Another Opening Day in May! Our first Stroll Through Western Civilization class meets late this afternoon, starting with the first three chapters of Arthur Herman’s The Cave and the Light.
Right off the bat, I want to call the class’s attention to a different bit of body language than we usually notice or stress when gazing at the centerpiece of Raphael’s “School of Athens” – not the hands, but the feet. Those guys are taking a stroll, as they debate the relative merits of transcendent versus earth-centered philosophy. And so will we, figuratively and (when summer weather and mood allow) literally, as we stride through centuries of Platonic perfectionists, Aristotelian peripatetics, and other “footnotes” (as Alfred North Whitehead said) to Plato and Aristotle.
Midway through our course we’ll bring A Philosophy of Walking explicitly into the conversation. In fact I’ll bring it up right away today, while Frederic Gros waits in the wings. Chris Orlet’s “The Gymansiums of the Mind” is a good first step.
If there is one idea intellectuals can agree upon it is that the act of ambulation – or as we say in the midwest, walking – often serves as a catalyst to creative contemplation and thought. It is a belief as old as the dust that powders the Acropolis, and no less fine. Followers of the Greek Aristotle were known as peripatetics because they passed their days strolling and mind-wrestling through the groves of the Academe. The Romans’ equally high opinion of walking was summed up pithily in the Latin proverb: “It is solved by walking.”
Nearly every philosopher-poet worth his salt has voiced similar sentiments. Erasmus recommended a little walk before supper and “after supper do the same.” Thomas Hobbes had an inkwell built into his walking stick to more easily jot down his brainstorms during his rambles. Jean- Jacques Rousseau claimed he could only meditate when walking: “When I stop, I cease to think,” he said. “My mind only works with my legs.” Søren Kierkegaard believed he’d walked himself into his best thoughts. In his brief life Henry David Thoreau walked an estimated 250,000 miles, or ten times the circumference of earth. “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits,” wrote Thoreau, “unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from worldly engagements.” Thoreau’s landlord and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson characterized walking as “gymnastics for the mind.” (continues, Philosophy Now)
How much more solidly grounded is a philosophy that travels? A lot, I say. William James called for a shift in philosophy’s center of gravity, towards the “earth of things.” You don’t have to take very many steps before you begin to feel the literal sense of that shift. Boots on the ground, or sandals (or Skechers) feel more real, less abstract, than so much ethereal Gradual School seminar palaver.
Rebecca Goldstein’s perspective on all this is novel. In Plato at the Googleplex she cites an exchange between Paul Boghossian and Stanley Fish over moral relativism and the relevance of philosophy. Fish says philosophy’s conclusions “do not travel.” Goldstein observes:
“These lines from Fish might have come straight out of one of Plato’s nightmares.
Picture Plato waking all of a heart-pounding sudden on an airless Athenian summer night, these words thundering in his head: Philosophy doesn’t travel. Were these the words of some doom-declaiming oracle or fragments of his own internal doubt… He feared that the conclusions reached around philosophy’s seminar table might stay around philosophy’s seminar table.”
Not for us they won’t. We’ll take them out into the courtyard of our Lyceum. There’s a Starbucks on the other side of it, and beyond that the Boulevard – if any of us needs further incentive to travel.
To the journey!
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