Plotinus? Herodotus? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Many are familiar with the ancient Latin injunction of the poet Horace: “Carpe diem” or “Seize the day”. The following thematically similar statement has been attributed to other figures of the ancient world: the philosopher Plotinus and the historian Herodotus:
Not to be involved with the actions and passions of your time is to run the risk of having not really lived at all.
Oddly, the same saying has been ascribed to the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence linking the statement above to Plotinus or Herodotus. Unsupported attributions appeared in the 2000s, i.e., very recently.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. delivered a Memorial Day address on May 30, 1884 in Keene, New Hampshire. He spoke about a pivotal event in U.S history, the Civil War, which had ended nineteen years earlier. The speech of Holmes included the original instance of the saying. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
When it was felt so deeply as it was on both sides that a man ought to take his part in the war unless some conscientious scruple or strong practical reason made it impossible, was that feeling simply the requirement of a local majority that their neighbors should agree with them? I think not: I think the feeling was right—in the South as in the North. I think that as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.
Over the decades the phrasing has evolved. Many instances in circulation have been simplified and streamlined.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1884, Dead, Yet Living: An Address Delivered at Keene, New Hampshire on Memorial Day, May 30, 1884, Speaker: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Start Page 3, Quote Page 5, (Reprinted from the Boston Daily Advertiser by the Author’s Permission), Published by Ginn, Heath, and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩