Old age comes gradually, yet its arrival is often punctuated by unwanted events, like a visit to a dentist. So it was for Daniel Klein, author of, “Travels with Epicurus—A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life.” Mr. Klein’s dentist recommended he spend thousands of dollars to buy implants, which would require nearly a year of painful appointments with an oral surgeon and several weeks of living on the equivalent of baby food.
If he declined the implants, he would need a full, lower denture, unanchored to stable teeth, meaning it may occasionally pop loose and come out attached to, say, an ear of corn. On top of that, he would end up looking like an old man.
Possessing an old bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Harvard, and having dabbled in philosophy for most of his life, he naturally wanted to think things over. So he journeyed to a Greek island, lugged along many pounds of philosophy books, and began to consider old age—how should an old man live? Should we pursue youthfulness as long as possible, or should we spend more time adrift, letting life visit as it may?
Mr. Klein chose Epicurus as his touchstone. Epicurus lived and wrote at roughly 300 BCE, taking up the question of how to live “the best possible life.” Epicurus believed we have only one life and no afterlife, so the question is important.
Epicurus concluded that the best life is a happy one, full of pleasure and free of pain. He looked for enduring pleasures, thinking that many fleeting pleasures, like overindulgence of food, drink or sex, ultimately lead to pain. He advocated self-sufficiency and enjoyed the food he grew in his garden.
Epicurus advocated self-interest, discouraged participation in politics, lived with friends near a small garden and practiced a radical egalitarianism. Women and slaves were included in his group of followers.
He believed old age was the pinnacle of life. It should be spent with friends reflecting and reminiscing about events that might be woven into themes of meaning. Remember this, forget that; plan this, not that. In the end an old man needs to select events and themes that contribute to the whole-life fabric, or quilt, he must create for himself.
For example, an old man might remember a beautiful woman (no need any longer to worry about conquest). An old man can remember battles of middle life and can interpret them selectively—it is not dishonest to select among competing interpretations. An old man might be stoic about pain, wary of depression (friends are apparently the best antidote), and perhaps open to suicide.
Dental implants are way down on an authentic old man’s list. The “forever-young” model of today’s striving, smiling, trim and well-tailored and coiffed TV-retirees is a false model. Epicurus and Mr. Klein argue for an old age that is more—what’s the word?—real.
Mr. Klein doesn’t write much about marriage among old men or how it fits with friendship. Epicurus was not married, but Mr. Klein is. We don’t learn much about how to handle life’s persistent problems with money, children, parents, other family, dementia, and so on. And Mr. Klein doesn’t write about fitting his obvious ambition toward this book into a simple, Epicurean life.
I’m not hinting at hypocrisy; what’s evident is that no one easily lives a life deduced from the writings of old philosophers and implemented in a modern time and culture. Many men consult religions about life’s how-to questions. Mr. Klein gives religions a nod but eschews religious practice for himself—it apparently never played a major role in his life.
Still, it is clear that in practice Mr. Klein follows countless other old men who return to their lived experiences to reconcile life’s parts into a whole. Greece, philosophy, writing—all are important elements of his experience, and they come together nicely in this book. It is a good example of the work facing all of us old men.
After a month in Greece, Mr. Klein returns home to his wife, dog and office. He and his wife engage in hours of conversation, obviously delighted in one another’s company. Finally he asks for her permission to become an old man.
A reader senses that Mr. Klein’s life in old age will not be radically different from his earlier life. He will continue to think philosophically, and he may write another book. He’ll stay with his wife and family and maintain his friendships. And with the money from this book, he may relax his lower jaw and accept the magic of implants.
Yet with his wife’s permission, he’ll be free to linger in those many peaceful moments that inhabit an authentic old age.
Travels with Epicurus—A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life, by Daniel Klein (New York, Penguin Books, 2012). Website for the book is here. Prices are the same at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble: $12.19 (hardcover) or $10.99 (kindle/nook).
Later Living recommendation: buy and read this small, intelligent book.