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The Gymnasiums of the Mind

Christopher Orlet wanders down literary paths merrily swinging his arms and pondering the happy connection between philosophy and a good brisk walk.

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.”

In order that he might remain one of the fittest, 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. 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.”

None of these laggards, however, could touch Friedrich Nietzsche, who held that “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” Rising at dawn, Nietzsche would stalk through the countryside till 11 a.m. Then, after a short break, he would set out on a two-hour hike through the forest to Lake Sils. After lunch he was off again, parasol in hand, returning home at four or five o’clock, to commence the day’s writing.

Not surprisingly, the romantic poets were walkers extraordinaire. William Wordsworth traipsed fourteen or so miles a day through the Lake District, while Coleridge and Shelley were almost equally energetic. According to biographer Leslie Stephen, “The (English) literary movement at the end of the 18th century was…due in great part, if not mainly, to the renewed practice of walking.”

Armed with such insights, one must wonder whether the recent decline in walking hasn’t led to a corresponding decline in thinking. Walking, as both a mode of transportation and a recreational activity, began to fall off noticeably with the rise of the automobile, and took a major nosedive in the 1950s. Fifty plus years of automobile-centric design has reduced the number of sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly spaces to a bare minimum (particularly in the American west). All of the benefits of walking: contemplation, social intercourse, exercise, have been willingly exchanged for the dubious advantages of speed and convenience, although the automobile alone cannot be blamed for the maddening acceleration of everyday life. The modern condition is one of hurry, a perpetual rush hour that leaves little time for meditation. No wonder then that in her history of walking, Rebecca Solnit mused that “modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness,” which seems the antithesis of Wittgenstein’s observation that in the race of philosophy, the prize goes to the slowest.

If we were to compare the quantity and quality of thinkers of the early 20th century with those of today, one cannot help but notice the dearth of Einsteins, William Jameses, Eliots and Pounds, Freuds, Jungs, Keynes, Picassos, Stravinskys, Wittgensteins, Sartres, Deweys, Yeats and Joyces. But it would be foolish to suggest that we have no contemporaries equal to Freud, et al. That would be doing an injustice to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Edward O. Wilson, James D. Watson, and the recently departed Stephen J. Gould. But as to their walking habits, they varied. Gould, a soft, flabby man, made light of his lack of exercise. Edward O. Wilson writes that he “walks as much as (his) body allows,” and used to jog up until his forties. Watson, the discoverer of the DNA molecule, frequently haunts the grounds of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, particularly on weekends, and is said to be both a nature-lover and bird-watcher.

There seems no scientific basis to link the disparate acts of walking and thinking, though that didn’t stop Mark Twain from speculating that “walking is good to time the movement of the tongue by, and to keep the blood and the brain stirred up and active.” Others have concluded that walking’s two-point rhythm clears the mind for creative study and reflection. Though not every man of letters bought into this. Max Beerbohm, in his essay ‘Going Out for a Walk,’ found walking to have quite the opposite effect:

“My objection to it is that it stops the brain. Many a man has professed to me that his brain never works so well as when he is swinging along the high road or over hill and dale. This boast is not confirmed by my memory of anybody who on a Sunday morning has forced me to partake of his adventure. Experience teaches me that whatever a fellow-guest may have of power to instruct or to amuse when he is sitting on a chair, or standing on a hearth-rug, quickly leaves him when he takes one out for a walk.”

And while Einstein may have been a devoted pedestrian (daily hoofing the mile-and-a-half walk between his little frame house at 112 Mercer Street and his office at Princeton’s Fuld Hall), the inability to walk has not much cramped Stephen Hawking’s intellectual style.

There is also reason to suspect that creative contemplation in the solitude of one’s automobile may be as beneficial as a walk in the woods, though considerably more hazardous. J. Robert Oppenheimer was known to think so intensely while driving that he would occasionally become a danger to motorists, pedestrians and himself. He once awakened from a deep academic reverie to find himself and his car resting at the top of the steps of the local courthouse.

While the intellectual advantages of walking remain open to debate, the health benefits are beyond doubt, though you would never know it by the deserted American streets. Here, where the average citizen walks a measly 350 yards a day, it is not surprising that half the population is diagnosed as obese or overweight. Despite such obscene girth, I have sat through planning commission meetings and heard civil engineers complain that it would be a waste of money to lay down sidewalks since no one walks anyway. No one thought to ask if perhaps we do not walk because there are no sidewalks. Even today, the typical urban planner continues to regard the pedestrian as “the largest single obstacle to free traffic movement.”

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, walking remains for me the best “of all exercises.” Even so, I am full of excuses to stay put. My neighborhood has no sidewalks and it is downright dangerous to stroll the streets at night; if the threat does not come directly from thugs, then from drunken teens in speeding cars. There are certainly no Philosophers’ Walks in my hometown, as there are near the universities of Toronto, Heidelberg, and Kyoto. Nor are there any woods, forests, mountains or glens. “When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and the woods,” said Thoreau. “What would become of us, if we only walked in a garden or a mall?” I suppose I am what becomes of us, Henry.

At noon, if the weather cooperates, I may join a few other nameless office drudges on a stroll through the riverfront park. My noon walk is a brief burst of freedom in an otherwise long, dreary servitude. Though I try to reserve these solitary walks for philosophical ruminations, my subconscious doesn’t always cooperate. Often I find my thoughts to be pedestrian and worrisome in nature. I fret over money problems, or unfinished office work and my attempts to brush these thoughts away as unworthy are rarely successful. Then, again, in the evenings I sometimes take my two dachshunds for a stroll. For a dog, going for a walk is the ultimate feelgood experience. Mention the word ‘walkies’ to a wiener dog, and he is immediately transported into new dimensions of bliss. I couldn’t produce a similar reaction in my wife if I proposed that we take the Concorde to Paris for the weekend. Rather than suffer a walk, my son would prefer to have his teeth drilled.

In no way am I suggesting that all of society’s ills can be cured by a renaissance of walking. But maybe – just maybe – a renewed interest in walking may spur some fresh scientific discoveries, a unique literary movement, a new vein of philosophy. If nothing else it will certainly improve our health both physically and mentally. Of course that would mean getting out from behind the desk at noon and getting some fresh air. That would mean shutting down the television in the evenings and breathing in the Great Outdoors. And, ultimately, it would involve a change in thinking and a shift in behavior, as opposed to a change of channels and a shift into third.


Christopher Orlet is an essayist and book critic. His work appears often in The American Spectator, the London Guardian, and Salon.com. Visit his homepage at www.christopherorlet.net.

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