Travels with Epicurus
A charming meditation on the wonders of old age.
I’d previously read Mr Klein’s wonderful little book of philosophy jokes — Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar — but didn’t realize until halfway through that it was the same author.
A running theme of Travels with Epicurus is that too many folks miss out on the charms of old age by trying to stay forever young. Mr Klein grabbed my attention with an anecdote about his dentist telling him that, unless he got seven implants to replace all of his lower front teeth, he would end up with an old man’s smile. Mr Klein decided that, since he actually is an old man, an old man’s smile seems perfectly appropriate and saved his money. Having been on the receiving end of countless dentists’ promises that, if only I gave them $8000 my life would be so much better, I decided that Mr Klein was a philosopher I could learn from.
The book is part reverie on the delights of just hanging out with other old folk on a little Greek island and part review of what philosophers throughout history, primarily Epicurus but also Sinatra and other modern philosophers, have had to say about growing older—the gist being that you should just slow down and enjoy old age and not cling on to lost youth.
Denying that we are old is certainly not close, in order of magnitude, to denying that we are mortal, yet the two denials are clearly related.
Because, what happens then is that we proceed directly from the “forever young” stage of life to old old age, missing forever the chance at being a fulfilled old man “docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.” We lose out for eternity on what I am beginning to agree with Epicurus is the pinnacle of life.
There’s a lovely little story of four old men sitting in their Greek taverna and admiring a beautiful young woman approaching down the steps. In the #metoo era, we might condemn them as dirty old men but, Mr Klein says no.
He and his friend are again seated at their table, chatting amiably, so far exclusively about the weather and what it portends. Then quite abruptly, they all go quiet. To a man, they are gazing up at the top step of the stone stairs that lead down from the coast path and past the taverna’s terrace. A young woman has appeared there, and the wind is pressing her blouse and skirt against her splendid, voluptuous body. For a moment, she pauses there, perhaps enjoying the warm breeze, but more likely enjoying the effect that she is having on the men looking up at her.
Mr Klein uses this story to riff on the idea that the forever young set, with their implants and their Cialis, are clinging to the obsessions of youth whereas the comfortably old are free to enjoy beauty without the distractions of desire. He quotes Mr Sinatra’s wistful “I See It Now”:
That world I knew is lost to me
Loves have come and gone
The years go racing by
I live as best I can
And all at once I know it means the making of a man
I see it now
I see it now
More on this theme from “This Is All I Ask”, from the same album, September of My Years.
Walk a little slower
When you walk by me
Stay a little longer with the lonely sea.
It’s lovely little book. Don’t expect fireworks—just warm, witty reflections on life from Mr Klein, Frank Sinatra and Epicurus.
He who says either that the time for philosophy has not yet come or that it has passed is like someone who says that the time for happiness has not yet come or that it is passed.