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.