Daniel Klein knows is a student of philosophy. He has a degree in it from Harvard. Though the philosophy of Epicurus is the focus of his book, its pages are generously sprinkled with the thoughts of other philosophers, ancient and contemporary, household names (including Plato, who was born about 80 years before Epicurus) and some who probably are known only to philosophy majors.
One of Klein’s central points is the Epicurean living as generally understood - the pursuit of various sensual pleasures – takes liberties with the lifestyle Epicurus, who lived from 341BCE to 270 BCE espoused. Epicurus sought a life of good food and drink, good company and good mental and emotional health. He was something of an egalitarian, welcoming the wealthy and not so wealthy, and, yes, prostitutes to his table, which set tongues a wagging in the agora.
Klein’s interest in Epicurus involves the author’s desire to enjoy old age without an obsession with dying or fear of what he calls “old, old age.” That the age when a person might still be breathing but life as he once knew it has essentially ended. To Epicurus, Klein says, “old age is the pinnacle of life, the best it gets.”
Not coincidentally, Klein is in his 70s when he writes this book. He’s spurred to action after getting several lousy options from his dentist - a plate or implants, either of which would involve discomfort and alter his diet, at least for a while. He rejects those options and decides to go to Greece. He leaves his wife at home while he tries to sort things out on the island of Hydra, which he knows from previous visits. There, he reacquaints himself not just with the thoughts of Epicurus but with some old men he also knows and observes with great interest. He admires the way they interact, talking, playing games or staring at something offshore. They’re his age, they have aches and pains, but they enjoy, even savor, life.
Klein describes Epicurus as ßa “world champion of pleasure” who “believed in a simple yet elegant connection between learning and happiness; the entire purpose of education was to attune the mind and senses to the pleasures of life.”
Among Klein’s favorite sayings from Epicurus is, “Nothing is enough for the man for whom enough is too little.” And Klein doesn’t want to be like those people of his generation who do whatever they can to postpone old age – get cosmetic surgery, pop pills or join gyms so they look good in the mirror. He also doesn’t want to work until he has a heart attack or a stroke, keeping so busy that there’s no time to relish aging. He wants to overcome the fear of dying, accept death as the natural end of one’s life and savor the years left to him. And yes, he acknowledges that’s easier said than done.
The book has some tedious stretches – not everyone is a philosophy buff - but Klein doesn’t overdo it. He is at best when he describing the people he encounters and recounting anecdotes that illustrate his points. And while it’s hard to argue with his thrust, he eventually seems to conclude that people ought to approach old age however they think is best for them. No magic there.
This is far from Klein’s only book. He written or co-written more than two dozen books and, with Thomas Cathcart, a longtime friend, wrote the bestseller “Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar,” a humorous look at philosophy.
Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial page editor.