Sunday, January 18, 2015


•Daniel Klein: Travels with Epicurus:
A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life.
New York: The Penguin Group, 2012. 164 pages.
ISBN 978-0143-12662-1.
Eastside Road, January 18, 2015—
NEARLY TWENTY YEARS ago I was handed a serious diagnosis and an appointment with surgery. I was already retired, but barely sixty years old, not really ready to face mortality. On arriving at the doctor's office to discuss scheduling a nurse noticed I was carrying a small book with me.

The nurse was slim, tall, rather elegant, probably in her thirties; clearly of Ethiopian stock, with that beautifully chiselled brow and nose that I associate with the heritage. I see you're reading Epicurus, she said. Good. Especially read the Letter to Menoeceus. Oh: and be kind to your wife, who is suffering, and who will work hard for you.

The surgery was successful; the recovery took only a month or so; I'm still living with the diagnosis; I've treasured Epicurus ever since. I think it one of the great tragedies of human history that Christianity did such a solid job of shouldering Hellenism aside — co-opting what it could distort to its ends, of course. In this no doubt I am influenced by my mother, who was a stoic and an agnostic, and who subtly shaped me in the only way that made any sense to her.

Last month at Christmas Lindsey and I played the O. Henry game, giving one another the very same book, Daniel Klein's Travels with Epicurus. We will be eighty years old this year, and we're aware of the lessend span ahead of us. It's time to begin putting things in order, setting aside vain thoughts of works and legacy, enjoying the rich though simple pleasures of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, daily routines, the table, contentment.

Epicurus believed that the purpose of life was pleasure, and that pleasure lay in the avoidance of pain — by renouncing commerce and industry as far as possible, and complex and costly tastes, and ostentation and concern for position. According to Klein's refreshing, easily read narrative, Epicurus treasured above all a simple life, eating from the garden, with friends of all backgrounds (women as well as men, exceptionally for his society), with conversation at the center of daily activity.

Klein is an interesting author, a man with one foot in philosophy and the other in humor. He's written half a dozen mysteries, a couple of plays, and three novels, as well as a series of little books aimed at presenting the parade of western philosophy to the general public. Last month I enjoyed a quick read through Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, which he wrote with Thomas Cathcart.

Travels with Epicurus finds the 72-year-old Klein spending a few weeks on the Greek island of Hydra, where he's gone with a few books and the intent to ccome to terms with the great conundrum of post-career life: How To Live Well (in the face of the Grim Reaper). The books on his his list are on my own reading pile — the pile of Books Currently (or Constantly) Being Read, be it understood, not Books To Read Some Day. They are Montaigne, William James, Erik Erikson. Also a couple that have been on the To Be Bought list for years: Huizinga, Lars Svendsen, Eva Hofmann.

Reading them confirms what is learned more readily by the simple observation of life on this apparently relaxed island, where there are no motor vehicles, where old men spend their time eating simply, drinking ouzo, playing cards, and conversing gently about not very important but eternally rewarding mundane things. Oh: and occasionally dancing — seriously, intently, ritualistically.

What emerges is a short course on practical philosophy:
…the prime purpose of a philosophy: to give us lucid ways to think about the world and how to live in it.
Travels with Epicurus, p. 26
…pleasures are to be aoided if greater pains be the consequence, and pains to be coveted that will terminate in greater pleasures.
Montaigne, quoted in Travels with Epicurus, p. 32
…[to want to reactivate] one's libnido… amounts to wanting to want something you currently don't want
ibid., p. 89
Sobriety diminishes, discriminates and says no; drunkenness expands, smiles, and says yes.
Wm. James, The Variety of Religious Experiences, quoted in Travels with Epicurus, p. 116
We must not expect more precision than the subject-matter permits.
Aristotle, quoted ibid., p. 159
You get the idea. The book is calm, persuasive, sensible, friendly, easily read, easily kept at hand for late night re-reading. It should be given to every retiree.

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