Old age and Epicurus
I came across an interesting book titled, “Travels with Epicurus,” which contains ruminations of an elderly writer, Daniel Klein as he tries to find what makes old age fulfilling. To do so, he carried a bunch of books written by philosophers, primarily Greek, and went to a Greek island Hydra. There he observed how the elderly on that island enjoy their old age, focusing on one old guy, Tasso, and his friends.
The book is filled with interesting philosophies and observations on old age. He quotes Epicurus a lot (and hence the title of the book). Epicurus is the one who said, “Best possible life one could live is a happy one, a life filled with pleasure.” He further observes, “The old age is pinnacle of life, as good as it gets.”
This observation is along the same line as what most of us have experienced, that the “young” old age is when you have everything, time, health, wealth, and freedom from duties (unless you have elderly parents to take care of).
Further, Epicurus says, “It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his belief, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.”
As a counter to that “old man with his ship docked in the harbor,” Klein coins a term “forever young” to describe elderly who are trying to remain young forever, by making bucket lists and trying to run around with as much vigor as when they were young. According to him, “Many forever youngsters are driven by the frustration of not having fully achieved the goals they dreamed of attaining when they were younger; they see their final years as a last chance to grab some elusive brass ring.”
He elaborates on his disdain for a bucket list, “New experiences and new things couldn’t possibly be boring, could they? Well apparently they often could. Newness itself gets old. At the twelfth place to see before dying, viewing exotic terrain gets to be old hat — -you’ve already done exotic eleven times.”
So what needs to be done? Epicurus says, “Scale down and enjoy the leisurely pleasures of old age.” That is what the Greek person that Klein is observing, Tasso, is doing. He spends his days enjoying company of his friends sitting at a tavern.
“Tasso is enjoying his companions without wanting anything from them. He simply wants his friend to be with him. He wants him to share conversation, laughter, and, most importantly, silence. Epicureans considered communal silence a hallmark of true friendship.” This is such an important point. I too have observed that when your friendship with someone reaches certain level, there is no need to constantly converse.
Another thing that Klein suggests is to feel free to complain and discuss your problems with your friends, health in particular. “If we do not let it all hang out in front of our friends, we are cheating ourselves out of one of old person’s best palliatives.” I have observed this to be true. After certain age, there is no need for us to put up a façade that we are a picture of perfect health. We all have issues, and talking about them makes us feel good.
Klein observes that, “Accumulated experience is what an old person has in abundance. The trick is to slow down enough that this accumulated experience can be contemplated and even, hopefully, savored.” That plus using your mind to pursue philosophical matter is what he recommends. “Leaving the world of commerce and politics behind, we are free to focus our brainpower on other matters, often more intimate and philosophical matters.”
This, according to Klein, is a “fulfilled” old age, as different from “forever young” old age. If we do not follow on his advise, “We proceed directly from the “forever young” stage of life to old old age, missing forever the chance at being a fulfilled old man docked in harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness. We lose out on the pinnacle of life, as per Epicurus.”
Klein has choice words for the old old age. “Senility and incontinence are what we have to look forward to in old old age. The medical science, at great expense, has largely given us extended years of decrepitude. ‘Alive is the new dead.’ Oldold age stinks. It is difficult to see geriatric depression as a mental disorder; it seems more like an authentic and fitting response. The entire prospect of gradually and inevitably falling apart, with death as the only possible relief, not only fills me with terror, it overwhelms me with anger.”
So should one live in despair before the inevitable happens and we enter old old age? According to Klein, a middle path is what is required. “Perhaps authentic old age can consist of neither the breathless ambition of the forever youngster nor unremitting despair, but something meaningful in itself.”
Klein spends time in describing Hindu and Buddhist philosophies as quite relevant to finding meaning. “Zen Buddhism teaches mindfulness as the path to enlightenment –full consciousness, a continuous, clear awareness of the present moment.”
Poet William Blake beautifully describes living in the present moment:
“He who binds to himself a joy
Does he winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.”
This is a good book to read if for nothing else learn what wise folks say about becoming old. I have personally struggled with the question with no clear answer. In one of my earlier Posts, “The Stage of Just Living”, I made similar observations as those of Epicurus while indicating the difficulties in following that advice. On the other hand, I have followed “forever young” type of life in my retirement, and old age. I would frankly be bored after a few days of living the life that Tasso is living. Perhaps, there is an age before old old age sets in but after I get tired of bucket lists and search for new experiences. That’s when it would be good to follow advice of the philosophers of the past.