Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 6, 2012

Travels with Epicurus, by Daniel Klein

This is an interesting book: Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of an Authentic Old Age will give pause  for thought to anyone in the Baby Boomer generation contemplating how best to manage the transition to old age.

Because what Daniel Klein is on about, is the importance of accepting the limitations of aging so that you can enjoy the stage of life that comes before old old age.

Klein is American, but what he says about the contemporary enthusiasm for being ‘forever young’ applies just as much here in Australia, because there are plenty of people here on the same pathway: medical intervention such as cosmetic surgery and Viagra not for health problems but to support a culture of denying old age; self-improvement courses;  personal trainers, continuing work well into your 70s and so on.   70 is the new 50 and all that.  The ‘bucket’ list that never ends.

All well and good, he says, but by denying old age, people go from ‘forever young’ to old old age and miss out on being a fulfilled older person, ‘docked in the harbour, having safeguarded his true happiness‘. (p93.)  This is the pinnacle of life, says Epicurus the Greek philosopher, the one that we most often wrongly associate with gourmet eating rather than a wise man who was interested in how to live an enjoyable life.

Instead of spending a small fortune on dental implants to ward off the ‘clunky smile of an old man with dentures‘, Klein set off for Greece with a collection of books by his favourite philosophers and meandered about, taking his time to savour a relaxed life.  He took an hour to dawdle up hills that he could formerly scale in ten minutes, pausing for rest stops and plenty of thinking time.  While not romanticising the Greek lifestyle, he found that simplicity, friendship and good conversation were more than ample compensation for a body that was slowing down.  He noted that there was a lot to be said for the companionship and shared memories of a long marriage and that possessions seemed to matter less.

Fundamental to his view of a fulfilled old age is the ancient Greek distinction between two kinds of time: chrónos, which is duration, and kairós which is the quality of time, opportune time, and personal experience of time.  Klein thinks that if we focus less on the time-we’ve-got-left kind of  time i.e. chrónos and recognise that there are discrete changes of time in a person’s life we can focus more on the kairós.  He thinks it’s better to abandon the stress of not doing enough to stave off the inevitable; we should move slowly and savour the opportunity for idleness, citing Bertrand Russell’s suggestion that we should use idle time for play. (It sounds like it might be interesting to check out Russell’s book In Praise of Idleness.  I know The Spouse has it somewhere because he’s a member of the Bertrand Russell Society and we have almost everything that Russell wrote. )

I’m not sure that I agree with Klein’s advice about sharing complaints about the indignities and infirmities of old age.  In my experience nothing is more likely to deter visitors than a catalogue of moans and groans.  Even people who love you don’t want to hear the same old complaints each time they call.  Far better to take an interest in the other, and that means planning ahead with conversation topics of interest to other people.

I’m also not sure that I agree with Klein’s endorsement of Epicurus’ suggestion that in old age people should abandon an interest in commerce and politics.  Quite apart from needing to keep an eye on one’s superannuation (which I suspect was not around in Epicurus’ day) I think that switching off from politics is a bad idea at any age.  What I notice is that people who take no interest in politics become vulnerable to scaremongering demagogues sprouting populist half-truths and slogans.  I prefer the idea that wise older people exercise their votes with as much care and consideration of the issues as anybody else.

But I do like his idea that an authentic old age offers much to enjoy:

True idleness requires patience, which in a sense,  is the antidote for boredom.  An authentic old man can be a master of patience for the simple reason that he’s in no hurry for time to pass. (p68)

Well, while we can’t all savour old age on a Greek island, it is worth thinking about whether clinging to life at all cost is really worth it.   Rather than anxiously preparing for every contingency and fighting off the inevitable, it may be better to relax and take life as it comes.  An authentic old age, Klein says, has a lot to offer.

Author: Daniel Klein
Title: Travels with Epicurus
Publisher: Text Publishing 2012
ISBN: 9781922079695
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Availability:
Fishpond: Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of an Authentic Old Age
Or direct from Text.


Responses

  1. The patronising view of old age seems an Australian custom, like a myth or or an Anzac Day relic. This is apparent in the arts – particularly writing. Young and up and coming writers are feted – most without the experience to be anything but derivative. Experience of life and living is worth so much more – if the thoughts and words can be expressed cogently and creatively.

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    • Hello Ken, I take from this book that the denial of old age – which is a kind of patronising, I suppose – is certainly not unique to Australia. (It would be interesting to get some feedback from our international readers in Europe and the UK to see if they have the same preoccupation with fending off the inevitable).
      But as to the arts, well, it seems to me that it was not so long ago that there was a book called Ganglands which accused the older generation in the arts of suppressing and excluding younger writers, much as now there is a common accusation that women are sidelined at the expense of men. I can only go by what I read and I can’t agree with you that the debut authors I’ve read are derivative, except in the sense that all writing owes a debt to what has been before. I like to read all authors of all ages and backgrounds …
      If I flick through the latest Readings Monthly or the review pages of the major newspapers it seems to me that there is a reasonable balance between established authors and new ones, and the same is true of award shortlists and so on. (Of course I mostly only read literary fiction, so I don’t have a clue about popular fiction and can’t comment on it except to say that it doesn’t interest me much. It’s not the focus of this blog).
      Publishers vary, of course, in their willingness to support new talent. I’ve commented elsewhere on this blog that it often seems to be the smaller publishers that are willing to take a risk than the larger ones better able to absorb failure. But I’m not in the industry, I don’t really know the ins and outs of it.
      I think also that we should be wary of assuming that the young have had little experience of life. At the age of ten I’d travelled more than some adults do in their entire lifetime, and because of where I’d lived I’d seen aspects of life that few in Western societies have been exposed to. Some of the children I’ve taught have had experience of war, violence or domestic abuse that I’ve never had. Some older people seem to me to have done nothing interesting in their lives at all or learned much from life, but that may simply be that they choose not to share their experiences …

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      • Lisa,
        As an older writer I can only write from experience. Editors tend to seek younger writers who they can nurture and promote. It’s quite blatant and possibly sensible from their point of view. They are the sort of people the top literary magazines seek to publish. It’s almost incestuous. The universities breed such people (putative writers) from their faculties – people who comment on sexual mores, on life they know little about, on poitics when it’s usually irrelevant, and philosophy, where it’s largely derivative.
        There are fine young people out there, working for human rights and teaching the poor and illiterate. In the professions too, the young are outstanding – but not as writers, until they have had the time and experience to mature as human beings and can see the big picture – in perspective. Sure, many old people waste away, but it is not exclusively the older generation. It is not generational. Many young people are on life’s scrapheap by the time they reach puberty – I’m afraid. We don’t give our young equal opportunties.
        So let’s judge writers on their merits – not by the critereon of age or sex.

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  2. Retirement brings a more laid-back attitude to life – suddenly things don’t seem to matter so much. Time speeds by but you find a more philosophical attitude which is not so worried about it. I don’t think you need to move to a Greek island to find peacefulness but it must be awful being retired in a place you hate.

    Sounds an interesting book and you’ve written well about it (as always!).

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    • Hello Tom:)
      I did think about you and your travels in France when I was reading this. I was reminded of your joy in making music and in sharing your thoughts about the books you’ve read, and your delight in grandchildren. Most of my friends are retired and enjoying their lives in a similar sort of way without making some frantic attempt to turn back the biological clock, I think that’s what I’d like to do too….

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  3. Retirement can set you free from the pressure — pressure to do and to be and to compete. I have enjoyed my years since 60 very much. You mention the danger of losing interest in politics. I find that I don’t lose interest in political objectives but no longer want to hear about the political game, the trivial ups and downs.

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    • That’s lovely to hear, that your years since 60 have been rewarding:)
      Re politics: I agree with you there, the mainstream media’s preoccupation with the dross is really tiresome. But fortunately I have found online media which focuses on the big picture issues and keeps me up to speed with what’s going on.

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