A Philosophy of Walking is not the kind of book I usually read, but it is the kind of book I would like to read more often.
As the title suggests, this is not just a simple book about walking; it is a discussion of the philosophy of walking. The book alternates between Frédéric Gros’s enlightening thoughts on walking and what famous philosophers such as Nietzsche, Rousseau, Thoreau and Kant thought of walking. According to Gros, walking is the best way to slow down, to get in touch with yourself. And it’s simple.
To walk, you need to start with two legs. The rest is optional. If you want to go faster, then don’t walk, do something else: drive, slide or fly. Don’t walk. And when you are walking, there is only one sort of performance that counts: the brilliance of the sky, the splendour of the landscape. Walking is not a sport.
Walking is a form of liberation: “you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history.”
Despite a brilliant academic career, for Nietzsche, walking provided a way out of intense suffering. His long walks in the mountains furnished the inspiration for his later writings, almost entirely thought out while on foot. The last ten years of his life were spent in solitary wanderings, which resulted in his best work.
Ought one really to walk alone? Nietzsche, Thoreau and Rousseau are not alone in thinking so. Being in company forces one to jostle, hamper, walk at the wrong speed for others. When walking it’s essential to find your own basic rhythm, and maintain it. The right basic rhythm is the one that suits you, so well that you don’t tire and can keep it up for ten hours.
Alone one can listen to the silence: the silence of the woodlands, the silence of a hot summer afternoon in the mountains, the silence of early morning, the silence of the snow, and the extraordinary silence of the night.
Gros begins by commenting on shorter walks, then discusses walks that span days. Halfway through the book, he goes further back in time to consider the early pilgrimages, in which walking played an integral role. According to Joseph Bédier, a historian of medieval literature, “In the beginning was the road.”
The beginning, he meant, of the narrative, the novel, the epic poem. At the beginning of our literature, we would have found pilgrims’ roads. Bédier’s view is that early epic poems were born there, in the dust of the roads to [Santiago de] Compostela.
Towards the end of his book, Gros grants particular attention to the various states of well-being induced by walking: joy, serenity, happiness. He also provides a chapter on Gérard de Nerval’s “melancholy wandering.”
For Gros, there is no better way to stay connected to the earth than by walking, perhaps the most natural of human activities. He suggests we consider
those abstracted sedentary individuals who spend their lives in an office rattling their fingers on a keyboard: ‘connected’, as they say, but to what? To information mutating between one second and the next…. And after work it’s the subway, the train, always speed, the gaze now glued to the telephone screen, more touches and strokes and messages scrolling past, images … and night falls, when they still haven’t seen anything of the day. Television, another screen. What dimensions do they live in, without dust raised by movement, without contact, in what featureless space, in what time, where neither rain nor shine count? Those lives, disconnected from roads and routes, make them forget our condition, as if erosion by changing weather over time didn’t exist.
I’m taking up walking, seriously.