The word “epicurean” has come to describe those who are fond of luxury, sensual pleasure, and gourmet food. At some point, its definition evolved away from that of capital-E “Epicurean,” which refers to a follower of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Members of both groups advocate the pursuit of pleasure, but today’s hedonists define that very differently than the old philosopher did. To him, pleasure was attained by living simply and keeping one’s desires in check. One of his aphorisms was that “nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.”
He preferred plain boiled lentils to slow-roasted resin-infused pheasant, an ancient Greek delicacy prepared for noblemen by slaves. Today, countless foodies evoke Epicurus in the names of their blogs, magazines, and imported-cheese stores, but their tastes tend toward slaved-over pheasant.
The difference in these two understandings of how to maximize pleasure is at the heart of Travels with Epicurus, a charming meditation on aging. To live well in old age—or at any age—should we chase newer and better sensations, or learn to savor what we have? Daniel Klein takes us on a thought-provoking journey to find out.
A visit to his dentist sets him on his path. In his early seventies, he is told that, due to atrophy of his jawbone typical for his age, he will need to have a row of teeth replaced with implants. The only alternative is a denture, which can pop out embarrassingly and will make him look, well, old. He signs up for the implants. But when he gets home, he learns more about what they will entail: at least seven visits to an oral surgeon, each one followed by days of pain and mushy food.
I then realized just how much those potential denture pops and that old-mannish smile had figured in my instant decision to get the implants. . . . I had been swept up in the current trend of trying to extend the prime of life well into the years that used to be called “old age.”
Looking around at frenetic contemporaries who are charging ahead in their careers, taking up jogging and French, and undergoing hormone treatments and cosmetic surgery, he decides that there’s got to be a better way to age. So the onetime college philosophy major and coauthor of the bestselling Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar . . . says no to the implants, packs up his favorite philosophical works, and decamps from his home in Massachusetts to the village of Kamini on the Greek island of Hydra. It was on Hydra that, as a young man in the 1960s, he had once peered into the window of a taverna and seen five old men dancing side by side, hands raised and connected by handkerchiefs, “their craggy faces . . . tilted upward with what struck me as pride, defiance, and, above all, exultation.”
What follows isn’t a travelogue so much as a log of things he mulls over while staying in a whitewashed 19th-century house with a lemon tree and a view of the sea.
While his tone is bemused, his underlying take on aging is radical. In a society that spends billions on face cream and baldness cures—not to mention life-prolonging (but not necessarily life-improving) medical advances—floating the notion that there are upsides to aging is practically taboo. If you’re in your twenties, you’re assumed to regard your thirties with horror; in your thirties, you must feel the same way about your forties; and so on. All this despite the fact that many things get better—at least for a good long while—as we become more practiced at living.
We become more adept at things that improve quality of life, like picking friends, or cooking, or playing chess, or doing whatever it is we’ve chosen to do for work. We know ourselves well enough to know which movies to avoid and that we’ll look terrible in orange, no matter how fashionable it is right now. These are upsides worth celebrating, but we seldom do.
Klein is not a Pollyanna. He’s the first to admit terror at the prospect of what he calls “old old age,” those extended years of decrepitude made possible by medical science, when we live on even as our bodies and brains fall apart. “I can all too easily get into raging against the dying of the light,” he writes. But does he really want to spend his last healthy years in a state of fury and frustration? Taking a page from the Stoics, who believed that “dwelling on what is out of our control invites pain without any conceivable gain,” he decides he does not.
His travel ethos, too, is refreshingly contrarian in a world of bucket lists and “must-sees.” He observes fellow septuagenarians “setting off on expeditions to exotic destinations, copies of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die tucked in their backpacks.” But, as he writes, “at the twelfth place to see before dying, viewing exotic terrain can get to be old hat—you’ve already done ‘exotic’ eleven times.”
His message isn’t just that newness can get old, but that there’s nothing wrong with you if it does. After pondering an acquaintance who wears a testosterone patch to make himself feel sexual desire, and takes Cialis to be able to fulfill it, Klein concludes: “Wanting to want something that he doesn’t really want that much, and in his eighth decade, no less, just seems counterfeit, untrue to himself.”
Rather than ticking destinations off an arbitrary list, Klein settles into his home away from home. He frequents his favorite taverna, hangs out with his 72-year-old friend Tasso, hitches a ride on a donkey when he doesn’t feel like walking, and meanders over to the next village, Vlihos, pausing to relish a cigarette on the way. Most of the wandering he does is through his books. He takes the reader with him as he tries to work out how to be “authentically and contentedly old”—sharing not only what Aristotle, Plato, and Epicurus himself had to say on the matter, but also checking in with Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Shakespeare, and Sinatra, among others.
Fortunately, Klein resists easy answers. While he appreciates the slow pace of life on Hydra, he doesn’t suggest that getting off the beatentrack and consuming more olive oil will make every member of the AARP feel fulfilled. But lessons do surface that sound like good advice: Hang on to your friends whose companionship you can enjoy “without wanting anything from them.” Hang on to your spouse, because a long marriage, with its shared memories, is “one of old age’s greatest consolations.” Live modestly and moderately, like an Epicurean rather than an epicurean, and you might have a shot at enjoying the phase of life that Epicurus believed was its pinnacle: “It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate, but the old man who has lived well,” he is recorded as having said. “Because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.”
Klein never reports back on the state of his teeth, but he makes a satisfying case that the road to old-age happiness doesn’t pass through the oral surgeon’s office.
Elisabeth Eaves is the author, most recently, of Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents.