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Daniel Klein

A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life


TRAVELS with EPICURUS caught my eye as a long-term Epicurean, at least since college, say 1970. The misconception is that Epicurus promoted a hedonistic lifestyle, which Daniel Klein straightens out immediately. The philosopher was an advocate of moderation.

His teachings are relevant in today's consumer society, with Epicurus astutely observing that, “Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance,” only in Greek.

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As I began reading Travels, I became more engrossed. This book is not about Epicurus, although he features prominently, it is an examination of old age and love of life.

The author is ten years my senior, maybe exactly, because his day of birth appears to be classified. Partly for this reason, we have shared experiences and thoughts of late. We both have dental deterioration, prompting the question of whether it makes sense to invest a fortune in time, money and discomfort trying to rejuvenate an old bite, and to what extent we should pretend to be young. Klein calls proponents of that approach the “forever young.”

The US youth culture encourages us to exploit science for every last bit of faux adolescence, rather than to enjoy what we have earned by surviving thus far. There are even ways to reawaken bodily functions that are in repose, rather than appreciating that lack of randiness has rewards, such as the time and energy for contemplation.

More wise advice Klein adopts from Epicurus, and others, is that the youthful drive for "success" emulates the hamster on its wheel. When an ambitious individual achieves a major goal, that is never satisfactory. He wants to be set a greater goal, then another, and so on. There is little enjoyment in reaching the goal, perhaps because it lacks substance. As Epicurus pithily put it, “Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.”]

I will not suggest that Epicurus was a libertarian, but he certainly opposed imposing rules on others, and ignored politics. And libertarians are not really in politics, are they? Epicurus welcomed people from all walks of life to his Garden, even women and prostitutes, which set tongues wagging.

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For most Americans, unfamiliar with Epicurus's teachings, it is noteworthy that his contemporaries considered his ideas radical and dangerous. Again, he did not proselytize, yet most of his writings were destroyed after he died, which hasn't kept his influence from spreading, particularly in the Old World.

In the book, Daniel Klein spends time on the tiny island of Hydra reading and pondering, then sharing his thoughts with us.

He examines old age, as opposed to what he terms “old-old age,” the period of deterioration. He cites Susan Jacoby's Never Say Die, which shows that "medical science, at great expense, has largely given [us] extended years of decrepitude." It is the preceding old age which may be enjoyed, before it is too late.

Klein contrasts the contemplative elderly with the forever young, trying to recapture their youth, which improves with distance. We have regrets, but they cannot be assuaged by attempting to alter the inevitable. Far better to recall our better moments, and to enjoy the present, where there is no pressure to reach goals that are meaningless in retrospect.

Contributing to aging's sense of desperation is striving to achieve immortality. Nothing negates that possibility more than one of my favourite Epicurean quotes, which Klein proffers, that “when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.”

My initial attraction to Epicurus is his sloughing off the whole "god" dilemma, that is whether or not one exists. He advises not to expect personal interaction with such a spirit, if there is one, just appreciate your time on Earth. In some ways, this concept is embodied in the popular advice of today, “Chill!”

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Mr Klein writes breezily, making the study of philosophy comprehensible, even fun. The book centers on Epicurus, along with other relevant observers over the centuries. It is a delightful little book [162 pages], a recommendation I make without reservations. It is such a delight, I read it twice last year, and may turn to it again. It is like peeling an imaginary onion, as TRAVELS with EPICURUS introduces areas for further consideration.

book cover A final word, or two. One of Epicurus's foundations for a good life is friendship. He believed that the quality of food does not make a great meal, rather it is the quality of fellow diners.

There is much to that, only friendship is elusive in our world, particularly for men. We run around, we relocate. Everyone seems so shallow, even me. Yet, I can't help thinking that if my friends were as much fun as Daniel Klein, or Epicurus, I would appreciate them more.

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©2013 GT Slade

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