He is sitting at a wooden table at the far rim of the terrace of Dimitri’s taverna in the village of Kamini on the Greek island Hydra.
FROM THE BLURB
An escapist travel memoir, a droll meditation, and an optimistic guide to living well, this is a delightful jaunt through the terrain of old age, led by a witty and uniquely perceptive modern-day sage.
Travels with Epicurus
For a title, I found ‘Travels with Epicurus’ misleading. The writing of Epicurus does make an appearance, but if you’re expecting an introduction to his work, then you’ll be mildly disappointed. ‘Travels’ is also slightly misleading too, as Daniel Klein spends the whole book in a small village on the Greek island of Hydra.
Happily, the subheading is much more accurate: ‘Meditations from a Greek Island on the Pleasures of Old Age’ and, despite the initial misapprehension, I took a lot from this book of contemplation.
Travels with Epicurus is short: a collection of loosely connected thoughts on ageing, based on Daniel Klein’s own experience and his reading of many philosophers, ancient and modern.
The themes range over expansive territory: philosophical fulfilment, time and worry, solitary reflection, existential authenticity, metaphysics, Stoicism and old old age, spirituality, friendship, death, boredom, play, idleness, autobiography and memory, wistfulness, romance, marriage, depression, risk-taking, rage, and suicide or euthanasia.
An older perspective on living
Reading the perspective of someone twice my age, who has already lived through the slings and arrows of middle age, was oddly comforting.
Fear of death looms large in our society, so when I read of an older man perusing the obituary column, I would imagine the experience to be unnerving at best. But that isn’t Daniel Klein’s experience:
Much to my surprise, when I, at the age of seventy-three, read the obituary of a man who passed away at the age of, say, seventy-five, I actually find it consoling. I have lived to a respectable old age. I have enjoyed the privilege of a complete life, partaking in all its stages.
I never thought of old age as a privilege, but if that’s how I might feel if and when I get there, then who am I to argue?
Passages like this suggest what is to come, and when unknown unknowns become known unknowns they lose their fearsome aspect.
The neuroscience of wisdom
Daniel Klein explores the notion of wisdom: that intellectual quality that somehow increases with experience. Klein sees old age as a time for philosophical courage, invoking Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard:
To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.
Klein also picks up on two pieces of research that studied the differences between younger and older brains and concluded that, yes, ‘with age comes wisdom’.
In Klein’s book, the research fills barely half a page, but it’s worthy of much more. In fact, the key researcher, Professor Dilip Jeste at the University of California San Diego, doesn’t even get a name-check.
Jeste helped create the scientific construct of wisdom and in one paper his team describe it as a complex human characteristic involving ‘social decision-making, emotional regulation, prosocial behaviour (such as empathy and compassion), self-reflection, acceptance of uncertainty, decisiveness, and spirituality’.
For his part, Daniel Klein recruits Aristotle to show how wisdom enjoys uncertainty:
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
Jeste’s paper goes on to show the benefits of wisdom, which include ‘better health, well-being, happiness, life satisfaction, and resilience’. And, yes, it increases with age.
In a presentation at the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ International Congress, Jeste explained how wisdom increases with age:
The elderly brain is less dopamine-dependent, making people less impulsive and controlled by emotion.
The second piece of wisdom research that Daniel Klein mentions was led by Dr Oury Monchi and Dr Ruben Martins at the University of Montreal. Commenting on the 2011 study, Dr Monchi said:
It was already known that aging is not necessarily associated with a significant loss in cognitive function. […] We now have neurobiological evidence showing that with age comes wisdom and that as the brain gets older, it learns to better allocate its resources.
One specific advantage that the ageing brain has over the younger is that it’s less reactive to negative reinforcement. Dr Monchi explains:
It is as though the older brain is more impervious to criticism and more confident than the young brain. […] Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare was on the money: being able to run fast does not always win the race — you have to know how to best use your abilities.
Age, death and meaning
Another study co-authored by Dr Jeste found that having a meaning in life was positively correlated with mental wellbeing no matter your age. But meaning also had a significant effect on life satisfaction among people over 60 years old.
Daniel Klein pulls out this quote from Chinese Confucian philosopher Mencius, who lived at the same time as Epicurus:
Life is what I want; yi [often translated as ‘meaningfulness’] is also what I want. If I cannot have both, I would rather take yi than life. On the one hand, though life is what I want, there is something I want more than life. That is why I do not cling to life at all cost. […] In other words, there are things a person wants more than life and there are also things he or she loathes more than death.
Daniel Klein finds that old age is full of meaning: in reminiscences, in wisdom, in friendship and also in play. On the island of Hydra, Klein finds inspiration for old age in the writing of an Athenian, Plato:
Man is made God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him […] Therefore every man and woman should live life accordingly, and play the noblest games […] What, then, is the right way of living? Life must be lived as play.
It’s connections, reflections, contemplations and meditations like this that make Travels with Epicurus an absorbing, comforting text that rewards slow, careful reading.
“Anyway, I think it’s too late — that sounds like an old man’s question.”
EPICURUS: AN INTRODUCTION
If you are looking for a short introduction to Epicurus’ writing, then I can oblige.
Epicurus was a Greek philosopher born on the island of Samos in 341BC. Like Stoicism, Epicureanism is wildly misunderstood in the popular imagination (possibly thanks to millennia of Christian defamation).
Epicurus believed that the route to happiness was freedom from fear (ataraxia) and the absence of pain (aponia). In this way, true Epicurean thought is much closer to Buddhist ascetism than all night sex parties. In his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus makes this absolutely clear:
When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.
The following five quotations from Epicurus are selected from Travels with Epicurus, but Daniel Klein doesn’t reveal the translator.
On pleasure and abundance
Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.
On having enough
Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.
Before you eat or drink anything, carefully consider with whom you eat or drink rather than what you eat or drink, because eating without a friend is the life of the lion or the wolf.
Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.
On age and memory
When a man is old, he may be young in good things through the pleasing recollection of the past.
If you’re looking for more, I can recommend reading Epicurus’s Letter to Menoeceus, one of his few extant publications. It’s very short (especially if you skip the second paragraph about ‘god’) and neatly summarises his ethical position.
To say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more. Therefore, both old and young ought to seek wisdom, the former in order that, as age comes over him, he may be young in good things because of the grace of what has been, and the latter in order that, while he is young, he may at the same time be old, because he has no fear of the things which are to come.
NEW WORDS, ETYMOLOGIES AND CONCEPTS
A rosary of beads, used to occupy the fingers. Bar-owner Dimitri tells Klein:
Kombolói have to do with time, with spacing it out, making it last.
Chrónos and Kairós
In Greek, chrónos is the universal dimension of time, whereas kairós is the quality of time: its personal significance to an individual.
Leaping is at the root of all play
Daniel Klein notes that, according to Plato, the etymology of the Ancient Greek word for ‘play’ is ‘leaping’. I can’t find a secure basis for this in English, but there are some interesting thoughts on the etymological correspondence between words for play and movement in this piece by Joel D. R. Seath.
School is leisure
The original meaning of the Ancient Greek word for ‘school’ was ‘leisure’. Indeed, our own word ‘school’ comes directly from the Ancient Greek word for play: σχολή (skholḗ).
Travels with Epicurus is essentially a work of intertextuality, so it’s easy to follow up Daniel Klein’s sources. Among those not already mentioned:
Poetic philosophy: On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura) by Lucretius
Novel: The Fall by Albert Camus
Alas, after a certain age every man is responsible for his face.
Nonfiction philosophy: Time by Eva Hoffman
Essay: Of Vanity by Michel de Montaigne
I know that the arms of friendship are long enough to reach from the one end of the world to the other.
Nonfiction philosophy: A Philosophy of Boredom by Lars Svendsen
Essay: In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell
It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilisation.
Nonfiction: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
Nonfiction: Never Say Die by Susan Jacoby
Psychology: The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James
Sobriety diminishes, discriminates and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes.
Poem: Eternity by William Blake:
He who binds himself to joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.
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I bought this book on the recommendation of Ryan Holiday.
164 pages, ~33,000 words
Read: 29 March to 5 April 2020
This newsletter review is published under the ‘fair dealing’ copyright exemption for criticism, review or quotation. If you’ve enjoyed this newsletter, please consider buying the book: Waterstones // eBay // Find your local bookshop
David Charles wrote this. He publishes another newsletter about the overlooked corners of our world called, humbly, The David Charles Newsletter. David is co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and writes for The Bike Project, Forests News, Global Landscape Forum, Elevate and Thighs of Steel. He also edits books about adventure, activism and more. Reply to this email, or discover more on davidcharles.info. Thank you for reading!