A Philosophy of Walking, Frédéric Gros, translated by John Howe, illustrated by Clifford Harper. Brooklyn: Verso, 2014.
Summary: An extended reflection on the significance of walking as part of the human condition, consisting of short chapters interspersed with accounts of walking philosophers.
During the pandemic, the daily walk, usually about an hour before the last light of the day, has become part of my pandemic routine. It is the time I de-compress from a day of zoom calls and other activities that usually involve sitting in front of a computer. I need to move my body and clear my head. Sometimes I pray, sometimes I think, sometimes I notice the effects of the changing seasons on the yards of my neighbors. And sometimes I’m just present, putting one foot in front of the other in this most basic of human activities.
It turns out I’m hardly the first to reflect on something we’ve been doing since late in our first year of life. Frédéric Gros is a philosopher at the University of Paris, specializing in the philosophy of Michel Foucault. In this work, Gros explores the meaning of walking, the different ways and reasons we walk, and offers vignettes of other philosophers for whom walking was important. Each chapter is headed with finely drawn illustrations reflecting the chapter theme.
He begins by reminding us that walking is not a sport. We don’t keep track of rankings or times (although walking apps actually do this, which seems to be a good way to ruin a good walk). He observes: “Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.” He considers the freedom of walking and the reversal of our normal indoor lives, especially on long walks where we spend our days outdoors and only shelter indoors, or sometimes in a tent we carry. Basic to walking is its slowness that lengthens and enriches time. He discusses the paradox of solitary walking, in which we are actually more aware of the company of the world about us. Even when we walk with others, we enjoy solitude as our paces vary. We embrace silence as the chatter of our days falls away. We experience states of well-being.
Gros considers various kinds of walks beginning with the ultimate walk, the pilgrimage, the walk that symbolizes our journey through life. Pilgrims embark to bear witness to and deepen their faith, and sometimes to expiate their sins. Over a couple of chapters he considers some of the most significant pilgrimage routes in various parts of the world. Then he turns to the Cynics, whose walks are a kind of protest against all the conventions of human society.
At the opposite end of walking is the stroll, probably describing the kind of walks that are part of my daily routine (as well as the philosopher Kant–although don’t set your clocks by mine!). Then there are the promenades in public gardens and the flaneurs, strolling and stopping to gaze at the crowds and the scene. That might describe our teen years at the local shopping mall!
Gros breaks up his musings on walking with vignettes on philosophers who walked. Most fascinating, and perhaps the most disturbing was Nietzsche, who walked to relieve his terrible headaches, who composed some of his greatest works while walking, and whose physical and mental decline corresponded with an eventual paralysis that ended his walks, his work, and his life. We meet the poet Rimbaud whose walking led to a swelled knee requiring amputation, which led to his death. We trace the passage from morning to night in Rousseau’s life, from the exaltation of his youth evident in Confessions, to the increasing solitude of his middle years when he identified himself as homo viator, and finally the last walks in the evening of life around Paris, when he wrote Reveries.
Thoreau’s writings are filled with his walks. We meet the melancholy Nerval who in the end hangs himself. Perhaps the great contrast to so many of these is Kant who loved his work and his table and adhered to a disciplined schedule people could set their clocks by. Gros contends that the monotony of bodily effort liberated the mind, that the regularity of walking fueled the steady and massive output of thought, and its inescapability reflected a will working steadily toward the arrival at an end. Most inspiring, perhaps was his account of Gandhi, who walked and marched throughout his life, a picture of simply keeping going.
It was fascinating how important walking was to the work of these philosophers. Yet walking was far from a panacea it seems–in some cases like Rimbaud, a contributing factor to his death. I wonder if there was something in walking, and this is apparent in Thoreau and Gandhi, of life stripped to its essentials, its marrow. I wonder if we also walk in an awareness of the shadow of death, walking while we can in the awareness of the coming day when we will be unable.
Frédéric Gros has given us a book filled with reflections of why we walk, stroll, go for hikes, embark on pilgrimages. He invites us to not leave our walking unexamined but to live in awareness of this elemental practice capable of giving us joy, wonder, clear minds, and awareness of our nature and destiny.