Walking in the outdoors seems to me so fundamental to sanity and an easy antidote to a frenzied city life that I can’t imagine not having the impulse to go to the forest/bush/coast/mountains by foot regularly. The effects rush in like a flash flood, and take the debris of my nerves with it, leaving me undoubtedly calmer and clearer. And although I know this to be the case, I haven’t often really contemplated why this is, or perhaps that walking in nature serves different purposes for different people, and that throughout history, people have achieved great things just by practicing this simple act of slowness, of silence, of solitude…
A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros is that contemplation. Gros, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris XII, has taken a look at the writers, philosophers, mystics, naturalists and thinkers throughout history who have wholeheartedly embraced walking into their lives for different purposes and to different ends – as pilgrimage, as escape, as a way of slowing down, and often as a way of clarifying thought.
The early chapter ‘Why I Am Such A Good Walker – Nietzsche’ left me so fascinated that I contemplated buying his oeuvre immediately. Nietzsche studied philology – the study of literature to discover the history of language – but came to the conclusion that too much time spent studying others’ work meant that there were few people exercising new thought, not based off conclusions others had already come to. Compelled to walk because of an affliction of terrible headaches, he found that his best ideas and thoughts came when walking through the mountains, and indeed many of his most famous works were created from these moving deliberations.
We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors – walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful. – Nietzsche
Henry David Thoreau is also featured, who is himself the author of the first philosophical work on walking: Walking. We all know the Thoreau of the wilds of Walden Pond, but A Philosophy of Walking delves into some of his theories that reflect his thoughts of being a walker, such as those in his New Economics, whereby he tried to place value on the return any particular activity would give, thus “distinguishing between profit and benefit”. When Gros explains this idea, it shows the beauty and depth of understanding in his own writing:
What profit is obtained from a long forest walk? None: nothing saleable is produced, no social service is rendered which needs to be rewarded. In that respect, walking in thoroughly useless and sterile. In traditional economic terms, it is time wasted, frittered away, dead time in which no wealth is produced. Nevertheless the benefit to me, to my life – I won’t even say interior, I mean to the totality, in absolute terms – is immense.
Add to this the reflection on aspects of walking like the “freedom of renunciation”, musings of the solitude of walking alone, and walkers profiles of the likes of Gandhi, Rimbaud, Kant, even Kerouac, and you’ll find so many enlightening perspectives and opinions of travelling by foot, the books itself takes on a feeling of an intellectual meditation – but one that reads so fluidly the pages just turn with ease.
While I loved everything in this book, I didn’t love everything about it, only due to the fact there are no tales of women walkers. One would think women in history did not walk beyond the letterbox. Somehow I think Gertrude Bell or Freya Stark and modern walkers like Robyn Davidson and Sarah Marquis would beg to differ. It’s a disappointing omission, but certainly not reason to dismiss the book. I’m secretly hoping that A Women’s Philosophy of Walking is being written somewhere, but I’m grateful to have a more expansive view of what walking means as a result of this beautiful book – to me and to all those who valued travelling slowly in the wilds as well.