Plucking and seizing

It is an evolutionary cultural thing that Horace’s adage ‘Carpe diem‘ became world famous, while Seneca’s pronouncement ‘Omnia tempus edax depascitur, omnia carpit’, hasn’t made it beyond the Latin textbooks and classroom.

Voracious time devours everything, time seizes everything, writes Seneca the Younger in Epistle 107. Why on earth would we wish to remember that, to make it an icon of celebration and life affirmation?

Seneca’s words are a bit different from Horace’s optimistic ‘Seize the day’ exclamation immortalised in the first book of his Odes.

Are you ready for some Latin?

The words carpe and carpit are forms of the same verb carpere, meaning to seize, to pluck, even to tear out.

There is violence in carpere, like the stealthy yet forceful stealing of a fruit from a tree, a fruit which happens to be called ‘karpos‘ in ancient Greek, the root of which (word, not fruit tree) harks back to the Proto-Indo-European kerp meaning harvest.

According to the Stoic philosopher Seneca, the harvest of time is death and dissolution, time plucks all days and all things with a furtive hand, it sucks life dry. Nil sinit esse diu, it lets nothing be for long, he adds.

Seize the day before time seizes you, the poet Horace retorts against Seneca, not without a strong epicurian flavour.

If Latin literature teaches us anything, it is that life stirs between the two forms of the verb carpere – an opportunity struggling against acceptance, the fruit hanging on the tree before time comes and takes it away.

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