7 reasons to travel according to philosophy

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” –– Mark Twain


To travel – that is to “make a journey, typically of some length,” to quote The Oxford Dictionary – is an obvious choice for many of us. Indeed, there is nobody who technically speaking has not travelled. We grow up accompanying parents on foreign holidays or local camping trips. We travel to our first day at school, we travel to our grandparents’ house for a weekend away. We travel to the local park to play, we travel to England’s second city for university. We travel to South East Asia for our gap year, we travel to Australia to live for a year or so (just on a whim).

Adventurous travel – travel for growth as much as travel for its own sake – is of course different. Going somewhere specifically to see that place and take that place in – the deliberate act of covering swathes of the earth to experience it in all its visceral beauty – is a noble pursuit. Plenty of the most influential writers, thinkers, leaders and explorers in history have had profound things to say about why we travel and, more importantly, why we should travel. Here we call on seven of our favourite to explain why it is we should make the effort, year in and year out, to cover as much ground over this incredible planet as we can.

1. Benjamin Disraeli: “Travel teaches toleration”

When 19th-century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli says “travel teaches toleration” he’s touching on travel’s most fundamental gift: teaching us to empathise with the other; with the unknown. If we go somewhere we have never been before – if we see something we have never seen – all but the most obtuse of us will be fundamentally changed and able to understand more, and so tolerate more.

2. Gustave Flaubert: “Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world”

If we wish to develop Disraeli’s notion of tolerance into a profound self-awareness, we could look no further than Gustave Flaubert’s observation that travel gives us the platform and scale from which we are able to step outside our ego-centric everyday lives and understand just what a small role our existence plays in the world as a whole. Gaining perspective on our place in the world is invaluable for our wellbeing and that oft-neglected modesty Flaubert briefly mentions.

3. Alain De Botton: “It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves”

In his book, The Art Of travel, contemporary philosopher Alain De Botton extends on Flaubert’s idea of us finding our place in the world through travel. Whilst Flaubert instructs as to look outward in our journey, De Botton’s instruction is to look inward; an instruction for introspection within a new context which will allow us to find the essence of our being perhaps not previously reflected by a too familiar environment. “The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not,” De Botton points out. “The domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we essentially are.”

4. Henry David Thoreau: “Not until we are lost do we begin to find ourselves”

American philosopher Henry David Thoreau asks that we not only travel but that we allow ourselves to let ourselves be utterly lost on our way so as to begin to find the most important parts of ourselves. The mundanity of anyone’s everyday routine can have the rather displeasing habit of restricting us to narrow patterns of behaviour, which in turn lead to narrow patterns of thought, which in turn – ultimately – lead to narrow experiences that are as soon forgotten as they are easily fallen into. Let’s take Thoreau at his word: let’s travel, let’s allow ourselves to be lost and let’s find our true selves in the process.

5. Daniel J Boorstin: “Great stirrings of the mind have frequently followed great ages of travel”

A historian at the University of Chicago in the first half of the 20th Century, Daniel Joseph Boorstin makes the observation that great ages of travel – think The Age Of Discovery cited to have taken place in Europe roughly between the 15th and 18th centuries – have oft lead to the broadening in general of the minds of nations and their people. It would be remise not to mention Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution here: outlined in his 1859 On The Origin Of Species, Darwinism was heavily influenced by the naturalist’s five-year voyage of the world aboard the HMS Beagle in the 19th Century. It would be impossible to overstate how much the theory stirred the minds of its contemporaries.

6. GK Chesterton: “The traveller sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see”

Once we put together a strong argument in favour of travel, we could do worse than to carry the words of GK Chesterton with us. The English writer and philosopher wished to stress the difference between the traveller – one who intends to explore and discover – and the tourist, who is best described as a diligent list-keeper and list-checker. Don’t fall into the trap of seeing and ticking-off the world’s most famous landmarks without actually seeing them.

7. Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did”

Finally, the most important reason we have to travel is, in a nutshell, because we would regret it if we didn’t. The planet is vast and incredibly diverse and not to witness even a small fraction of the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that nature and humankind have to offer across the globe would be a true tragedy. In the eloquent words of American writer Mark Twain, let us “throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sail. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Lest we regret not doing so.

–– Rosie Pentreath, December 2017.

Santorini, Greece | Photo © Rosie PentreathHarpa, Reykjavik Iceland | Photo © Rosie PentreathCot Valley, Cornwall | Photo © Rosie PentreathWeston Super Mare, England | Photo © Rosie PentreathBerlin | Photo © Rosie Pentreath

Soundtrack to this post: ‘Chateau’ by Angus & Julia Stone


Can Travel Save Us From Materialism?

Rosie Pentreath

Founder and host of OUTcast Podcast. Rosie is an LGBTQ+ writer, digital producer and musician, often found travelling to some far flung place or other, to take photographs on a 1970s Pentax SLR camera or flick through a good book. Rosie has contributed to Reader's Digest, Cosmopolitan, Grazia, Classic FM, BBC Music Magazine, Homes & Antiques, Music Feeds, The Fashion Spot and other arts and lifestyle publications.


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