Travels with Epicurus

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.

Many years ago I took a hydrofoil to the village of Hydra on the Aegean island of the same name. It’s about 40 nautical miles from the Piraeus, with a crescent shaped harbor, packed with fishing boats and expensive yachts around which were clustered shops, cafes and art galleries.

We walked up the cobblestone stairs high into the hills, passing by white stone homes, sleepy cats, and frolicking children. Yes, one of those classic Aegean ports.

I never thought of returning, although after reading Daniel Klein’s Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life, it sounds like a very fine idea. In his early 70s, Klein returned to Hydra where he had been many times before. He went this time to figure out how to spend the rest of his life and took with him a suitcase full of philosophy books.

The prospect of reading the ancient Greek philosophers while surrounded by the rocky, sunlit landscape where their ideas first flourished feels just right to me.

Foremost among them was Epicurus’ Art of Happiness that proclaims the virtues of old age, “the pinnacle of life,” and urges those no-longer young to relax, slow down, reflect and surrender to the natural rhythms of growing old. Klein does just that.

For hours he sits on the terrace of a rural Greek taverena, taking in the conversation of those he finds there, playing cards, and befriending Tasso, who simply wants his friend to be with him, sometimes only to share the silence of their companionship.

Klein writes, “I have 73 years of experiences, and if I don’t reflect on them now and see why I did things and what they meant to me, I’ll never do it. How nice that there is a chance to do it.”

He not only read Epicurus but also Plato, Nietzsche, Sartre, Russell, and Erik Erickson, who divided a person’s life into discrete stages, each with its own features, and inherent value.

What did he conclude about the year he spent on Hyrdra idling among the philosophers who joined him at the taverena and those in the books he read? It was not a revelation, or a life-changing idea, but rather nothing more than the way it was before.

Everything is confused again, but this confusion is me!...Clumsy as it was, maybe it was a daring attempt to fathom the unfathomable question of what makes a good and gratifying old age. Perhaps simply raising the question has been some kind of an end in itself.