187: Travels with Epicurus by Daniel Klein

by Gerard


187: Klein, Daniel. Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life. New York: Penguin, 2012. 162 pp. ISBN 978-0-14-312193-0.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 100: Philosophy and Psychology
  • 180: Ancient, medieval, and Eastern philosophies
  • 187: Epicurean philosophy

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an old man goes on vacation. There, he takes stock of his years, drinks in old philosophies, and ruminates on what growing old means and how one can live a fulfilled life. While it may the premise of many a chicken soup book, Daniel Klein is no hack. His Travels with Epicurus is a delightful volume of essays and thoughts on all he has read, experienced, and wished. I, for one, was glad to take the journey with him.

Klein decides to spend a month on the Greek island of Hydra to regain some perspective. After spending years working for a living as a writer and a philosopher and watching his aging friends continually try to stave off old age, he has come to point where he decides to truly enjoy his station in life. While others undergo medical procedures, start new exercise regimens, or take pills to reinvigorate themselves, Klein is just fine with being old and wise. His ambulations around Hydra offer a view of life in the slow lane, where Epicurean values and modern sensibilities meet.

While modern epicureanism is all about finding grandiose gourmet experiences, Epicurus actually advocated living a simple, happy, tranquil life. There should be peace. One should be free from fear and stress. One should be surrounded by friends. While this could be absurdly stretched to mean that you should do everything possible to feel pleasure, Epicurus was more about a peaceful happiness than an absolute hedonistic state. Klein spends his days on Hydra muddling through not only Epicurus’s words, but also the many philosophers that he has brought him. He blends readings from Sartre, Kant, Russell, Heidegger, Eva Hoffman, and William James with popular figures such as Sinatra, Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare, Stephen Wright, and Federico Fellini. This blending of philosophies enhances what would have been just a simple text about Epicurus and his writing.

Two things about this book: (1) this is the book that Tuesdays with Morrie should have been, and (2) you will feel bad for reading it so fast. Klein is so effortless in his thoughts that I just zipped right through it, which is precisely the opposite intention of writing about Epicurus. You need to take time with this one. You should pause after each essay and reflect a bit (but not too much). I will definitely read it time and time again—which I believe is just about the best thing you can say about a book.