The Philosophy of Wisdom and the Wisdom of Philosophy

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Recently I had the pleasure of reading Daniel Klein’s little wisdom book, Travels with Epicurus (2012), a writerly account of his month on the Greek island of Hydra in search of a philosophy of old age.  Klein opens with a story about being faced with the question of whether to pay for expensive dental implants or lives “with an old man’s goofy smile.”  He decides to forego the implants and uses the money instead for his journey to Greece.

In effect, Klein chooses contemplation over expensive, unnecessary health care. Armed with old volumes of his favorite ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (who thought that old age was the pinnacle of life), he writes this lovely little autobiographical inquiry into the good life in old age. His book makes a case for an ancient model of wisdom not much in evidence in our youth-obsessed culture.

With Cicero, Plato, and Montaigne, Klein believes that there is a natural course of life in which each stage has its particular qualities, its virtues, and vices. In this view, affirmation of a man’s place in the life cycle is the beginning of wisdom, of discerning the pleasures and accepting the pains of old age – of orienting himself to his place in the eternal order of things. Klein writes in a long tradition of privileged white males, which is not a count against him but rather a specific point of view to be appreciated and debated.

In the middle of the 20th century, Erik Erikson (in Childhood and Society) was perhaps the last major thinker to view the “stages of life” as built into the human condition – with its own virtues, vices, and developmental tasks.  In 1987, when Dan Callahan used the notion of a natural life cycle as a basis for setting limits to health care expenditures for old people, he was roundly criticized.  Our culture has largely rejected the notion of the life cycle as “natural.” We prefer self-improvement, unending activity, sexuality, and vigor – “no limits.”

The notion that the life course is built into the eternal order of things is hard to square with increasing longevity and efforts to reverse or extend the life span. But the need for individuals to grapple with their own mortality is just as essential as ever. Actually, Klein claims that he is offering a philosophy of old age, but he is really only concerned with healthy longevity. He avoids any real discussion of “old old age,” except to claim that frailty, dependency, and incurable sickness are irredeemable. Yet “old old age” is precisely what we need to grapple with as individuals and as a society.

Can we be successfully frail?  Successfully demented?  Can we make health care decisions or advance directives that take into account the needs of family, the costs to society of high tech interventions?  Can we prepare for death emotionally and spiritually?  From his vantage point at 73, Klein advises slowing down, enjoying play, focusing on relationships, and cherishing the superiority of mental pleasures. While he allows for mindfulness and spiritual enlightenment, Klein ultimately has little use for religion or any type of organized spirituality, preferring the pursuit of authenticity and potential for individual spiritual experience.

At the end of his month in Greece, Klein happily returns to his home and his wife. Interestingly, even though research consistently shows that love, marriage, and relationships are key ingredients to a happiness and well-being in old age, they play no role in his philosophy. This makes one wonder whether philosophy itself is a useful tool for a good old age. Perhaps the greater part of wisdom lies in cultivating loving relationships, community, and a commitment to values and activity beyond oneself.

Thomas R. Cole, Ph.D., 63,  is director of the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

7 Responses to “The Philosophy of Wisdom and the Wisdom of Philosophy”

  1. Jerry Bakker

    I guess Cole doesn’t see much value in physical activity as he doesn’t even mention it. I recommend it highly. It cannot of course be as rigorous as it can be when younger, but it is still necessary. At 79 I still call it running if I get to pass a walker.

  2. david haber

    Is there any research on who gains wisdom with age, and who does not?

    • Tom Cole

      The Talmud says that a man who is a fool in his youth will be a fool in his old age, while one who is wise in his youth will be wise as an old man. Not a very encouraging view about human development over the life span. Social scientists do work on this topic: Monika Ardelt, Paul Baltes come to mind

  3. Elias Baumgarten

    Kind of a strange article. (I also have read Klein’s book.) In the next-to-last paragraph Cole says that “Klein advises….focusing on relationships” but then in the last paragraph Cole criticizes Klein for not including relationships as an important part of old age. More disturbing to me (as someone in philosophy), Cole goes from this criticism of Klein’s philosophy to “his makes one wonder whether philosophy itself is a useful tool for a good old age.” I don’t think one can conclude anything about “philosophy itself” from one person’s philosophy.

    Jerry Bakker: you’d be even more disturbed to learn that Klein includes *smoking* among the pleasures he enjoys as part of aging. I had a bit of trouble with that. I guess it depends how much the quantity of good years counts for a person.

    • Tom Cole

      My quip about philosophy was tongue-in-check. I meant no disrespect to philosophy. I have actually been thinking and writing and teaching about the meaning of aging as a historian/philosopher for 30 years. … I guess I have come to the view that love is what counts. I hope I have a few more years to think about it. Thanks

  4. Faye Girsh

    Seems to me that old age would be less stressful if we older folks knew that when we had enough, or we were suffering with a hopeless illness, or when our personhood and independence were threatened that we could have a peaceful and dignified death at our request. Being compelled to live when death would be preferable is not a nice thing to do after one has lead a fulfilling life.

  5. Jim Sabin

    Like Elias, I took a different message from Klein’s lovely book. Klein brings in a range of philosophers as if they were friends sitting with him in the tavern on the island. His month on the Greek island is a metaphoric return to the origins of western philosophy. He takes guidance and some comfort from his philosopher “friends.”

    I love Jerry’s comment on how he calls passing a walker “running.” That humor and acceptance is in the spirit of Klein’s book.