Skip to main content

Dancing into old age

By Daniel Klein, Special to CNN
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat March 16, 2013
Life on a Greek island, where Daniel Klein found people practicing the art of growing old.
Life on a Greek island, where Daniel Klein found people practicing the art of growing old.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Daniel Klein follows philosopher Epicurus to Greece to follow his advice on aging
  • Epicurus said the communion of friendship, enjoyed unhurriedly, was the best possession
  • In Greece, Klein finds older people living calmly, slowly, with appreciation and acceptance
  • Play has intimations of the divine, Klein believes, and he saw that in a dance in a tavern

Editor's note: Daniel Klein is the co-author, with Thomas Cathcart, of the international best-seller, "Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar." A graduate of Harvard in philosophy, his most recent book is "Travels with Epicurus."

(CNN) -- As I coast into old age, no philosopher speaks more meaningfully to me than that ancient Greek, Epicurus. For starters, there is his delicious dictum:

"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."

I reread that lovely maxim recently while sitting on a taverna terrace on the Greek island of Hydra, a place where I have spent months at a time over the years. This time I was on the island to think about my new stage of life and what it might offer. One of my suitcases was packed with books by my favorite philosophers.

Daniel Klein
Daniel Klein
Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



At a table near mine, I saw my old friend, Tasso, a man about my age who is a retired judge. Tasso was playing cards with three friends, also white-haired, and from the ease of their chatter and laughter, I knew I had come to the right place to learn how to live an old age that both Epicurus and I would approve of.

Above all, such an old age would fully embrace friendship and playfulness. Epicurus 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." But even more significantly for me at this time, he was convinced that we old folk have a unique opportunity to elevate companionship to its highest level. Epicurus believed that we oldsters no longer ever need to treat our fellows as means to an end and therefore we always can enjoy them as ends in themselves.

Defy your age: what truly helps you stay younger inside and out

In old age, we can be free from what the philosopher called, "the prison of everyday affairs and politics." Retired from business and striving, we no longer need to see other people as a way to close a deal or get a raise or obtain a contract. Having said goodbye to all that, we are left with pure camaraderie, the kind that Tasso and his fellows were contentedly enjoying.

Tasso wanted nothing more from his tablemate, Kostos, a retired fisherman, than to simply be with him -- to pass the time with him, to talk with him, even just to sit in silence with him as they both watched the sun settle onto the horizon in the Peloponnesian straits. Indeed, Epicurus believed that being together in silence was the highest form of personal communion. Clearly such communion did not come easily to us when we were still in that stage of life when we were hell bent on achieving goals.

For a long moment after the music's climax, they remained standing silently next to one another with upraised arms.

The idea of playfulness in old age also resonates with me. I was happily surprised to discover how many of the philosophers in my little portable library paid tribute to "play." In his popular essay, "In Praise of Idleness," the 20th century philosopher, Bertrand Russell, lamented modern man's loss of his capacity for play, seeing it as having been erased by the "cult of efficiency." But perhaps the philosopher who best understood the transcendental possibilities of play was Epicurus' forbear, Plato, who wrote: "Man is made God's plaything and that is the best part of him. ... What, then, is the right way of living? Life must be lived as play."

I found myself recalling the first time I saw old Greek men dancing. It was on a night in 1968, during my first long sojourn on Hydra. Outside the window of my hillside house, a full moon had set the whitewashed houses aglow and the unearthly light drew me out of my room and down to the coastal walkway for a dreamy ramble. It was utterly quiet except for an occasional donkey bray and rooster crow.

Aging stylishly, online and in the streets

Then I heard music coming from the direction of the main port, at first only the stuttering beat of bass notes, then, as I walked toward the music, the Turkic twang of a bouzouki. I followed the sound to a taverna called Loulou's. By then I recognized the music; it was a classic song by Mikis Theodorakis, whose music at the time was prohibited by the ruling dictatorship because of his antifascist activities. The doors to Loulou's were locked shut, but one of the windows was open. I peered inside.

Five old men were dancing side by side, connected one to the other by handkerchiefs held in their raised hands. Their craggy faces were tilted upward with what struck me as pride, defiance, and, above all, exultation. All of them were straining to keep their backs erect, though none fully succeeded, yet their legs executed the dance's sideward steps in perfect, graceful synchrony. When, toward the end of the song, the music gradually accelerated, their steps accelerated along with it. For a long moment after the music's crescendo climax, they remained standing silently next to one another with upraised arms.

What I had witnessed, quite simply, was a dance to life and to its consummate fulfillment in old age. This was play at its most exalted.

I fully understood what Plato meant when he wrote that pure play has intimations of the divine. And now, in my old age, I feel I am finally ready to play and dance with well-earned abandon.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Daniel Klein.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 8:52 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT