Here is an interesting take on the question of what people should “do” when in their “old age.”
The ‘New’ Old Age Is No Way to Live
The ancients had it right: Reflection and friendship are the bounties of old age
By DANIEL KLEIN
Here I am in my mid-70s, and I am wondering: Is now the time to take a final stab at unfinished business—to accomplish at long last the remaining goals on my lifetime to-do list? Or is now the time to step back, let go of my ambitions, reflect and just live?
It is not an easy choice, especially in light of the prevailing ethos of the “New Old Age.” Because medicine is allowing us to live longer than ever before and because the people turning 65 belong to that famously aspiring and adventurous group known as baby boomers, old age is now widely seen as an opportunity for more busyness—lots more.AlamyWorking harder than ever…for what?
We are advised that an extended life span has given us an unprecedented opportunity. And if we surrender to old age, we are fools or, worse, cowards. Around me I see many of my contemporaries remaining in their prime-of-life vocations, often working harder than ever before, even if they have already achieved a great deal. Some are writing the novels stewing in their heads but never attempted, or enrolling in classes in conversational French, or taking up jogging, or even signing up for cosmetic surgery and youth-enhancing hormone treatments.
But something about this new philosophy of old age does not sit well with me. I suspect that if I were to take this route, I would miss out on something deeply significant, a unique and invaluable stage of life. I have deep-seated qualms about going from a protracted prime of life directly to old old age—the now-attenuated period of senility and extreme infirmity that precedes death. But what, pray tell, would a contented and authentic old age consist of?
To figure that out, I recently packed a suitcase full of philosophy books and set off for the Greek island of Hydra, where I had once lived for a year when I was a young man. I wanted to read what the ancients had to say about a fulfilling old age. And what better place to read them than in the sunlit, rocky terrain where their ideas still imbue many people’s world view?
The Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote: “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.”
That notion of being free from vacillating beliefs gets to me as I sit reading this philosopher at an outdoor taverna table. My understanding from Epicurus’ other teachings is that he also is referring to the young man’s vacillating pursuits, the ones that follow from his vacillating beliefs. Epicurus is pointing to what the Zen Buddhists call the emptiness of “striving.”
Epicurus also wrote: “Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.” Even back in the Athens of the third century B.C., he could see how a professional life of any kind could corrupt genuine friendship. A life engaged in business inevitably leads to treating other people as means to an end, rather than as ends in themselves.
At the taverna, I view a group of men my age at another table. Although my Greek is rudimentary, I can catch the drift of their talk, which began before I arrived and will continue until the sun begins to drop behind the Peloponnese peninsula, just across the sea. They talk about the unusually hazy sunlight, the new owner of a cheese stall, their grandchildren, politics in Athens. Occasionally one tells a story from his past—usually one that his companions have heard before. The talk is punctuated by leisurely, comfortable silences.
One of the men, Tasso, is my dear friend. His table mates—all born and raised on the island, now retired—fished, taught and waited tables for their livings; Tasso is a former Athenian judge who, as a young man, studied law in Thessaloníki and London. But Tasso does not want any of his friends to tighten up his summary of a case before the court, as he frequently desired a lawyer to do during his days on the bench. Tasso feels no need to manipulate, exploit or in any way maneuver his companions to do anything. No, Tasso simply wants his friends to be with him.
Yes, untrammeled friendship! Returning to my book of Epicurus, I am even more convinced that the New Old Age is not for me. I wonder what other sublime pleasures are uniquely available in old age. But I have only begun my exploration. Books by Plato and Aristotle, Montaigne and Sartre, remain unopened on my pension bed table. What may be my last ambition is to consult them too.
—Mr. Klein’s “Travels With Epicurus” will be published in November by Penguin Books. He is co-author of “Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar.”