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Daniel Klein’s ‘Travels with Epicurus’

Travels with Epicurus,Daniel Klein,Greece,Hydra,I’ve been reading Daniel Klein’s ‘Travels with Epicurus, and reflecting on the concept of play in relation to the life stages we all go through.

Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher and the founder of the school of philosophy called Epicureanism. Born on Samos, he lived in Athens and Asia-Minor. Epicurus is known for teaching that the purpose of philosophy is to attain a happy, tranquil life.

Answering the question “How does one make the most of one’s life?” Epicurus’s answer, according to Klein, was that

the best possible life one could live is a happy one, a life filled with pleasure. At first look, this conclusion seems like a no-brainer, the sort of wisdom found in a horoscope. But Epicurus knew this was only a starting point because it raised the more troublesome and perplexing questions of what constitutes a happy life, which pleasures are truly gratifying and enduring, and which are fleeting and lead to pain, plus the monumental questions of why and how we often thwart ourselves from attaining happiness.

I have to admit that I experienced a pang of disillusionment when I first realized that Epicurus was not an epicurean… i.e. a sensualist with gourmet appetites. Let me put it this way: Epicurus preferred a bowl of plain boiled lentils to a plate of roasted pheasant infused with mastiha (a reduction painstakingly made from the sap of a nut tree), a delicacy slaves prepared for noblemen in ancient Greece. This was … Epicurus’s hankering for personal comfort, which clearly included comfort foods. The pheasant dish titillated the taste buds, but Epicurus was not a sensualist in that sense: he was not looking for dazzling sensory excitement. No, bring on those boiled lentils! For one thing, he took great pleasure in food he had grown himself—that was part of the gratification of eating the lentils. For another, he had a Zen-like attitude about his senses: if he fully engaged in tasting the lentils, he would experience all the subtle delights of their flavor, delights that rival those of more extravagantly spiced fare. And another of this dish’s virtues was that it was a snap to prepare.

(From Waterstones, Non-Fiction Book of the Month)

The defining concepts of such a happy life, according to Epicurus, are ataraxia — i.e. peace and freedom from the disturbances of anxiety and greed — and aponia — the absence of pain — achieved through living a non-demanding, humble life surrounded by friends.

Klein’s book, taking its cue from this philosophy, is asking how best to think about growing into old age, and how best to live through this stage of life. The tendency nowadays, Klein points out, is to escape ageing, by spending our lives trying to remain forever young: sport, transplants and implants, botox, diets, all means to prolong and promote youthful looks. But are we missing out on an important stage of our lives, Klein asks.

Hydra, Greece

 

To look into this question, the author packed a number of books, and staying on Hydra, Greece — where travel is restricted to going on foot, cycling, or riding a donkey — meditated on the issue. The answer he came up with in this book is playful, but I have no intention of reproducing it here. Suffice to say that with all the turmoil of this week’s Greek elections and heated debates, a calm book on growing older, set on a Greek island, juxtaposing the old with the new, matching island life with world-renowned philosophers, provides a much needed good, as well as romantic, counter-balance.

In his unhurried pace, watching a group of friends playing a game of cards, walking the hilly paths of the island, discussing beauty and youth, Klein takes us on his Epicurean journey, savouring the moments of insight, the juxtapositions of beautiful descriptions of nature and human nature with philosophical descriptions of ‘lived time’.

I enjoyed this quirky book, slowed down, looked up references to this and that… thought of acquaintances in Greece who, troubled by their country’s misfortunes, contrary to the Hydriotes observed by Klein, have all but forgotten their ‘ataraxia’; have meditated on the notions of austerity vs growth, and their effects on the mind, long enough.

A timely reminder of Epicurean notions then, a needed breath of fresh air? A New Year’s resolution? Even for those who may not be lacking in material resources, but may be short of (perceived) time?

The language in the book is simple, the images memorable, the light clear… So, keep calm, keep thinking, experiencing… it’s not that difficult to be authentically old… one day… eventually! Alternatively, one can always become a Stoic!

full snow moon
the tightrope bathed
in light

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You can read the first chapter of this book here