Saturday, 29 August 2015

Solvitur Ambulando: Great Philosophers and Walking (Editorial)


Since the dawn of time, man has used his bipedal faculties to achieve physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Even in the modern world, so often profaned by the fumes and visuals of mechanical monoliths, the humble domain of walking remains relatively unperturbed. Indeed, even after decades of technological advancement, we are all still blessed to inherit the same simple pleasure afforded to the greats of far-off antiquity; Socrates' divine capability resides gracefully within us to this very day.   

Given this rich heritage, it is of no surprise that the power of walking is enshrined within the suitably eloquent Latin phrase, Solvitur Ambulando (simply translated as 'it is solved by walking'). I recently stumbled (metaphorically) across the adage in a sublime article by the Art of Manliness (see here), which details the main benefits of walking accompanied by thoughtful quotes on the subject.

Now my regular readers (if any such exist) will hopefully have some inkling of my affection for philosophy. Indeed, as the blog has developed, I have attempted to intertwine the philosophical in proportion to the musical, hashing out a more unique resource for myself and readers alike. 

It was due to this affection that I started to wonder which of the great philosophers utilised walking in their own lives, and if so, to what end? I have forever been curious about the routines of history's great men, but was greatly disappointed to see no such literature collated the walking habits of any of the prominent philosophers.

It is in this vein I have chosen to compose this article, hoping to remedy the aforementioned disappointment whilst also inspiring the men of today. I have written of five philosopher's bipedal endeavours here, but may return to complete more if supply proves sufficient.

Socrates (470/469 – 399 BC)

Depiction of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David painted in 1787
Indisputably one of the most important thinkers of the entire Western canon (and otherwise for that matter), Socrates is a name universally recognised. The indefatigable questioner was mentor to Plato and Xenophon, and marked the formal beginning of rational discussion. The once distinguished solider of the Peloponnesian War was also said to be a fervent rambler. Some say he would walk around Athens questioning the day-to-day beliefs of his fellow citizens. Indeed, in many of Plato's dialogues, such as Republic, the pupil of Socrates chooses to show his teacher ambling through the streets as he discusses ground-breaking concepts and ideas. Ironically, it is thought in the course of his being officially executed by the state of Athens for corrupting the Athenian youth, Socrates consumed poisonous hemlock and proceeded to walk around until he felt heavy, laying down to die.

Immanuel Kant (22 April, 1724 – 12 February, 1804 AD)

Immanuel Kant painted on an unknown date
Another monumental figure of Western thought, Immanuel Kant became a giant of 18th century thought when his works revolutionised philosophical thinking and turned once-cherished concepts and notions upside down. However, despite the explosiveness of his thinking, Kant actually lead a rather ordinary, orderly existence in the other aspects of his life. For instance, he would get his servant to wake him at 5:00 am everyday without fail, even though he was self-confessedly bad early riser. Regardless, it is in this strict routine we find Kant took a regular walk each day at around 1:00 pm, after working on his most famous and compelling philosophical works. Thus showing that even one of the most sophisticated and brilliant philosophers of all time still indulged in the fantastically simple pleasures of walking, perhaps even if it was just to blow off steam.

Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862 AD)

Henry David Thoreau in 1861
These next two philosophers come as a sort of duo set, and are amongst some of my favourite thinkers of all time. Thoreau is revered for his infinitely insightful naturalistic and political works, which have gone onto influence and embolden a huge range of people: socialists, liberals, anarchists, libertarians, conservatives, and more. Given Thoreau's fondness for wildness, it is of no surprise he had a huge admiration for the act of walking. Indeed, one of his most delivered public lectures was simply titled 'Walking'. Moreover, Thoreau's most famous work, Walden, is an even greater ode to walking. In the book, the thinker recounts how he opted to do away with the technologies of the train and cart, in turn for the simple act of travelling afoot - it not only saved him money, but provided him with a more priceless kind of felicity. Thoreau loved nothing more than a simple stroll through his native Massachusetts woodland, famously remarking "If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen". Watch out for our upcoming review series on Walden (more infor-mation here).

Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882)

Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1857
Friend and (debatably) mentor of Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson pursued many of the same objectives as the previous philosopher, becoming one of the main pioneers of the transcendental movement with his ground-breaking philosophy and literature. Similarly to Thoreau, Emerson was enthused by what he saw as the sublimity of nature. Indeed, his essay of the same name is forever rooted in the annals of history, his superb prose only matched by the profundity of his account of the interconnectedness of humans with the rest of Creation. Unsurprisingly, infatuation of this kind and degree inevitably led Emerson towards ambulphilia ('love of walking'), and he often expressed it within his works. He had this to say on the topic:  “Few people know how to take a walk. The qualifications are endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for nature, good humour, vast curiosity, good speech, good silence and nothing too much”. Another quote of Emerson's on walking that is a particular favourite of mine, quoted in the previously linked Art of Manliness article, follows thus:  "A vain talker profanes the river and the forest, and is nothing like so good company as a dog". Both of the above lines come from Emerson's essay “Country Life”, published in 1857.

Friedrich Nietzsche (15 October, 1844 – 25 August, 1900)

The date of this photo is unknown
There are few people currently alive in the West who wouldn't be familiar with at least one of Nietzsche's popularised sayings. Most intellectually-minded people, no matter where they live, should undoubtedly be familiar with the man. Although on par with Kant in terms of his momentous insight and influence, Nietzsche employed a much more ferocious zeal in his writings, at odds with the mild-mannered Prussian philosopher. However, despite this revolutionary vigour, the philosopher still involved himself in the same quotidian walking as Kant himself, and was a known admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose books still remain in Nietzsche's personal library in Weimar, Germany, available for public viewing. Of all on this list, we know Nietzsche to have regularly walked by far the furthest: 
"After working until 11:00 each morning, he would go for a "brisk, two-hour walk through the nearby forest or along the edge of Lake Silvaplana (to the north-east) or of Lake Sils (to the south-west), stopping every now and then to jot down his latest thoughts in the notebook he always carried with him" 
And then: 
"After luncheon, usually dressed in a long and somewhat threadbare brown jacket, and armed as usual with notebook, pencil, and a large grey-green parasol to shade his eyes, he would stride off again on an even longer walk, which sometimes took him up the Fextal as far as its majestic glacier. Returning ‘home’ between four and five o’clock."
I hope you have enjoyed this article on the walking habits of great philosophers. Do you know of any more? Please feel free to email or comment below.

Written by Daniel Luke Sharman

Title picture credit: Winslow Homer

Nietzsche biography quotes credit: Friedrich Nietzsche by Curtis Cate

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