Skip to main content

Dancing into old age

By Daniel Klein, Special to CNN
March 16, 2013 -- Updated 1710 GMT (0110 HKT)
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
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT