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Doug Bruns

The Philosophy of Walking


    Despite my titanium hips, and foot problems from years of marathoning, despite my tender back–one slipped disc–and the general wear and tear on this aging-athlete's body, I (still) like walking. It does not escape me that my ancestors trekked from the savanna plains of Africa over 100,000 years ago and never stopped. It comforts me that, as a species, we have walked virtually everywhere, planting our feet on most every single dry spot planet earth has to offer. It comforts me too, that despite the automobile and the jet, the boat and the train, our first inclination is to get up and walk. I do not take walking for granted. Over the years I have occasionally been in traction, on crutches, in pain or in some other way disposed of my ability to walk. When this happens, I pretend that I will never walk again. I do this, like thinking of sickness when I am perfectly healthy, as a way to remind myself not to take walking for granted. (This is not unlike the Buddhist practice of going to the cemetery to meditate as a reminder that one day it will all come to an end.) There are people who cannot walk and I do not want to be one who forgets this. To consider this an exercise in gratitude would not be wrong. 

    Walking, hiking, trekking, whatever you want to call it, has been on my mind lately, since finishing Julian Young's biography of Nietzsche, Friedrich Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography. There, I discovered that Nietzsche walked upwards of six hours a day, day after day, week after week, and so forth, with a notepad; that he did this, building his reserves, then suddenly and furiously would write a book in just a matter of days. Too, I am reminded of Kant, who walked so regularly through the streets of his native Königsberg that shopkeepers set their watches by his perambulations, or so the story goes. And Henry David Thoreau, who said, "I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of walking…"–and about whom Emerson said, "The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all." Henry David said that he needed four hours a day of "sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements." Bruce Chatwin reminds us that, "The raw materials of Proust's imagination were the two walks round the town of Illiers where he spent his family holidays. These walks later became Méséglise and Guermantes Ways in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu." We are considering here walking as art.

    Nietzsche’s predecessor Kierkegaard also held a thought to two about walking. “Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” Sadly, Kierkegaard’s walks were often a torment as young villagers often ridiculed the odd man with the odd body. Perhaps, as he writes, that was something not so burdensome from which he could walk away. Let us hope.

    I think of walking as a counter to, as well as a rebuttal against, modern life. It is a symbol of pre-modernity. If walking is linked to intellectual creativity and contemplation, what is to be said of a time in history–that is, now–when people walk, if they walk at all, principally for exercise, usually, with ear-buds streaming a host of personally curated distractions? Is it not obvious that the culture that produced the most fervent example of Western curiosity, ancient Greece, was obviously without any means of transportation, but for the horse, other than walking? And too, that the second western blossoming of human creativity, the Renaissance, a re-connection with those ancients, was also a culture largely dependent upon the lower extremities for transportation? This is an obviously broad assumption and I’m okay with that. One uses a broad bush when painting the horizon. Perhaps there is a dissertation out there considering this question—human flourishing vis-à-vis walking—if not, there should be.

    At the risk of appearing out of fashion, I am troubled by much of modern culture. It is fast and loud and short on attention; it is crowded and seems lacking and vacuous; rushed and overbearing. None of these adjectives apply to walking. Metaphorically, walking is the antithesis of much of what we call modern. I recognize that this sounds dusty and hidebound. There is nothing sexy about sauntering. It is, as I said, the opposite of the modern, and the modern is about sexy, if nothing else. I can live with that. I like sexy as much as the next person. But too, I long for something more traditional than what modern existence seems capable of delivering. Perhaps traditional is not the right word. Maybe substantive? I am given to optimism in this respect, despite evidence to the contrary. 

    Walking is simply a metaphor for a slower, more contemplative way of doing a thing we take for granted, that is, getting from A to B. On a larger scale, it stands as a metaphor for a way of life. Modern culture does not recognize, nor lend itself well to this metaphor. I wonder, for instance, how the general population would respond if they discovered that a presidential candidate walked contemplatively, let's say, two hours a day? Would it be deemed a waste of time, an indulgence not befitting the highest office of the land? I can't say, of course, but I suspect it might be a talking point for the opposing candidate at election time. I can imagine the topic coming up in a presidential debate: "What if North Korea lobbed a missile at Japan while my opponent was out taking a walk!"

    Even the word we use for one who walks, pedestrian, has taken a modern hue. It originally meant simply one who travels on foot; however, in modern usage the word has evolved to indicate specifically one who walks as opposed to driving, the car having taken center stage in modern existence. Too, as an adjective, the word indicates dull or boring, as in the comically portrayed Olympic sport of race-walking. There is no turning the tide of etymology.

    A young man I admire walked across North America with his dog, taking pictures. A gentleman from Waseca, Minnesota, Dave Kunst, walked around planet earth, starting east from home and re-entering town from west a little over four years later. My son walked from Georgia to Maine on the Application Trail. Armies used to walk to battle, sometimes over mountains, sometimes over whole continents. My father walked from Normandy to Berlin, though he would have been the first to tell you that it was not by choice. Kids, as the shop-worn adage goes, used to walk to school—in the snow! These examples are noteworthy because such once-common activity is not much practiced anymore. In consideration, they induce a degree of pause. I met up with my son in Virginia while he was hiking the AT. At the end of our visit I moaned, “Now I have to drive back to Maine.” He looked at me with raised eyebrows. “Seriously?” he said. “I’m walking there.” You can walk anywhere if you have the time. Indeed, I have a theory that time and walking are intertwined, as you will read below.

    I read recently that the worst thing to ever happen to the human species is the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer (that is, in my analogy, from walker to non-walker), the author ranting about the ills, figurative and literal, of humanity that followed. (As a side note, the ancient Greeks held that this transition from alert hunter to settled farmer occurred at Eleusis, a place they likewise considered to be the origin of civilization, a place destroyed by Alaric the Visigoth in 396 A.D.) That seems an extreme opinion. Yet, something about it resonates. I recall reading somewhere the line, Drugs are vehicles for people who have forgotten how to walk.  As a species that evolved in relation to walking, what should one make of the cessation of the latter? Evolution continues, but in what manner? I believe it was Kant who said that walking is falling down arrested. Are we witnessing the collective falling down of the species, resulting from the cessation of serious walking? (I will contemplate your charge of hyperbole on my next walk.)

    Furthermore, walkers seem happy. Drivers, by contrast, seem mad. Just look at their faces on the highway. The very word stroll has a connotation of ease and delight. "I'm going for a stroll now…" It’s impossible to not smile when you say that. We strive naturally for good things and avoid naturally the opposite. If there existed a single word for being a passenger in a commercial jet, that word would likely imply the opposite of stroll and its relaxed connotations. That is a simplification–but I seek the simple. Complexity is another attribute of modern existence and one way to offset this is to simplify, assuming one feels so compelled. What is simpler than going for a stroll? Putting one foot in front of the other? I could be way off track here, but I don't think so.

    Orson Welles intoned in "The Magnificent Ambersons," "The faster we're carried, the less time we have to spare." It is a cruel zen-twist of reality that the more hurried our lives, the less time we seem to have. Conversely, the more strolling we do, the farther the horizon stretches before us. Test my theory. Leave late for work, rush to your car and dash from A to B. Take note of how the time accelerates, how it seems to uncontrollably unspool before you. The commute might feel like it is taking forever, yet, in contradictory fashion, it rushes forward. Later, after you've caught your breath and you've got the leisure, set out on a walk, not a workout, but a good old-fashioned stroll. See if time itself does not relax and grow elastic, and you with it. There is nothing contradictory about a stroll.

    There is an old philosopher's saw, called Zeno's paradox, which perhaps underscores this. (Actually, Zeno had nine paradoxes.) In this paradox, as Aristotle states it, "That which is in locomotion must arrive at the half-way stage before it arrives at the goal." By way of example, suppose you are standing ten feet from a wall. You wish to walk to the wall, but first you must divide the distance in half and travel it. You advance five feet closer to the wall. Then, again, you must divide and advance. You move two and a half feet. You are getting closer. But again, divide in half and move–and so on and so on and so on. Every distance can be divided in half and, well, you get the idea (I hope). In theory, you will never arrive at the wall because there is an infinite number of divisions you must make. It is not called a paradox for nothing. The point is, a walk is a division of space we physically accomplish. There is no other mechanism at work. We divide space and advance; yet, with a nod to Zeno, we are caught in an infinite progression, seemingly never reaching our destination. Whatever walk we complete, I argue, is simply half-way or some such division toward our cosmic destination. Perhaps that is why walking is so good for the mind, a practice of philosophers and poets, composers and inventors, it releases us to infinity. When gods walked the earth…, as the saying goes. A walk can go on forever, as the twisted double-helix of our perambulating African ancestors proves, each of us a host until we pass the baton to the next generation.

    Perhaps this all that seems a stretch. But consider this: Einstein, walking home across the Princeton campus, lost in thought, strolled off campus, into town, through and out of town, until finally, as the sun was setting, he came to his senses. He was lost, he realized, and had to call the dean and ask to be picked up. Einstein, it can be (under-)stated, understood infinity. The infinity of a walk and what that implies is something I must contemplate the next time I go sauntering.

Jeffrey Alfier Matin_Bleu.jpeg
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