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10/30/2012 12:22 pm ET | Updated Oct 30, 2012

Daniel Klein: 'Travels With Epicurus' Explores The Best Path To A Fulfilled Old Age

In his early 70s, author Daniel Klein saw his peers taking up jogging, studying new languages and wearing hormone patches to charge their libidos. Klein already harbored a few misgivings about the frantic striving of the “new old age” when a trip to the dentist prompted an epiphany.

“He said I had to get these implants over the course of a year [or] I would look older with denture plates …and my teeth would pop out once in a while,” Klein recalled. “And I thought, ‘what do I care if have a goofy old man smile? I am an old man!’”

Klein returned to the Greek village and philosophers he has visited for decades to discover authentic ways of aging. In his funny and wry account, “Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life,” he concludes that old age is a privilege to be savored, rather than a disease to be cured or a condition to be denied.

“That’s one of main points: It’s a distinct stage of life,” Klein said. “That has been lost in this ‘new old age’ business. I first went to Greece in my 20s and I’ve been going back to the same island for 40-something years now. To finish writing this book I needed encouragement from my Greek friends. I’ve seen some of them age and they just do it well -- even in the midst of this financial crisis.”

Klein opens the book with a favorite quote from Epicurus: “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 beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbor, having safeguarded his true happiness.”

Klein explores the nature of that happiness from Kamini on the Greek island of Hydra, serving up a cocktail of observation and memoir, Plato and Nietzsche, Frank Sinatra and Cole Porter. The book tackles weighty issues with a light touch, for example, invoking Jean-Paul Sartre’s warning against treating oneself as an object to argue against hormone treatments:

“…if in old age a man finds himself well past the period when he is perpetually ‘on the make,’ is it authentic for him to infuse himself with testosterone so he can feel like someone he is not -– namely, a horny young man? …I keep thinking that there are discrete stages of life, each with its own qualities, and that fudging these stages is to fudge the inherent value in each of them.”

Klein studied philosophy at Harvard -- and psychology with Erik Erikson, master of life-stage theory -- but spent much of his career as a writer for stars including Lily Tomlin and Flip Wilson. “I’d work for some comedian or quiz show that paid a lot of money, get a big check and buy a ticket for Europe,” he said. Among his 30 books, he ghost-wrote a bestseller with a sex therapist in the 1980s called “How to Make Love To The Same Person For The Rest of Your Life.” (“It still sells in Catholic countries –- in Ireland it’s in its 17th printing,” Klein chuckles.) But he never lost his love for the early Greek thinkers; he’s also co-author of the bestseller “Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar.”

Ultimately, Klein surmises, people running around trying to see 1,000 places before they die are denying a reality creeping too close for comfort. But doing so, he writes, leaves us less “fully and truly alive, like the denizens of Plato’s cave, who mistake the shadows on the cave’s wall for reality, while the facts of life -– some hard to take -– are vividly illuminated just outside the cave’s wall.”

So if not the new old age, then how do philosophers suggest one should craft a meaningful old age?

  • Play: In the Laws, Plato writes “Man is God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him…. Therefore every man and woman should live life accordingly… Life must be lived as play.” Klein, who admits to “stoned lightness of being” when rolling around with his dog and playing with his grandchild, relates lovely moments of observing older people at play -– Greek men dancing and French men playing boules. “I do sense something deeply meaningful in this idea of all life being play,” he writes. “It is a worldview that treasures life while ultimately taking none of it too seriously.”
  • Reminisce and Reflect: “If we go for this new old age and stay in the prime of our lives, then the next step is demented,” Klein said. “I have 73 years of experiences, and if don’t reflect on them now and see why I did things and what they meant to me, I’ll never do it. How nice that there is a chance to do it.”
  • Don’t Worry About ‘Leaving Your Mark’: Klein recalls an impromptu stop in Corfu with his wife, who suggested they visit the gravesite of a famous figure who ruled all of Asia Minor for years. “We took a bus and had to walk and got to a pile of rocks and saw a sign in Greek, ‘Here lies sultan somebody.’ And I thought, ‘he left his mark!’ I think it’s a mistake to think about that. I don’t think we leave much of a mark.”
  • Enjoy Your Loved Ones (With No Ulterior Motives): Citing Immanuel Kant’s admonition to treat people as ends in themselves, rather than a means to an end, Klein argues that one of the great pleasures of old age is wanting nothing from your friends. “In a work situation -- any kind of work –- we are always somewhat pandering and manipulating, and that cuts you off from the other person,” he said. “You aren’t just being together.” He notes that the Greeks in particular are contented to sit with friends in silence. “I guess I’m a romantic, but being together and not having the need to yack -- there’s something so sweet about that.”
  • Unplug The Clock: Klein captures the decidedly American fear of running out of time, quoting author Eva Hoffman, an immigrant to the U.S., who writes: “It was not only that time moved faster in America -- it pressed onwards in more stressful ways. …Everyone suffered from the stress of not doing enough, or the possibility of doing more, or at least feeling good or guilty about it.” Old age is the perfect stage to let go of those anxieties, Klein said.

So if this is the time to sit back, why did Klein write a book? “I do realize I’m being a hypocrite,” he admitted. “My only defense -- and its very weak -- is I’m still working it out. But I’ve convinced myself that Epicurus is right.”

Quotes From 'Travels With Epicurus'

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