Tuesday 30 June 2020

Book Review: Travels with Epicurus

Book Review: Travels with Epicurus

Review by Casey Douglass

Travels with Epicurus

The dentist isn’t usually the place for moments of existential clarity. Sure, it might be the altar on which you confess your chocolate loving, sugar-drink binging tendencies, but usually, you are wholly focussed on the pain, or the prospect of it. For Daniel Klein however, a trip to the dentist set his mind turning, and led to the writing of his book: Travels with Epicurus.

The dentist’s verdict was that he’d need some lower teeth removed, and that he could either opt for dentures, or a year of painful procedures to provide him with implants. His dental problems were related to the normal course of ageing, but the two paths he could go down proved revealing about his feelings towards ageing. Did he want an “old man’s smile” or some implants that would allow him to feel more youthful? He was in his early 70s at this point. He realised that he had been caught up in the current trend of “trying to extend the prime of life well into the years that used to be called old age.” Daniel ponders that he is not entirely sure what authentic old age is, or how it might best be lived. He travels to the Greek island of Hydra with a suitcase full of his philosophy books, looking for the answers, from without and within.

The only Hydra I’d ever heard of before reading this book was the mythical creature, or maybe the shadowy crime organisation in a spy novel. Daniel describes the charms of the Greek island and it seems like a great place to contemplate your navel. There are elderly residents that Daniel can appreciate and befriend, and also a different way of life to the hubbub of more metropolitan areas. Time it seems, is perceived differently there, highlighted later in the book in a revealing conversation Daniel has about kombol√≥i, the “worry bead” kind of thing that Greeks use to space out time.

Daniel begins the book proper with an introduction to Epicurus and his philosophy of fulfilment. It doesn't take long for him to dispel the false impression that many people have of Epicurus, which is one of seeking extreme sensual pleasures. Yes, Epicurus counselled people that to have a happy life, they should fill it with pleasure, but there is more nuance to it than that. Not all pleasures are created equal. Some are genuine pleasures, others lead to more pain and suffering. This is highlighted by the way that Epicurus preferred a bowl of plain boiled lentils to a plate of roasted pheasant. Hardly the actions of the sensation chaser he is often portrayed as. When it comes to ageing, Epicurus thought that old age was the pinnacle of life, that the “old man has docked in the harbour, having safeguarded his true happiness”. As you might expect from the title, Epicurus plays a central role in Daniel’s book.

Daniel applies various philosophies (Epicurus and others) to a variety of topics linked with ageing, from the pleasure of companionship in old age to the issues of boredom, play, and the fear of death. Daniel always does a good job of illustrating his point with an event from his past or a description of something on the island. His dog Snookers also makes an appearance, which is something I enjoyed in another of his books: Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It. This isn’t a dry philosophy book, it’s one in which real-life experience is used to illustrate the wisdom of adopting a particular way of looking at life.

When I purchased Travels with Epicurus, I somehow missed the part that described it as being about old age. While Daniel compares old age to old old age (that period in which you aren’t just old, but in which your body and mind are shutting down), I have a feeling, for various reasons, that I'll not even see these periods of my life. With that in mind, I probably wouldn’t have bought this book had I realised its focus. That being said, it was still very pleasant to read about Daniel’s experiences on Hydra, and how these helped further illustrate the philosophies Daniel was mulling over. There is also wisdom to be gleaned from the topic of how we can live best in the later stages of life, that we can apply to our life, no matter which stage we are in. I also realised that I’d probably like anything philosophical that Daniel Klein writes. If he ever brings out a book called “The Philosophy of the Sewer: Tunnels, Faeces and Rats” I’m sure he’d write it in such a way that it would be interesting.

Book Title: Travels with Epicurus
Book Author: Daniel Klein
Publisher: One World Publications
Released: 1 May 2014
RRP: £7.99
ISBN: 9781780744124