The Philosophy of Travel

February 12, 2012 § 2 Comments

The Philosophy of Travel
by George Santayana

Has anyone ever considered the philosophy of travel? It might be worth while. What is life but a form of motion and a journey through a foreign world? Moreover locomotion- the privilege of animals- is perhaps the key to intelligence. The roots of vegetables (which Aristotle says are their mouths) attach them fatally to the ground, and they are condemned like leeches to suck up whatever sustenance may flow to them at the particular spot where they happen to be stuck. Close by, perhaps, there may be a richer soil or a more sheltered and sunnier nook; but they cannot migrate, nor have they even eyes or imagination by which to picture the enviable neighbouring lot of which chance has deprived them. At best their seed is carried by the wind to that better place, or by some insect intent on its own affairs: vegetables migrate only by dying out in one place and taking root in another. For individual plants it is a question of living where they are or not living at all. Even their limbs can hardly move, unless the wind moves them. They turn very slowly towards the light, lengthening and twisting themselves without change of station. Presumably their slumbering souls are sensitive only to organic variations, to the pervasive influence of heat or moisture, to the blind stress of budding and bursting here, or the luxury of blooming and basking and swaying there in the light. They endure in time and expand vaguely in space, without distinguishing or focusing the influences to which they are subject; having no occasion to notice anything beyond their own bodies, but identifying the universe, like the Innocent egoists they are, with their own being. If ever they are forced into a new pose, which might be of permanent advantage to them, they revert to the perpendicular when the force is relaxed; or if the pressure has been brutal, they may remain permanently a little bent, as if cowed and humbled by the tyrant into a life-long obliquity. Often all the trees in a row lean to the prevalent leeward, like a file of soldiers petrified on the march, or a row of statues unanimously pointing at nothing; and perhaps their crookedness may prove merciful to them, and enable them more comfortable to weather the storm, in forgetfulness of perfection. If it were not that the young shoots still tend to grow up straight, I would almost believe that distortion had become their proper ideal and was no longer distortion but character. Certainly among mankind, when vices become constitutional, they turn into worldly virtues; they are sanctioned by pride and tradition and called picturesque, sturdy, and virile. Yet to a wider view, when their forced origin is considered, they still seem ugly and sad. Sin is sin, though it be original, and misfortune is misfortune so long as the pristine soul stirs within the crust of custom, tortured by the morality which is supposed to save it.

The shift from the vegetable to the animal is the most complete of revolutions; it literally turns everything upside down. The upper branches, bending over and touching the ground, become fingers and toes; the roots are pulled up and gathered together into a snout, with its tongue and nostrils protruding outwards in search of food; so that besides the up-and-down and inwards-and-outwards known to the plant, the animal now establishes a forward-and-back- a distinction possible only to travellers; for the creature is now in perpetual motion, following his own nose, which is itself guided and allured by all sorts of scents and premonitions coming from a distance. Meantime the organs of fertility, which were the flowers, sunning themselves wide open and lolling in delicious innocence, are now tucked away obscurely in the hindquarters, to be seen and thought of as little as possible. This disgrace lies heavy upon them, prompting them to sullen discontent and insidious plots and terrible rebellions. Yet their unrest is a new incentive to travel, perhaps the most powerful and persistent of all: it lends a great beauty to strangers, and fills remote places and times with an ineffable charm. Plants had no such possibilities; they could not make a chance acquaintance, they could not fall in love, and I am not sure that in their apparent placidity they were really happier. There is something dull in the beauty of flowers, something sad in their lasciviousness; they do not crave, they do not pursue, they wait in a prolonged expectation of they know not what, displaying themselves to order like a child decked out for a holiday, vaguely proud, vaguely uncomfortable, vaguely disappointed. The winds are impatient wooers, and a shower of gold-dust is a poor embrace. They fade, thinking they are still virgins; they drop their petals in sadness, and shrink nun-like into a withered stalk; there is an acrid savour in their elderly sweetness: they believe they have missed something which they pretend to despise. Yet they are mistaken; they have altogether fulfilled their function: they are grandmothers without knowing it. They were married long ago, with only a faint sense of being present at their own wedding; they have borne children as is consonant with their nature, painlessly and in quite other places; they have marched unawares, veiled and honoured as mothers, in the procession of time.

In animals the power of locomotion changes all this pale experience into a life of passion; and it is on passion, although we anaemic philosophers are apt to forget it, that intelligence is grafted. Intelligence is a venture inconceivably daring and wonderfully successful; it is an attempt, and a victorious attempt, to be in two places at once. Sensibility to things at a distance, though it may exist, is useless and unmeaning until there are organs ready to avoid or pursue these things before they are absorbed into the organism; so that it is the possibility of travel that lends a meaning to the images of the eye and the mind, which otherwise would be mere feelings and a dull state of oneself. By tempting the animal to move, these images become signs for something ulterior, something to be sized and enjoyed. They sharpened his attention and lead him to imagine other aspects which the same thing might afford; so that instead of saying that the possession of hands has given man his superiority, it would go much deeper to say that man, and all other animals, owe their intelligence to their feet. No wonder, then, that a peripatetic philosophy should be the best. Thinking while you sit, or while you kneel with the eyes closed or fixed upon vacancy, the mind lapses into dreams; images of things remote and miscellaneous are merged in the haze of memory, in which facts and fancies roll together almost indistinguishably, and you revert to the vegetative state, voluminous and helpless. Thinking while you walk, on the contrary, keeps you alert; your thoughts, though following some single path through the labyrinth, review real things in their real order; you are keen for discover, ready for novelties, laughing at every little surprise, even if it is a mishap; you are careful to choose the right road, and if you take the wrong one, you are anxious and able to correct your error. Meantime, the fumes of digestion are dissipated by the fresh air; the head is cleared and kept aloft, where it may survey the scene; attention is stimulated by the novel objects constantly appearing; a thousand hypotheses run to meet them in an amiable competition which the event soon solves without ambiguity; and the scene as a whole is found to change with the changed station of the traveller, revealing to him his separate existence and his always limited scope, together with the distinction (which is all wisdom in a nutshell) between how things look and what they are.
A naturalist who was also a poet might describe the summer and winter tours of all the animals- worms, reptiles, fishes, birds, insects, and quadrupeds- telling us what different things they travel to see or to smell, and how differently they probably see and smell them. A mere moralist is more cramped in his sympathies and can imagine only human experience. And yet, when once the biped has learned to stand firmly on his hind legs, the human mind, more agile if less steady than a camera on its tripod, can be carried nimbly to any eminence or Aussichtsthurm; and if the prospect is unpleasing, it can scamper down again and perhaps change its chance environment for a better one. It is not the eye only that is consulted in surveying the panorama, and choosing some striking feature or hill-top for the end of the journey. The eye knows very well that it is only a scout, a more dignified substitute for the nose; and most of the pleasures it finds a vicarious and a mere promise of other satisfactions, like the scent of game. A search for the picturesque is the last and idlest motive of travel. Ordinarily the tribes of men move on more pressing errands and in some distress.

The most radical form of travel, and the most tragic, is migration. Looking at her birthplace the soul may well recoil; she may find it barren, threatening, or ugly. The very odiousness of the scene may compel her to conceive a negative, a contrast, an ideal: she will dream of El Dorado and the Golden Age, and rather than endure the ills she hath she may fly to anything she knows not of. This hope is not necessarily deceptive: in travel, as in being born, interest may drown the discomfort of finding oneself in a foreign medium: the solitude and liberty of the wide world may prove more stimulating than chilling. Yet migration like birth is heroic: the soul is signing away her safety for a blank cheque. A social animal like man cannot change his habitat without changing his friends, nor his friends without changing his manners and his ideas. An immediate token of all this, when he goes into a foreign country, is the foreign language which he hears there, and which he probably will never be able to speak with ease or with true propriety. The exile, to be happy, bust be born again: he must change his moral climate and the inner landscape of his mind. In the greatest migration of our time, that of Europeans to America, I know by observation how easily this may be done, at least in the second generation; but a circumstance that makes the transformation easy is this: there need be no direct conversion of mind or heart, or even of language, but only an insensible exchange of old habits for new, because the new are more economical and soon seem easier. The adaptation, like all the creative adaptations of nature, is imposed by external influences, by compulsory material arrangements, by daily absorption in the prevalent forms of thrift and management, and yet it seems to come from within. The old habits may thus be soon shed completely and without regret. Colonists, who move in masses into lands which they find empty or which they clear of their old inhabitants, have this advantage over straggling immigrants worming their way into an alien society: their transformation can be thorough and hearty, because it obeys their genuine impulses working freely in a new material medium, and involves no mixture of incompatible traditions. America is a vast colony, and it still seems such to people who migrate even into those prosperous parts of it, like the United States or the Argentine, which have long-established constitutions and manners. The newcomers make themselves at home; they adapt themselves easily and gladly to the material environment, and make a moral environment of their own on that solid basis, ignoring or positively condemning the religion and culture of the elder Americans. Perhaps the elder Americans are assimilated in spirit to the new ones more readily that the new Americans to the old. I do not mean that any positively German, Italian, Jewish, or Irish ingredients are incorporated into American traditions: on the contrary, the more recent immigrants are quick- much quicker than the British colonists were- to shed all their memories and start afresh, like Adam in paradise: and for that very reason they stand out as naked Americans, men sharply and solely adapted to the present material conditions of the world: and in this sense their Americanism is louder and bolder than that of the old Yankees or the old Southerners, to whom the merely modern world seems perhaps a little deafening and a little unprincipled.

Compared with the emigrant the explorer is the greater traveller; his ventures are less momentous but more dashing and more prolonged. The idea of migration is often latent in his mind too: if he is so curious to discover new lands, and to describe them, it is partly because he might not be sorry to appropriate them. But the potential conqueror in him is often subdued into a disinterested adventurer and a scientific observer. He may turn into a wanderer. Your true explorer or naturalist sallies forth in the domestic interest; his heart is never uprooted; he goes foraging like a soldier, out in self-defence, or for loot, or for elbow room. Whether the reward hoped for be wealth or knowledge, it is destined to enrich his native possessions, to perfect something already dear: he is the emissary of his home science or home politics. Your rambler, on the contrary, is out on the loose, innocently idle, or driven by some morbid compulsion; his discoveries, if he makes any, will be lucky chances, to be attributed to sheer restlessness and fishing in troubled waters. The inveterate wanderer is a deluded person, trying like the Flying Dutchman to escape from himself: his instinct is to curl up in a safe nook unobserved, and start prowling again in the morning, without purpose and without profit. He is a voluntary outcast, a tramp. The maladaptation from which he suffers and which drives him from society may not be his fault: it may be due to the closeness of the home atmosphere, the coldness there, the intolerable ache of discords always repeated and right notes never struck. Or it may express an idiosyncrasy by no means regrettable, a wild atavistic instinct, or a mere need of stretching one’s legs, or a young impulse to do something hard and novel. The mountain-climber, the arctic explorer, the passionate hunter or yachtsman, chooses his sport probably for mixed reasons: because he loves nature; because having nothing to do he is in need of exercise and must do something or other; or because custom, vanity, or rivalry has given him that bent; but the chief reason, if he is a genuine traveller for travel’s sake, is that the world is too much with us, and we are too much with ourselves. We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what. In the wake of the explorer another type of traveller is apt to follow, the most legitimate, constant, and normal of all: I mean the merchant. Nowadays a merchant may sit all his life at a desk in his native town and never join a caravan nor run the risk of drowning; he may never even go down into his shop or to the ship’s side to examine or to sell his wares. This is a pity and takes half the humanity and all the poetry out of trade. If a merchant may be sedentary, it should be at least in one of those old mansions in Amsterdam where the ships came up the canal to the master’s door, and the bales of merchandise were hoisted into the great lofts at the top of his house by a pulley that, like a curious gargoyle, projected from the gable. There the comforts and good cheer of family life could be enjoyed under the same roof that sheltered your wealth and received your customers. But if the merchant now will not travel, others must travel for him. I know that the commercial traveller is a vulgar man, who eats and drinks too much and loves ribald stories; he, like his superior, has been robbed of his natural dignity and his full art by the division of labour, the telegraph, and the uniformity of modern countries and modern minds; nevertheless I have a certain sympathy with him, and in those provincial inns where he is the ruling spirit, I have found him full of pleasant knowledge, as a traveller should be. But commerce has also its sea-faring men, its engineers, its surveyors, its hunters and its trappers; all indefatigable travellers and knowers of the earth. My own parents belonged to the colonial official classes, and China and Manila, although I was never there, were familiar names and images to me in childhood; nor can I ever lose the sense of great distances in this watery globe, of strange amiable nations, and of opposed climates and ways of living and thinking, all equally human and legitimate. In my own journeys I have been enticed by romantic monuments and depth of historical interest rather than by geographical marvels; and yet what charm is equal to that of ports and ships and the thought of those ceaseless comings and goings, by which our daily needs are supplied? The most prosaic objects, the most common people and incidents, seen as a panorama of ordered motions, of perpetual journeys by night and day , through a hundred storms, over a thousand bridges and tunnels, take on an epic grandeur, and the mechanism moves so nimbly that it seems to live. It has the fascination, to me at least inexhaustible, of prows cleaving the water, wheels turning, planets ascending and descending the skies: things not alive in themselves but friendly to life, promising us security in motion, power in art, novelty in necessity.

The latest type of traveller, and the most notorious, is the tourist. Having often been one myself, I will throw no stones at him; for facts or for beauty, all tourists are dear to Hermes, the god of travel, who is patron also of amiable curiosity and freedom of mind. There is wisdom in turning often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humour. I do not think that frivolity and dissipation of mind and aversion from one’s own birthplace, or the aping of foreign manners and arts are serious diseases: they kill, but they do not kill anybody worth saving. There may be in them sometimes a sigh of regret for the impossible, a bit of pathetic homage to an ideal one is condemned to miss; but as a rule they spring not from too much familiarity with alien things but from too little: the last thing a man wishes who really tastes the savour of anything and understands its roots is to generalise or to transplant it; and the more arts and manners a good traveller has assimilated, the more depth and pleasantness he will see in the manners and arts of his own home. Ulysses remembered Ithaca. With a light heart and clear mind he would have admitted that Troy was unrivalled in grandeur, Phaecia in charm, and Calypso in enchantment: that could not make the sound of the waves breaking on his own shores less pleasant to his ears; it could only render more enlightened, more unhesitating, his choice of what was naturally his. The human heart is local and finite, it has roots: and if the intellect radiates from it, according to its strength, to greater and greater distances, the reports, if they are to be gathered up at all, must be gathered up at that centre. A man who knows the world cannot covet the world; and if he were not content with his lot in it (which after all has included that saving knowledge) he would be showing little respect for all those alien perfections which he professes to admire. They were all local, all finite, all cut off from being anything but what they happened to be; and if such limitation and such arbitrariness were beautiful there, he has but to dig down to the principle of his own life, and clear it of all confusion and indecision, in order to bring it too to perfect expression after its kind: and then wise travellers will come also to his city, and praise its name.


Taken from The Birth of Reason and Other Essays
Photo by By Time magazine ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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