A Stoic Perspective on the Urge to Travel

stoicism and the urge to travel

Having an urge to travel is a pretty common experience. Often, we may get an itch to pack up and leave the country when we feel bored with our routine, burdened by the stresses of everyday modern life, or simply because we cannot shake the enticing prospect of new and interesting experiences. This urge to travel, however, hasn’t escaped the interest of philosophers. Indeed, one of the key aspects of any philosophy of travel must include the why of travel – and not just why people should travel or what the benefits of travel are that motivate people to travel in the first place (although these questions are important, as well). A perhaps more illuminating question may be why many of us have a strong urge to leave home and explore new places. Which is what this article aims to address.

Is the urge to travel quite particular to the individual? And – if so – does this relate to an individual’s constitution, such as a natural tendency towards exploration, or could this drive be more born out of an individual’s life situation, such as their current career, lifestyle, or personal struggles? In answering these questions, it will be helpful to turn to the perspective of the Stoics, those ancient Roman philosophers who extolled the importance of carefully examining one’s impulses, desires, and reactions. These philosophers believed that this kind of self-awareness was essential to achieving peace of mind; after all, to avoid being controlled and confined by one’s fickle urges, one first has to become conscious of them and understand their true nature.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca had quite a lot to say about the urge to travel – yet his perspective on this drive, which we may also call wanderlust (a term I personally despise) or the travel bug, often took the form of a warning. Seneca was well aware of people’s restlessness about staying home, as well as their compulsion to travel, and argued that this urge often came out of a desire to escape the unpleasant realities of one’s mind. Let’s see what he specifically had to say about the urge to travel.

Seneca on the Urge to Travel

In Moral Letters to Lucilius, Seneca wrote a letter (number 28) titled On Travel as a Cure for Discontent, opining that travel is anything but an antidote for our suffering. He writes:

Do you suppose that you alone have had this experience? Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate. Though you may cross vast spaces of sea, and though, as our Vergil remarks, Lands and cities are left astern, your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel.

Of course, travelling can improve your mental health. But it is not the panacea that many of us believe it to be. And this is the point that Seneca is trying to emphasise here. Travelling may allow you to de-stress and decompress, yet it can never – in and of itself – resolve the same old internal problems that plague you at home. Seneca adds in his letter:

Socrates made the same remark to one who complained; he said: “Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.” What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or in surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? It is because you flee along with yourself. You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.

The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson also encapsulated this message by describing such a person as “bringing ruins to ruins”. Any attempt to escape oneself through travel, while understandable, is always doomed to fail. You may create a false expectation of shedding your personal baggage when you arrive at your destination (usually, you only temporarily forget it) and then you might believe you can take your shiny new self back home with you. However, the happy, untroubled version of yourself you think you have actualised during your travels sadly tends to vanish when you return home (or, at least, only lingers for a short while). This raising and eventual dissolving of one’s hopeful expectations can make the return to one’s mental burdens even more disheartening.

From a Stoic perspective, reacting to dissatisfaction and inner turmoil with the urge to travel is just setting oneself up for further suffering – it would be wiser, more protective of one’s well-being, to learn to accept unpleasant experiences rather than try to escape them (through travel or any other means). The therapeutic value of this ancient teaching finds its modern counterpart in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a talking therapy commonly recommended for the treatment of depression and anxiety. CBT, like Stoicism, wants to help people reduce the discrepancy between expectations and reality, as well as encourage people to be accepting of unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and feelings, rather than allow such experiences to fuel unhealthy patterns of avoidance and escapism.

There is nothing inherently wrong with frequent travel, according to the Stoics. In fact, since educating and improving oneself was so central to the Stoic outlook, travel could, indeed, act as a reliable path towards these goals. What Seneca was noticing in his time, however, was a tendency that people had to seek out travel as a way of escaping hardship, which isn’t a pattern of behaviour that lends itself towards building a resilient mind that has learnt how to cope with distressing experiences and situations in an accepting, resolute, and calm manner.

What is intriguing is just how old this compulsion is to escape one’s routine and home life, as well as the desire to tread new territory in an attempt to leave one’s hardships behind. Furthermore, the development of civilisation and incredible strides we have made have not seemed to have placated this impulse; rather, it is alive and well, and perhaps felt even more strongly by people, as well as being more widespread, which could be thanks to societal changes that have made us feel the urge to travel even more, such as the universality of highly structured, repetitive, and meaningless work, the envy-inducing power of social media, and the rise of mental illness.

Many people who get into a habitual pattern of travel as a means of escape may find that they become disillusioned with travel, feeling listless as a result. This is because travelling cannot act as the sole provider of meaning and fulfilment that we think it will be. From afar, we may view the continual travellers as the happiest people on the planet. Yet, while these people may be exposed to a certain richness in life that others are not familiar with, their lifestyle doesn’t mean they are any happier than the person who travels less or never at all. In Seneca’s mind, an unshakeable travel bug is sometimes a sign of people trying to avoid themselves. As he writes:

They make one journey after another and change spectacle for spectacle. As Lucretius says, ‘Thus each man flees himself.’ But to what end if he does not escape himself? He pursues and dogs himself as his own most tedious companion. And so we must realize that our difficulty is not the fault of the places but of ourselves.

His advice is: “You must change the mind, not the venue”. But Seneca is not talking in absolutes here. It’s important to reiterate that the Stoics were well aware of the value and positive potential of travel. It is up to each individual with an urge to travel to pay close attention to such an urge and not to be afraid of asking why it exists – and not to be resistant to the answer that arises, either.

Leading a Virtuous Life

From a Stoic perspective, you don’t need to travel to live a good and virtuous life. And as is quite often the case, travel can actually serve as an impediment in this respect. While someone may insist that his or her travelling escapades are about self-discovery and the broadening of one’s horizons and knowledge of the world, certain trips may, instead, boil down to distraction, self-indulgence, and the heightening of one’s ego. When this kind of travel becomes the main focus of one’s life, then this would be missing the mark in the mind of a Stoic. Wisdom and a virtuous character do not automatically come from being well-travelled.

Seneca underlined that the ability of the individual to live a virtuous and happy life, from the Stoic point of view, does not depend on where you are or where you are going. He said of the travel addict “…you are not journeying; you are drifting and being driven, only exchanging one place for another, although that which you seek – to live well – is found everywhere.” Epictetus, a slave who became another one of the great Stoic philosophers, delivers the same message. In his Discourses, Epictetus addresses a student who is eager to see a magnificent statue of Zeus at Olympia, produced by the illustrious artist Phidias. His response to the student’s desire to travel is as follows:

…you regard it as a misfortune to die without seeing such sights. But when there is no need to travel at all, and where you are already, and Zeus is present in his works—will you not desire to contemplate these things and understand them?  Will you never perceive either who you are, or for what you have been born, or the purpose for which this vision has been given to you?

Indeed, becoming a virtuous person (developing the four main types of virtues celebrated by Stoics – wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation) has nothing to do with your specific location. A fertile location for leading a Stoic life is wherever you happen to be. Also, a lot of the time, it is easier to focus on developing virtue when you are quite firmly planted in the place you call home. For it is at home where we form our strongest relationships, such as those with family, friends, and partners – and it is these types of relationships that call for us to be virtuous. Moreover, having fixed roots also tends to be associated with building a career, a community life, and a stable routine, which – again – invite opportunities for us to hone our virtues. Self-indulgent and ego-driven travel, on the other hand, may be an enjoyable form of respite from the stresses of everyday life, but it won’t help to resolve our deficits and vices, nor will it move us into the direction of virtue. In Letter 69, Seneca contends:

The mind cannot find strength in its leisure unless it stops looking around and wandering around.  To keep your mind within bounds, you must first stop your body from running away.

Then in Letter 104, he writes:

What has travel as such been able to do for anyone?  It doesn’t control pleasures, curb desires, check outbursts of temper, or mitigate love’s wild assaults: in a word, it removes no troubles from the mind.  It does not bestow judgment or shake off error; all it does is provide a change of scene to hold our attention for a moment as some new trinket might entertain a child. Apart from that, travel exacerbates the instability of a mind that is already unhealthy.  Indeed, the very movement of the carriage makes us more restless and irritable.  The result is that people who had been passionate to visit some spot are even more eager to leave it, just like birds that fly from one perch to another and are gone more swiftly than they arrived. Travel will acquaint you with other races, it will show you mountains of strange shape, unfamiliar plains, and valleys watered by inexhaustible streams.  It will enable you to observe the peculiarities of certain rivers— . . . yet it will not improve you, either in body or in mind. We need to spend our time on study and on the authorities of wisdom in order to learn what has already been investigated and to investigate what has not yet been discovered.  This is the way for the mind to be emancipated from its miserable enslavement and claimed for freedom.  But as long as you are ignorant of what to avoid and what to pursue, and remain ignorant of the just, the unjust, the honorable, and the dishonorable, you will not really be traveling but only wandering. Your rushing around will bring you no benefit, since you are traveling in company with your emotions, and your troubles follow along.  . . .  A sick person does not need a place; he needs medical treatment. If someone has a broken leg or dislocated a joint, he doesn’t get on a carriage or a ship; he calls a doctor to set the fracture or relocate the limb.  Do you get the point?  When the mind has been broken and sprained in so many places, do you think it can be restored by changing places?  Your trouble is too grave to be cured by moving around. Travel does not make one a doctor or an orator.  One does not learn a skill from one’s location.  Do you suppose that wisdom, the greatest of all skills, can be assembled on a journey?  Believe me, there is no journey that could deposit you beyond desires, beyond outbursts of temper, beyond your fears.  If that were so, the human race would have headed there in droves.  So long as you carry around the reasons for your troubles, wandering all over the world, those troubles will continue to harass and torment you. Are you puzzled that running away is not helping you?  What you are running from is with you.  You need to correct your flaws, unload your burdens, and keep your desires within a healthy limit.

Likewise, for Ryan Holiday – co-author of The Daily Stoic – there is nothing intrinsically virtuous about being well-travelled. He put it like this:

There is to me, a lot more to admire in someone who stayed put and challenged their perspectives and habits and lifestyle choices at home than there is to some first world Instagram addict who conflates meaning with checking off boxes on a bucket list. 

My Own Urge to Travel

In writing about the pitfalls of the urge to travel, I have kept in mind how the Stoic perspective here can shine a light on my own impulses. It would be fair to say that I have travelled a lot and still have the travel bug, as I’m always eager to find new destinations to explore. For me, a massive part of the excitement of travel comes from planning and having a trip on the horizon. So, given that travel plays such an important role in my life (to the extent that my career choice of going freelance and working remotely was partly designed to accommodate this passion), have I – and am I still – merely trying to escape myself and my home life?

If I’m being completely honest with myself (which is no easy feat), then I would have to admit that the Stoic warning about the urge to travel does somewhat resonate with me. I think I have felt the urge to travel strongest when I have been struggling. The struggle could relate to poor mental health and personal stagnation, or feeling that life was lacklustre in some way; but, whatever the struggle, in hindsight, I can see how I tried to fix it with travelling. Undoubtedly, escapism has not always been the sole or even predominant motivation for wanting to travel. I was – and still am – driven to travel due to other factors: food, culture, photography, people, architecture, nature, novelty, education, curiosity, and getting out of my comfort zone. Yet, it would be insincere to pretend that my compulsion to travel has had nothing to do with escapism.

Over time, I think I’ve discovered that when I’m home and I put my focus into addressing vices, developing virtues, and living an ethical life, the less likely I am to feel such a powerful urge to travel. I don’t necessarily believe that pursuing a virtuous life eradicates an interest in travel or necessarily makes people travel less (although, it very easily can do this, if someone travels a great deal). However, I do personally see value in incorporating Seneca’s wisdom, as I think it can help me to become a bit more self-aware of my impulse to travel, perhaps encouraging me to question the why of travel more than I am accustomed to doing. Also in accordance with Seneca’s thoughts, I’m trying to build a life that I don’t want to flee from. From a Stoic perspective, this endeavour is much more important (and rewarding) than constantly chasing fulfilment through travel.

2 Comments

  1. August 12, 2019 / 1:14 pm

    Thanks for this Sam – always good to discover when you are in broad agreement with the stoics 🙂

    I particularly liked the paragraph ‘The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson…’ because (or in spite) of the fact that I recognise these as thoughts I’ve entertained myself along the way. And doubly true, I think, when your travel happens to involve squatting in the jungle, singing to sacred plants and hallucinating, etc. Your message about the importance of integration work fits in comfortably here – I particularly think back to the Harvard Psilocybin Project, who recorded disappointing results in trying to reduce recidivism among prisoners. Simply put, they gave prisoners a powerful, paradigm-shifting experience, and then returned them to the exact same conditions.

    I am reminded of a similar Dogen quote which really resonated with me, on the off-chance you’ve not come across it – “If you are unable to find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?”

    As well as safeguarding myself against excessive daydreaming about disappearing up a mountain for a year of spiritual work, it seems to satisfy people when they learn that my previous contemplative soujourns were to much less exotic surroundings.

    • Sam Woolfe
      Author
      August 13, 2019 / 10:16 am

      I like the parallel you draw between travelling and psychedelic journeys – very true! Neither of those trips will cure an unhappy mind if you just return to the same conditions (psychological and environmental).

      That Dogen quote is also fantastic and definitely gets to the heart of the issue. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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