Monday, December 03, 2012

Travels With Epicurus - review by Nicky Pellegrino

There’s only way to approach the ageing process right? Fight it every step of the way; hang on to youth for as long as you can. That’s what US philosopher Daniel Klein assumed but then he hit his seventies and was pushed into a major re-think. The result of his quest to find a way to “age authentically” is a slim but spirited volume, Travels With Epicurus (Text, $37).

Klein began questioning his attitude to ageing when his teeth started to give out. His options were either pricey, painful implants or a denture plate that would leave him with an old man’s smile. He realised two things. Firstly, that he was an old man. And secondly, that there was nothing wrong with this.
Being a thinker by trade he decided to reflect on this for a while on the idyllic Greek Island of Hydra in the company of a suitcase-full of philosophy texts and a bunch of local oldsters who seemed to have the whole thing sorted. Hanging out with them at the tavern as he reads the writings of Epicurus, Plato, etc, Klein suspects what he calls the “forever young” generation has got it wrong. Old age is not something we  “give in” to, he opines, but a valuable and fulfilling stage of life. There’s no need to spend it struggling to keep up with our old prime-of-life pursuits, increasingly reliant on hormone patches, performance-enhancing drugs and cosmetic surgery. Old age brings a set of gentler pleasures that we’ll miss out on if we do.

It’s worth pointing out that Klein differentiates between healthy old age and senility. He is writing about the stage when we’re still capable of experiencing pleasure in life
In fact, pleasure is one of the things he prescribes. Watching the old men of Hydra sipping ouzo or idling away half the day in conversation, Klein see the merits of slowing down, savouring life and enjoying companionship. He reminds is that Epicurus and Plato wrote of old age as a calm free time, when you’ve left the world of commerce and politics behind and have time to pause for thought, open up the mind to new ideas.

It’s a nice idea but rose-tinted. For a start I note only the men of Hydra are playing cards in the tavern. Where are the women? At home cooking, cleaning, looking after younger members of the family so their menfolk are free to please themselves, that’s where. And surely it is much easier to live a slow, simple life on Hydra where the climate is warm, the Aegean Sea is blue and there are no cars so people travel by donkey.

Still Klein is a philosopher; it’s not his job to provide a blueprint for late-life happiness but to make us think. And Travels With Epicurus certainly does that. It’s a potted philosophy for those of us unlikely to manage a dense, great tome, a small book bristling with ideas and thoughts that you can digest in an afternoon.
Klein’s notion that old age is something to slip into gracefully is a seductive one. Still I expect when my time comes I’ll be one of the “forever youngers”, kicking and screaming the whole way!


Nicky Pellegrino,(right), an Auckland-based author of popular fiction, is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on Sunday 2 December, 2012.
Her latest novel When In Rome is set in 1950's Italy and was published in September 2012.

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