The Philosophy of Walking

doug bruns
Jan 7, 2019 · 7 min read
Walk on!

Despite my titanium hip, and the foot problems from years of marathoning, despite my tender back–one slipped disc–and the general wear and tear on this 55 year-old 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 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 has happened, 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 remind oneself that one day it will all come to an end.) There are a lot of people who cannot walk and I do not want to be one who forgets this.

This comes the day following a hike in the mountains, in that sliver of the White Mountain National Forest that slips across the New Hampshire boarder into Maine, specifically the Caribou-Speckled National Forest. The hike–seven hours, five thousand vertical feet up and down!–is labeled strenuous in the AMC guide book, a detail that escaped me while planning the day’s activity. The down climb was, like all down climbs for me, challenging, like a never-ending Stairmaster workout in reverse–with impact! No matter. The validity of the day was found in the view from the top, from the especially tasty sandwiches for lunch, from watching Maggie swimming and drinking in a mountain stream.

Walking, hiking, trekking, whatever you want to call it, has been on my mind lately, particularly since finishing Julian Young’s biography of Nietzsche. 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. 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.” Walking as art.

I think of walking as a metaphor for–or, more properly, metaphor 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 personal 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 blossoming of human creativity, the Renaissance, a re-connection with those ancients, was also a culture dependent upon the lower extremities for transportation?

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 very dusty and outmoded. 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, in fact. But too, I long for something more traditional than what modern existence seems capable of delivering. And what is more traditional–other than sex perhaps!–than walking?

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 is 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. 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!”

A young man I admire walked across America with his dog, taking pictures. My son walked from Georgia to Maine on the Application Trail. Armies used to walk to battle, sometimes over mountains or whole continents. 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. 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 writer 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.

Walkers seem happy. Drivers seem mad. The very word stroll has a connotation of ease and delight. “I’m going for a stroll now…” That’s a good thing. We strive naturally for good things and avoid naturally the opposite. If there existed a single word for being a passenger in a jet, that word would likely imply a connotation the opposite of stroll. 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 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 stroll, not a workout, but a good old-fashioned sauntering. See if time does not relax and grow elastic. 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.” 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). 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 to 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. A walk can go on forever, as the twisted double-helix of our perambulating African ancestors proves.

Granted, all that seems a stretch. But consider this: Einstein, walking home across the Princeton campus, lost in thought, strolled off the 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. Walk on!

doug bruns

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Practical thinker in pursuit of practical wisdom.

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