Solvitur ambulando

Today in CoPhi we consider (and practice?) the peripatetic way of life, the approach to philosophy and philosophizing legendarily credited to Aristotle’s Lyceum apprentices and carried forward through the ages by the likes of Hobbes, Rousseau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Mill, Darwin, Russell, and so many more. Christopher Orlet guides our tour.

Solvitur ambulando was Diogenes the Cynic‘s supposed rebuttal to Zeno‘s Paradoxes of Motion. It’s a clever and (say some possibly sexist celebrants) manly rhetorical riposte, but more impressively it’s a solid practical demonstration that ideas simply have to travel, to get anywhere. Up again off your Thinking Rock, your comfy chair, your laurels and your conventions. Perambulate, people, at least down the hall and back if not out into the wide open spaces of our local lyceum. It’s about to get wintry here again, but that never stopped Socrates. Maybe some of us are more like Descartes, whose mind purportedly “only worked when he was warm.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, said “My mind only works with my legs.” (Also a good heat-and-light source.) I’m with him on that, so long as I still have legs to stand on. A mind really should be flexibly adaptable to circumstantial necessity.

Rousseau was not in fact known for his adaptability, being one of the more bumptious and difficult thinkers of all time. He was a little crazy, but his Reveries of the Solitary Walker registers some of the delights of the long-distance strider while striking a few good aphorisms along the way. “I have never thought, for my part, that man’s freedom consists in his being able to do whatever he wills, but that he should not, by any human power, be forced to do what is against his will.”

And, “Truth is an homage that the good man pays to his own dignity.”

And, “In all the ills that befall us, we are more concerned by the intention than the result. A tile that falls off a roof may injure us more seriously, but it will not wound us so deeply as a stone thrown deliberately by a malevolent hand. The blow may miss, but the intention always strikes home.”

And ponder this passage, in which J-J describes the temporary suspension of ego that a good walk can engender.

“Entirely taken up by the present, I could remember nothing; I had no distinct notion of myself as a person, nor had I the least idea of what had just happened to me. I did not know who I was, nor where I was; I felt neither pain, fear, nor anxiety. I watched my blood flowing as I might have watched a stream, without even thinking that the blood had anything to do with me. I felt throughout my whole being such a wonderful calm, that whenever I recall this feeling I can find nothing to compare with it in all the pleasures that stir our lives.”

The New England transcendentalists went in big for the “gymnastics for the mind” too. “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.” Henry walked to work every day. Nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try (and don’t live 42 miles away from campus).

“Charles Darwin planted a 1.5 acre strip of land with hazel, birch, privet, and dogwood, and ordered a wide gravel path built around the edge. Called Sand-walk, this became Darwin’s ‘thinking path’ where he roamed every morning and afternoon with his white fox-terrier.” He loved dogs as much as he loved walking and thinking. Like us, Darwin’s dogs are still evolving.

“Of Bertrand Russell, long-time friend Miles Malleson has written: ‘Every morning Bertie would go for an hour’s walk by himself, composing and thinking out his work for that day. He would then come back and write for the rest of the morning, smoothly, easily and without a single correction.'” That really works, sometimes. But it doesn’t work for “the average citizen [who] walks a measly 350 yards a day… it is not surprising that half the population is diagnosed as obese or overweight.”

Several cities around the globe have a designated “Philosophers’ Walk,” and we peripatetics are doing our best to inaugurate informal ones everywhere we go. Did you see all those philosophers marching out there Saturday, all around the world?

Today in Fantasyland Kurt Andersen recalls Sir Walter Raleigh’s gold-digging dream (a base to the first student who knows who called him a “stupid git,” before promising to “give you everything I’ve got for a little peace of mind”), and regrets the early colonial pseudoempiricism he thinks helped pave the way for our present predicament. He cites historian Daniel Boorstin’s contention that American civilization has favored those who are inordinately credulous and receptive to advertizing, and Sir Francis Bacon’s prescient point about what we now call confirmation bias. “My side right or wrong” is a charirtable rendering of that attitude these days, when bias rarely acknowledges its own fallibility. Now, typically, it’s just: “My side – !” Or, “I believe, therefore I’m right.”

The School of Life, btw, is out with a new video saying bias isn’t always a bad thing. But maybe they just want to believe that. “Loathing of bias is the flipside of faith in facts.” Faith in? Or fidelity to? Semper fi, reality-based community.

Andersen says our founding mythology underrates the “run-of-the-mill” puritans who were in it for the money and not so much the theology, the first nonnative new Americans who landed at Plymouth Rock rather than Jamestown. “The Puritans are conventionally considered more ‘moderate’ than the Pilgrims. This is like calling al-Qaeda more moderate than ISIS.”

Finally, Andersen reminds us that our forebears were apocalyptic. They were sure the end was near, and said so right after proclaiming Ronald Reagan’s “city on a hill.” Let’s hope they’re not about to have their dream fulfilled. But, that Doomsday Clock is ticking.*

Originally published 1.25.18

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