The most famous quote in Dead Poets Society is “carpe diem,” which means “seize the day” in Latin. Professor John Keating delivers these words to his students on the first day of school at Welton Academy, symbolizing his unorthodox approach to education and his desire to inspire his students to “make their lives extraordinary.” It’s important to understand what Keating means by “seize the day,” what kinds of lives Keating wants his students to live, and how Keating’s philosophy of life is different from that celebrated at Welton Academy.
Right away, Keating’s words ring true to his students because they represent an alternative to the ideas they’re used to hearing from their teachers and parents. At the prestigious Welton Academy, the students are indoctrinated to believe in a simple, straightforward model of how to live their lives. Students are expected to work hard, follow the rules, go to good colleges, find lucrative jobs, marry and have children, and eventually raise these children in the same manner that they were raised themselves. Essentially, all Welton boys are supposed to obey the same rules and live more or less the same life, just as their fathers did before them, and their fathers’ fathers before them.
In stark contrast to the cyclical, “one size fits all” philosophy of life that Welton offers its students, Keating’s philosophy of life is grounded in one simple fact: we are all going to die. On the first day of class, Keating tells his students that one day, no matter what kinds of people they become as adults, they’re going to be “food for worms.” In other words, where Welton Academy sees sameness as the basic condition for a good life (that is, obeying the same rules and desiring the same things as everyone else), Keating sees sameness as the basic condition of death—i.e., something to fight against. Therefore, he argues, a good life should resist sameness and blind conformity. Because life is all-too short, students should make the most of their time on the earth. The best way to make the most of life is to be creative and original—to seize the day—and not simply to repeat one’s parents’ and grandparents’ lives. In short, Keating’s goal as an educator is to teach his students to think for themselves (see Education theme): to explore their passions and live accordingly.
The tragedy of Dead Poets Society is that some of Keating’s students misinterpret his celebration of life, originality, and the “carpe diem” mindset to mean that a life without creativity and originality is worthless and not worth living. Neil Perry, one of Keating’s most eager disciples, begins a career as an actor, inspired by his teacher’s encouragement to “seize the day.” But when his father, Mr. Perry, finds out that Neil has been neglecting his studies for theater, he forbids Neil from performing, and Neil is so distraught that he kills himself. Neil’s tragic mistake is to twist Keating’s idea, “because we’re going to die, let’s live life to the fullest,” into a far grimmer idea: “because we can’t live life to the fullest, we should die.”
Keating’s “carpe diem” philosophy is, above all, a celebration of life over death. While Neil’s misinterpretation of “carpe diem” leads to his death, Keating inspires many of his other students to lead lives structured around their own unique passions, ignoring the dictums of their parents and other Welton teachers.
Life, Death, and “Carpe Diem” ThemeTracker
Life, Death, and “Carpe Diem” Quotes in Dead Poets Society
He jumped dramatically onto his desk and turned to face the class. “O Captain! My Captain!” he recited energetically, then looked around the room.
Did most of them not wait until it was too late before making their lives into even one iota of what they were capable? In chasing the almighty deity of success, did they not squander their boyhood dreams? Most of those gentlemen are fertilizing daffodils now!
He stood silent at the back of the room, then slowly walked to the front. All eyes were riveted on his impassioned face. Keating looked around the room. “What will your verse be?” he asked intently.
The teacher waited a long moment, then softly broke the mood. “Let's open our texts to page 60 and learn about Wordsworth's notion of romanticism.”
“Ah,” McAllister laughed, “free thinkers at seventeen!”
“I hardly pegged you as a cynic,” Keating said, sipping a cup of tea.
“Not a cynic, my boy,” McAllister said knowingly. “A realist! Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams, and I'll show you a happy man!”
The point is that for the first time in my whole life I know what I want, and for the first time I'm gonna do it whether my father wants me to or not! Carpe diem, Todd!
“I feel like I've never been alive,” Charlie said sadly, as he watched Neil go. “For years, I've been risking nothing. I have no idea what I am or what I want to do. Neil knows he wants to act. Knox knows he wants Chris.”
Todd stood still for a long time. Keating walked to his side. “There is magic, Mr. Anderson. Don't you forget this.”
Neil started applauding. Others joined in. Todd took a deep breath and for the first time he smiled with an air of confidence.
I'd like to announce that I've published an article in the school paper, in the name of the Dead Poets Society, demanding girls be admitted to Welton, so we can all stop beating off.
Suddenly, he turned toward Chris again. He melted as his emotions took over. “Carpe breastum,” he said to himself, closing his eyes. “Seize the breast!”
"Yes, and acting!” Neil bubbled. “It's got to be one of the most wonderful things in the world. Most people, if they’re lucky, live about half an unexciting life. If I could get the parts, I could live dozens of great lives!”
“What is wrong with old habits, Mr. Overstreet?”
“They perpetuate mechanical living, sir,” Knox maintained. “They limit your mind.”
“Talk to him, Neil,” Keating urged.
“Isn't there an easier way?” Neil begged.
“Not if you're going to stay true to yourself.”
“Damn it, even if the bastard didn't pull the trigger, he …” Todd’s sobs drowned his words until, finally, he controlled himself. “Even if Mr. Perry didn't shoot him,” Todd said calmly, “he killed him. They have to know that!”
“Cameron's a fink! He's in Nolan's office right now, finking!”
“About what?” Pitts asked.
“The club, Pitts. Think about it.” Pitts and the others looked bewildered. “They need a scapegoat,” Charlie said. “Schools go under because of things like this.”
It is Mr. Keating's blatant abuse of his position as a teacher that led directly to Neil Perry's death.
As Nolan started down the aisle toward him, Knox, on the other side of the room, called out Mr. Keating's name and stood up on his desk too. Nolan turned toward Knox. Meeks mustered up his courage and stood up on his desk. Pitts did the same. One by one, and then in groups, others in the class followed their lead, standing on their desks in silent salute to Mr. Keating.