme, encouraging a girl to enjoy life now rather than recall lost opportunities when she is old: ‘Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain. / Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie’ (‘Live, if you want my opinion, don’t wait till tomorrow. Gather today the roses of life’).

Similarly in a poem by Robert Herrick (1591-1674): ‘Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying: / And this same flower that smiles to day, / To morrow will be dying.’ The poem, entitled ‘To the Virgins, To make much of Time’, in its third stanza foretells a deterioration in the quality of life: ‘That Age is best, which is the first, / When Youth and Blood are warmer; / But being spent, the worse, and worst / Times, still succeed the former.’

It seems that the notion of ‘seizing the day’ is often traced back to Epicurus, whose philosophy was indeed an influence on Horace. And Epicurus does encourage us to find time for enjoyment today:

We are born once, and it is not possible to be born twice. We will necessarily have no further existence for eternity. Although you do not have mastery over tomorrow, you put off being joyful. Life is wasted by procrastination, and every one of us dies without finding time for leisure (Vatican Saying 14; see ‘Find time today to be joyful’).

The outlook in this saying is consistent with Epicurus’ emphasis on pleasure as the ‘goal of nature’, the main aim in the pursuit of happiness and hence the core consideration for a system of ethics. However, while Epicurus emphasizes the importance of addressing the opportunities and challenges of today, he does not take the view that life in the future will inevitably deteriorate. In fact he sees old age as the time when a person can reach a peak of happiness through philosophical understanding, growth in practical wisdom, and gratitude for good things in the past (Vatican Saying 17; see ‘Age and happiness’).

For Epicurus, the human faculty of reasoning enables us to overcome difficulties and to organize our lives in spite of the effects of necessity and chance (Principal Doctrine 16; see ‘Chance and reason’). Given our ability to use reason to solve problems, we do not have to look at the future as a time of increasing catastrophe. So long as we use our reason to good effect, we have a reasonable basis for anticipating positive experiences.

Indeed we have a duty to work through problems rationally and constructively, as this is the way to happiness for ourselves and others. Vatican Saying 48 sets out the challenge: we are on a journey, and we can – and ought to – make the later stages of the journey even better than what has gone before, even to the point of expecting that the greatest sense of settled joy can come at the end.

The converse is also clear: if we fail in our ethical responsibility to face problems rationally and constructively, unhappiness and disaster will undoubtedly follow.

Thoughts for the Day, September 8: ‘While we are on the journey, we must try to make the later part better than the earlier, and when we come to the end to be in joyful equilibrium.’ (Vatican Sayings 48).

Texts of Horace, Odes 1.11: Bibliotheca Augustana; Perseus. See also the poem De rosis nascentibus (attributed to Vergil), including the words, collige, virgo, rosas dum flos novus et nova pubes (line 49). Robert Herrick, Hesperides (originally published 1648).

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