Wisdom of aging well, according to Epicurus

About 2,300 years ago, a Greek philosopher named Epicurus pondered the difficulties and rewards of old age.

He came to this conclusion:

“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.”

Epicurus, it turns out, is an excellent guide for baby boomers who are pondering such ageless questions as “How do we live a good and authentic old age?” and “How can we age gracefully?”

Daniel Klein’s 2012 book, “Travels With Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life” (Penguin), is loaded with wisdom from Plato to Aristotle to Immanuel Kant about aging gracefully. Yet Klein chose Epicurus, 341-270 B.C., as the centerpiece of his book because, of all of the philosophers, “what he had to say about old age was most on the mark for me.”

For one thing, Epicurus believed that happiness can best be achieved if we “free ourselves from the prison” of everyday business, commerce and politics. Most young people cannot pull that off. Retired people can.

However, Klein, 74, says a lot of his peers can’t bring themselves to that state of contentment. They are striving ever more frantically for status, for self-improvement, and for a prolonged “youth.” Instead of jobs, they have bucket lists.

“There is no rest for the striver,” writes Klein. “Just beyond the achievement of each goal on our life-achievement ‘bucket list’ looms another goal, and then another. Meanwhile, of course, the clock is ticking – quite loudly, in fact. We become breathless. And we have no time left for calm and reflective appreciation of our twilight years, no deliciously long afternoons sitting with friends or listening to music or musing about the story of our lives. And we will never get another chance for that.”

One famous Epicurus aphorism can be boiled down to two words: scale back.

“Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little,” said Epicurus.

Epicurus? Scale back? Is this the same philosopher we remember mainly from the word “Epicurean,” with its whiff of the gourmet’s excess?

It turns out that Epicurus was not much of an epicure, in the modern sense. He believed in pleasure, but to him pleasure consisted in gathering with friends for large communal dinners (which is why Epicureanism became connected with food), yet he leaned toward simple homegrown dishes. To Epicurus, the pleasure of a great dinner was not the food, but the excellent conversation with good friends – many of whom were, like him, “docked in the harbor” of a contented old age.

For both Klein and Epicurus, that is one of the best things about old age: the ability to nurture friendships, unencumbered by business and professional concerns.

“No matter how many management manuals propose treating employees and colleagues as genuine individuals, the underlying fact remains that a commercial situation is always inherently political,” writes Klein. “On the job, our colleagues are first and foremost means to an end, and so are we.”

That, said Klein in a phone interview from his home in Massachusetts, is “something that philosophers from Epicurus through Kant say is lonely-making.”

In retirement, we can pursue a “fundamentally different” kind of friendship, one in which we “want nothing from our friends” – except, of course, friendship.

Today, many people react to the onset of old age by denial. They get cosmetic surgery, they apply testosterone patches, and they get Viagra prescriptions. Klein calls it the “forever young” syndrome and he says it would drive Epicurus nuts. It certainly drives Klein nuts.

“It’s just the latest variation on the denial of death,” said Klein. “If you stay forever young, maybe you won’t die. It’s a little lie we tell ourselves.”

Instead, we should recognize that old age is sometimes an improvement over what came before. For instance, Klein said that as an old grandpa, he has more patience then he had as a dad. When his 2-year-old granddaughter wants to read the same picture book over and over again, he enjoys the repetition as much as she does.

“Young children make natural playmates for old folks,” he writes.

Another improvement? The sex drive, or lack of it. Old people are no longer so firmly in the grip of sexual passion – which can be a relief.

Here’s what an even more famous Greek philosopher, Plato, said about it: “Old age has a great sense of calm and freedom. When the passions relax their hold, then … we are freed from the grasp of not one mad master only but of many.”

Or as Klein more vividly put it, “It’s liberating! Once you get rid of your (erection), you can start thinking straight!”

This is a good spot to note that Klein is a former comedy writer. In the 1960s, he wrote for TV shows and for comedians Flip Wilson and Godfrey Cambridge. He later became a novelist and screenwriter. In 2008, he put his Harvard University philosophy degree to work as the co-author, along with his friend Thomas Cathcart, of “Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes.” It entertainingly explored the connection between comedy and philosophy, and became a surprise bestseller. That was followed by the similar “Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates.” The success of these books encouraged Klein to tackle the subject of old age through philosophy.

Has Klein been able to follow his own advice – and that of Epicurus – and free himself from striving?

“Yes and no,” he said. “It has, in many ways helped me to ease into this period. In writing the book, I realized how much of my life – without quite realizing it – I was striving. Awaiting a phone call from publishers or producers. Working myself up – and beating myself up – for not being better at what I do, or more successful at what I do. … It’s a … waste of time. A waste of your life. So I’ve tried to become more conscious of that.”

He’s certainly doing better than one friend of his, also in his mid-70s, who is obsessed with the increasingly unlikely hope that his career is on the verge of unprecedented triumph.

“He is hell-bent on having the biggest success of his life before cashing it in, and he is a nervous wreck!” said Klein. “… I see him working himself into a frazzle on this. And I’m thinking, ‘Hey, we have only a few years left. Why the frazzle?’ ”

Or, as Epicurus might say, why not dock contentedly in the harbor?

What the philosophers had to say about aging

• “It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate, but the old man who has lived well” – Epicurus

• “Old age has a great sense of calm and freedom” – Plato

• “… The old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness” – Epicurus

• “When a man is old, he may be young in good things, through the pleasing recollection of the past” – Epicurus

• “Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little” – 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” – Epicurus

• “Not what we have, but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance” –Epicurus

• “Take more time, cover less ground” – Thomas Merton

(Compiled from “Travels With Epicurus:

A Journey to a Greek Island in Search

of a Fulfilled Life,” by Daniel Klein)


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