The

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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Luke Slat­tery Luke Slat­tery’s

TRAV­ELS with Epi­cu­rus, by Amer­i­can sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian Daniel Klein, is a de­light­ful guide to liv­ing and age­ing grace­fully; although I some­times think the alternative, which is to age dis­grace­fully, needs some se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion too. The book’s sub­ti­tle, A Jour­ney to a Greek Is­land in Search of an Au­then­tic Old Age, flags its con­nec­tion to the travel genre, as does the lovely cover of white­washed vil­las piled up on an ab­stract Aegean isle afloat on a cobalt-blue sea. All this sets the book apart from the more stylis­ti­cally aus­tere phi­los­o­phy best­sellers such as Harry Frankfurt’s On Truth and On Bull­shit.

Klein has cho­sen not to stand and de­liver (Frankfurt’s ap­proach) his philo­soph­i­cal ru­mi­na­tions but to ven­ture to a place, the Greek is­land of Hy­dra, of great charm and abid­ing al­lure. On this bare Sa­ronic isle with its pretty horse­shoe har­bour where Aus­tralian writ­ers Ge­orge John­ston and Charmian Clift lived and worked in the 1950s, Klein’s sub­ject mat­ter, the an­cient phi­los­o­phy of plea­sure, can be ex­plored as a liv­ing prin­ci­ple: a true art of life. The re­sult is a charm­ing mar­riage of get­away book and con­tem­po­rary wis­dom lit­er­a­ture. Klein de­liv­ers a largely af­fec­tion­ate por­trait of Greece, and of the Greeks with whom he shares his so­journ. It’s a gen­tle yet provoca­tive jour­ney around an im­por­tant idea. Read it at the beach this sum­mer and talk about it over din­ner. That’s the au­then­tic Epi­curean idea.

I have a keen in­ter­est in this sub­ject. I wrote about Epi­cure­anism in a book, Dat­ing Aphrodite (2005), on the late-mod­ern echoes of the an­cient world; and I have an ex­tended es­say on the sub­ject pend­ing publi­ca­tion in the Pen­guin Spe­cials se­ries. In fact I had the rather dis­com­fit­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, when read­ing Klein’s book, of wish­ing I’d writ­ten my piece dif­fer­ently; or, at least, wish­ing I’d been blessed with a room with a view of Hy­dra har­bour as my writ­ing stu­dio. I con­sole my­self with the knowl­edge that my es­say has a more po­lit­i­cal in­flec­tion: it is about what Epi­cure­anism might mean if it were adopted broadly, as a kind of green phi­los­o­phy and cri­tique of run­away con­sump­tion. The 73-year-old Klein is more in­ter­ested in Epi­cure­anism as a phi­los­o­phy of tran­quil­lity and re­nun­ci­a­tion in the sun­set years, and his tale makes a nice fit with the tav­erna life­style he en­coun­ters on Hy­dra. But his range is broader than this may sug­gest. He weaves frag­ments from many other philo­soph­i­cal schools, such as ex­is­ten­tial­ism and Bud­dhism, into his jour­ney of the mind. The re­sult is a book with a light­ness of touch that is also deeply se­ri­ous and sat­is­fy­ing philo­soph­i­cally: Klein de­ploys the same prin­ci­ples as Michel de Mon­taigne and, in a sense, Rene Descartes (cog­ito ergo sum), of us­ing the un­var­nished self as the lab­o­ra­tory of ideas.

One of the most dis­tinc­tive traits of our late­mod­ern era is a pen­chant for rear-view think­ing: ours is an age of re­cu­per­a­tion and re­cy­cling, of nos­tal­gia and re­vival. Teenagers in their grungy bed­rooms with their vinyl records of­fer one case study of this mood or dis­po­si­tion. Philoso­phers who have been busy rein­vent­ing el­e­ments of Aris­totelian­ism and Sto­icism for use in the con­tem­po­rary world of­fer an­other. The idea that we should ex­pend scant en­ergy on things be­yond our con­trol while fo­cus­ing on those things within our re­mit is an­cient Stoic wis­dom.

Epi­cure­anism, which emerged about the same time as th­ese other philo­soph­i­cal schools — be­tween the 4th and 3rd cen­turies BC — is en­joy­ing a resur­gence. The phi­los­o­phy of the garden, as it was named in an­tiq­uity on ac­count of the school’s semi-ru­ral set­ting out­side Athens, was con­ceived as ther­apy for a trio of com­mon ill­nesses — anx­i­ety, greed and lust. Epi­cu­rus, for his part, de­clared him­self con­tent with water, bread, weak wine and a ‘‘ pot of cheese’’. It has noth­ing to do with our mod­ern gas­tro­nomic ob­ses­sions.

In their new book on the prob­lems of the global econ­omy, How Much is Enough: Money and the Good Life, Bri­tish econ­o­mists Robert and Ed­ward Skidel­sky start with a quo­ta­tion from Epi­cu­rus: ‘‘ Noth­ing is enough for the man to whom enough is too lit­tle.’’ The same quote ap­pears in Klein’s book. It’s a sign that au­then­tic Epi­cure­anism is an idea whose time has come.

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