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After the Gonads Stop Snapping: Daniel Klein's "Travels with Epicurus" reviewed by Casey Dorman

Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life

Daniel Klein

New York: Penguin Books (2012)


When I was a very young man, having just earned my degree and secured my first full-time job as a psychologist, I was given the assignment to consult to a preschool class for disturbed children taught by a woman in her late sixties. She not only shared her teaching philosophy with me, but also her views on life. One day I remarked on how broadly she seemed to consider her life in relation to the world around her. She offered that, it was wonderful how well one was able to think about things, “after the gonads stop snapping.”

Daniel Klein (Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, The History of Now) expresses a similar point of view, not so comically, but in a more reasoned way, in his 2012 book, Travels with Epicurus.” He talks about libido “having run its natural course.” Waning libido is not the central theme of Klein’s remarkable book, but allowing oneself to age gracefully and thoughtfully is.  He mentions a friend, who at age 73, had gotten prescriptions for both testosterone supplements and Cialis and who “felt like a young buck again.” Klein is skeptical, not about the truth of his friend’s report, but about the wisdom of trying to prolong or recapture youth. There is a natural rhythm, he says, in the way an older person walks slowly, takes rests, sits and thinks, spends time with friends, and mostly, enjoys the moments, rather than experiencing them as stepping stones on the way to some future goal.

In his early seventies, Klein revisited the Greek Island of Hydra, familiar to him from many earlier visits. His visit was “… a personal quest: I am an old man myself now—seventy-three—and I want to figure out the most satisfying way to live this stage of my life.” His inspiration was the fourth century BC, Greek philosopher, Epicurus, founder of a well known school called “The Garden” in Athens. In fact it was my own interest in Epicurean philosophy that originally attracted me to Klein’s book.

Epicurus is a remarkable and underrated philosopher, the latter fact being due to the paucity of his surviving writings. A believer in Democritus’ notion of the atom as the basis of all matter, his universe is infinite and nothing can be either created or destroyed, except in the momentary form it takes from the configuration of its atoms. While he does not deny the existence of gods, he views them neither as creators of the universe nor as meddlers in its course. For Epicurus there is no life after death. The soul resides within the body and when the body dies, the soul’s atoms are no longer attached to the person; they dissipate as an entity.  “Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved is devoid of sensation, and that which is devoid of sensation is nothing to us.” Much of his philosophy is based on the principle of not fearing death, nor bargaining with gods regarding a fictional afterlife. “Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terror for those who thoroughly apprehend that there are not terrors for them in ceasing to live.”

Epicurus is remarkable in a number of ways: Unlike virtually any of the ancient philosophers I have read, he is able to suspend judgment. He cites various natural phenomena—the stars, the movement of the stars, the wind, hurricanes, thunder, lightning, rainbows, lunar haloes, earthquakes and admits that the sense impressions we have from them (sense impressions, he believes,  being the source of our explanations) lead to many contradictory explanations and do not provide, in his time, a conclusive argument for any particular explanation. So the explanation of such phenomena is left open, to be decided by future observations. He is a naturalist and an empiricist when he says, “we must attend to present feelings and sense perceptions, whether those of mankind in general or to those peculiar to the individual and also to attend to all the clear evidence available, as given by each of the standards of truth.” This seems to me to be a stance that could support the development of science.

Daniel Klein is less concerned with Epicurus’ natural philosophy than with his social philosophy. Epicurus believed that happiness is the ultimate goal of living. “So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since if that be present, we have everything, and if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward attaining it.”  But, in contrast to our modern-day use of the word “epicurean,” the ancient philosopher meant a more measured and sober pursuit of pleasure. “When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life,; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.”

Klein notes that Epicurus directed much of his attention to old age. He quotes Epicurus saying, “It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate, but the old man who has lived well, 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 notes that Epicurus discourages wanting not only that which is unattainable, but also that which is so difficult to attain that it is not worth the trouble. Simple pleasures, Klein learns while on Hydra, are often easily attained. Enjoying the simple dinner that is readily available brings more pleasure than yearning for a more sumptuous and expensive one. Walking slowly, even with a stick, can bring a pleasure that hurrying, while one’s mind dwells on the destination, rather than the journey, cannot. And perhaps above all, spending time with friends is a pleasure uniquely satisfied in old age. Why uniquely, because, as Klein points out, “Wanting nothing from one’s friends is fundamentally different from the orientation of a person who is still immersed in professional life or its relationships.” He quotes Epicurus: “Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.”

Travels with Epicurus is a window into the musings of a 73 year old, intelligent, humorous, man, searching for the wisdom to guide his elder years before, in his words, old old age hits him. We sit with him in the Taverna, watching his friend Tasso, of a similar age, playing cards or talking to his friends, also old men with time on their hands, we observe with him other islanders going about their daily business, we watch Tasso and his friends admire a 19 year old beauty and joke about the beauties they have known in earlier years. Each of Klein’s observations is the occasion for reflection: on the pleasures of the people he is watching and on his own enjoyments and thoughts.

Klein began his journey after being told by his dentist that he needed dental implants. Either he must endure a year containing several painful dental surgeries and periods of recovery as he has his precariously balanced teeth removed and replaced or he will soon lose those teeth and require a denture, impairing his ability to eat some food and giving him “the unmistakable clunky smile of an old man.” Despite his initial choice to opt for the implants, he reconsidered, asking himself, “In my early seventies did I really care if I presented to the world and old man’s goofy smile? And even more to the point, with my years of clear thinking and reasonable mobility dwindling as quickly as my jawbone, did I honestly want to dedicate an entire year to regular visits to an oral surgeon?” He did not. Instead he decided to explore how best to live as a seventy-three year old man.

Most of us will never spend a month on the island of Hydra, probably not on any Greek island, for that matter. But some of us can afford a life of leisure in our old age, not necessarily an opulent one, but one which allows us to do things that we find pleasurable. Following Daniel Klein along on his journey to find what brought him happiness, was worthwhile. He and Epicurus and many other philosophers and thinkers whom he quoted learned that, especially as one gets older, it is the doing that is pleasurable, not some end to be attained if the doing is successful. And Klein takes special care to be sure that the doing fits not only what he enjoys, but what he is capable of doing at his age. For those like him who enjoy thinking and reading, much is available. Companionship is available to many and Klein shows us how to enjoy it by treating, in Kantian terms, our friends as ends not as means.

Epicurus is sometimes regarded as a Stoic and sometimes as the opposite of a Stoic. It is unstoical to seek pleasure in every action. But it is in line with stoicism to find one’s happiness in reasoning, in sober, prudent living, in enjoying what is available rather than striving after what might never be attained or attained only with great difficulty. Klein seems to see this Epicurean approach to life as a perfect fit for old age. When we are younger, we still are driven by goals, by ambition and yes, by our gonads. But pleasure is there for the taking even in our seventies and probably beyond. When he contemplates old old age, Klein is pessimistic. Death does not provoke dread, but  such ailments as dementia, incontinence, and chronic pain do. He muses about the choice of suicide and when to take such an action if that is one’s choice.

Traveling with Epicurus is a thoughtful book, one that can help to attain an insight into how to make one’s elder years pleasant ones. I almost said “meaningful” but that term has too many somber and profound connotations to fit the message of this book or Epicurus’ philosophy. Finding happiness in old age is not about leaving a legacy, not about making one’s impact extend beyond one’s life. It is about doing what brings pleasure and a sense that one is right with one’s conscience and one’s world. To me, that is a goal well worth seeking and this is a book well worth reading.

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