Daniel Klein’s Travels with Epicurus (2012)

When he was told that painful dental work costing several thousand dollars was necessary to prevent his having the unmistakably clunky smile of an old person with dentures,  Daniel Smith, a man in his early seventies, rebelled, and decided to forgo attempts to be forever young.  He took himself off to Greece for several months in search of a proper way to live as an old man, having packed a suitcase of potentially relevant philosophy books, and the result is this moving account of what he experienced and read. The Greeks he encounters seem to spend a lot of time talking, eating and sleeping, and there are wry comments on the position of such people within Europe. We meet a group of four aged friends who sit companionably for hours in a cafe where they talk or are silent together, play cards and share retsina and mezes.  Along the way there are discussions of what it means to enjoy other people without wanting anything from them, so treating them as ends rather than as means, of the ability of old people to talk with strangers, of ways of dealing with boredom and being playful, and how the use of komboloi, often but perhaps misleadingly translated ‘worry beads’, may be a way of spacing time out and making it last. There are all kinds of pointers here to what it would mean to grow old appropriately, many of which apparently boil down to living like a Greek.

Klein’s readings in philosophy take him down various paths, but as the title of his book indicates the philosophy he finds most to the point is that of Epicurus, who taught a kind of refined hedonism in which the happy life was one of contented pleasure, and acceptance of death; at least the first of these sounds suspiciously like living as a Greek. But the help which Klein expects to receive from philosophy reminds me of the scholarly work of Pierre Hadot, who sees the philosophy which ancients like Epicurus practised as being concerned with how to live one’s life. At some stage in the ancient world, religion mounted a takeover and assumed this function, one it had hitherto scarcely been concerned with, leaving philosophy to occupy the narrower technical and analytical territory that has been its ever since.  One of the pleasures of Klein’s fascinating book is to be reminded that its remit used to be much broader.

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