Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 9, 2009

Travel: a Philosophical Pursuit

Philosophy: the love of knowledge

At Travelosophy it is our belief that when we travel we are exploring the diversity of the human experience; and at the same time we are discovering the commonality — and consequently our humanity.

Philos (love) and sophos (knowledge) — and the wisdom that one hopes will ensue; surely this is fundamental to our preoccupation with travel, and of moving on in search of some kind of truth or some degree of enlightenment.

Travel: the most experiential form of learning

How much of our travels involve the proverbial quest for both meaning and meaningfulness? Why do human beings in such and such a place do what they do, and how do our observations of these human phenomena expand our frame of reference? Travel gives us the time and space — as if we were anthropologists from Mars — to look carefully, objectively and we hope compassionately at all who inhabit the Blue Planet. And through travel we therefore understand more about ourselves both individually and collectively.

Even if we travel “blithely,” how is it possible not to be exposed to cultural ideals, principles, concepts, and abstract notions — and to some extent absorb them?

And whether those essential cultural elements are destination-specific or universal in their implications (the latter is more likely the case), they touch and shape our quite understandably ethonocentric lives. Thus travel becomes a form of behaviour modification and consciousness-raising.

“The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.” — Robert Frost

And do we travel by choice or of necessity? Perhaps we travel because of some kind of “magnificent obsession” impells us to search out, confirm, and validate what we know intuitively.

In his book Journey to the Source of the Nile, Christopher Ondaatje writes:

“A second impulse came from my fascination with the men and women explorers who had this obsession before me. I felt that the effort to retrace their steps, to walk — as much as modern man can — in their shoes, would explain them and their achievments to me in a way written accounts could not.”

In The Eiger Obsession, his poignant account of his ascent of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps following the same route from which his father fell to his death, John Harlin describes a moment during one of his travels:

“I was thinking about death not long ago when I was running in the hills above Oaxaca, and what it would mean if mine came soon — if perhaps I stepped on a coral snake alone in the back of beyond, as I almost did once. The thought saddened me. Not so much for the loss of my life, though that bothers me too, but because it would have happened before I’d had the chance to move on to new projects that mean more than the ones I’ve already lived through.”

I am a big fan of the Travelers’ Tales Guides, anthologies of literature (fiction, poetry, and essays) by famous writers who have written about specific destinations and themes. I have taken a number of these along on trips both as “travel guides” and as examples of other people’s perceptions and experiences in the destination I am visiting.

In the anthology The Road Within the editors of the series, brothers Sean, James, and Tim O’Reilly sum up the philosophical nature of travel in this way:

“Some journeys are destined to alter our lives irrevocably. Many of us have had experiences on the road which have changed our view of the world in ways we have difficulty articulating on our return home. We come back from travel changed, awareness broadened, consciousness clearer — a feeling of being closer to who we really are. Once we have had a taste of this kind of change, we can’t get enough of it, or learn too much about the process.”

More travel quotes

Many other writers, most of whom would not have been considered “travel writers” have also expressed the philosophical nature of their travels.

“Your true traveller finds boredom rather agreeable than painful. It is the symbol of his liberty — his excessive freedom. He accepts his boredom, when it comes, not merely philosophically, but almost with pleasure.” — Aldous Huxley

“A person needs at intervals to separate from family and companions and go to new places. One must go without familiars in order to be open to influences, to change.” — Katharine Butler Hathaway

“Whenever I prepare for a journey I prepare as though for death. Should I never return, all is in order.” — Katherine Mansfield

“As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own.” — Margaret Mead

“To be on a quest is nothing more or less than to become an asker of questions.” — Sam Keen

“We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.” — Robert Louis Stevenson

“I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” — Robert Frost

“Travel has no longer any charm for me. I have seen all the foreign countries I want to except heaven & hell & I have only a vague curiosity about one of those.” — Mark Twain


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