Travels with Epicurus:
A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life
By Daniel Klein. Penguin, 2012, 164 pp.
In his early seventies, faced with the prospect of devoting an entire year to major dental surgery, Daniel Klein decided it was time to deal with the realities—and conceptions—of old age. Questioning what he calls the “forever young” movement prevalent in America—where the elderly keep striving for new goals and submitting to cosmetic surgery—he determined to find a better philosophy.
Having spent time previously on the Greek island of Hydra, where he found the elderly “uncommonly content with their stage of life,” he thought this was the place to find some answers. Packing up a load of philosophy books, he set off on his quest.
In Travels with Epicurus, Klein takes us on his philosophical journey. As his title suggests, the philosopher he focuses on is Epicurus, who, contrary to the way the word “epicurean” has evolved, was by no means a self-indulgent gourmand. Indeed, Klein points out that his preference was for simple, comfort foods. But he did believe in pleasure. His main question was : “How does one make the most of one’s life?” And his answer was to live a life “filled with pleasure.” For him this meant “one should first and foremost free oneself from ‘the prison of everyday affairs and politics.’” And he saw old age as the very best time in life, because “the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.”
Klein has an easy style, and he brings his meditations to life with observations of the old men he watches in the taverna, with anecdotes from his own life, and with humor. But the questions he raises are provocative and especially pertinent today, when Americans are living increasingly long lives that aren’t, in their last stages, very satisfying. He is especially perceptive in his distinctions between old age, when one can step back and find much to enjoy, and old old age, when all too often one is too reduced to enjoy anything. If we deny old age, we move straight from busyness and striving to old old age, and miss the pleasures that being elderly can offer.
Travels with Epicurus is both thoughtful and entertaining, though I felt that the book’s initial energy petered out in its later sections. In part, I think that Klein had already said what he had to say while Epicurus was the focus; the later dipping lightly into other philosophies and philosophers seemed a bit like padding. In addition, by the end, I became increasingly aware of the contradiction that underlies the work: if, as it seems, Klein believes with Epicurus that he would be best off freeing himself from striving, then why is he writing this book?
Klein is an honest writer—this is one of the virtues of his book—and he confronts this question, realizing that he has yet to find an answer to his quest and that in fact there are various answers: cultural and personal distinctions matter. Perhaps, he concludes, simply raising the “`unfathomable question’ of what makes a good and gratifying old age” is “some kind of end in itself.” His book makes it clear that it is.
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Travels with Epicurus: