Once upon a time, walking was not just physical exercise, or an intellective lubricant, but a marker of civilization and even divinity.
Salve, amici! Every visit to the doctor these days seems to come with an exhortation to walk more. In the midst of a global obesity epidemic, the virtues of simple, low-intensity workouts like walking have seen a remarkable comeback, especially for the older among us and those with joint trouble. Walking comes to us almost as naturally as breathing, so naturally, in fact, that we think of it only in its absence—illness—or as a quiet act of solitary rebellion against the mechanization of society. Whether by sheer numbers or necessity, the present association of walking with health has become so strong that we forget what an important part such a simple activity held in our cultural and intellectual development.
Before health concerns came to dominate our physical activity scenario in the post-fast food age, walking was seen as a joyous pastime that promised liberation from the humdrum. The mid-19th century saw the birth of the flâneur in Paris, the urban stroller who explored boulevards and arcades, parks and cafés. Bourgeois intellectuals sauntered through the city, in imitation of the greats like Honoré de Balzac, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Charles Baudelaire, Franz Hessel, observing yet not participating in the ebb and flow of urban life. Walter Benjamin writes that it was fashionable to take turtles for walks in the 1840s; the chelonians would set the pace for the flâneurs.
The act of walking was at once of observing and being observed. It was an economic statement—that one could afford the idle luxury of a jaunt—as well as a cultural one, taking a bird’s eye view of city life, micro-history, and fashion; the city was a book to be read by walking. In the transience of walking was found a solitude of the crowded street, a detachment amidst the throngs, as Kierkegaard sought in Copenhagen, and Kant in Königsberg before him.
The urban walker, however, has been a bit of an endangered species in modern times. Whether due to the Stürm und Drang intellectuals, the Romantics, or some other intellectual movement, the spirit of the age has been to wander in the wilderness. Civilization was to be found in pristine nature rather than the trinkets of man. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was among the first who turned an intellectual gaze upon the mundane activity of walking, according it the status of a conscious activity and ascribing significance to walking for its own sake. Until then, walking had certainly been held in high regard but rarely in isolation.
Rousseau came at the beginning of an intellectually turbulent, uncertain time, and after him, the next century and a half turned his less-travelled path into a well-worn road—G.W.F. Hegel, Edmund Husserl, William Wordsworth, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, Frank O’Hara, and others added theories or anecdotes to the reflection upon walking.
Nature was the venue for these philosophers, away from the din and smog of the rapidly modernizing cities of Europe and America. Clean air, unpredictable breaks in the horizon, solitude, and the slow rhythmic pace were thought to rejuvenate mind and soul as the increasing popularity of Alpine resorts declared. There is surely something to the persistent claim that the bodily rhythms of walking somehow correspond to mental processes; think, for example, of how Jews shukel while learning the Torah or during tefillah. Perambulatory mechanics serve a similar purpose, though on a significantly more expansive scale and in pursuit of secular perspicacity.
Walking was seen as a deeply meditative practice, perhaps marginally inferior to reading; to walk was to wander in the mind as much as on land, as to read was to journey in the mind and on the page. For some, like Woolf, walking activated melancholy and gloom, while others, like Thoreau, found their muse in their rhythmic steps.
To walk was to unchain the mind from the strictures of convention to let it revel in the barely plausible. As the activity of philosophers and poets, walking was seen as an eminently intellectual pursuit rather than physical exercise. Walking was clearly associated with health as it is today, but it was more of a psychological, perhaps even spiritual, tonic rather than a physical one.
Before the philosophers came the pilgrims. In the Middle Ages, walking was the subject of poets, and pilgrimage was one of the fundamental forms walking could take. The view was neither physical exercise nor intellectual stimulation, but a quest for self-transformation, as much of the literature of the era, from Geoffrey Chaucer to John Bunyan, from Dante Alighieri to Thomas Malory, and Miguel de Cervantes to John Milton, reveals. Whether it is Virgil and Beatrice guiding Dante, Christian, or Persiles, the journey—walk—itself is central to the narrative and the protagonists are passively passing through.
The sanctity of a pilgrimage had diminished considerably by the 15th century as pilgrims had become notorious for their chicanery and hence objects of mockery and suspicion. This is at the root of the subtle ridicule Chaucer, Cervantes and others expose their bawdy and playful protagonists to. However, in the early Middle Ages, pilgrimages were difficult and fraught with danger, truly an act of penance.
Yet it was only in the Greco-Roman world that walking was not just a show, an intellective lubricant, or exercise, but a marker of civilization and even divinity. Of course, walking was all those other things too but it was much more. In his Geographica, the Greek geographer narrates an anecdote about an early interaction between the Romans and the Vettonians, a local Iberian tribe. Upon seeing a couple of Roman generals out for a stroll between the tents, the Vettonians were puzzled and tried to lead them into comfortable seating quarters since they thought that one should remain seated if not engaged in some utilitarian task. This is amusing to Strabo because the “barbarians’” response betrays their lack of culture. So strong is this view that it lasted even until the Age of Empire when the imperial portrayal of Orientals as indolent implied their inferiority on the civilizational scale.
To Romans, walking was a profoundly social activity; to be seen strolling with someone marked him as a good friend. The assumption of a constant audience made even the smallest of acts markers of identity and character. Though Cicero accepts the contemplative aspects of walking in De Officiis, he makes it clear in his letters to Atticus (Epistulae ad Atticum) what the true importance of walking was—company and conversation as a symbol of friendship. In fact, it is rare to find flâneurs in Latin literature.
How one walks was also very important to Romans—one’s gait was a mirror to one’s mind and character. A remarkable sample of the value of one’s gait is seen in Book Six of Virgil’s Aeneid, when a young Aeneas asks his father about the character of several heroes as they walk through the city. Earlier in the Aeneid, when Aeneas and Achates have been shipwrecked and separated from their men, they chance upon a strange woman—the goddess Venus, incognito—who tells them the story of the land they have found and its queen. Virgil writes, “...et vera incessu patuit dea (and the goddess was revealed by the way she walked)”.
Iris is similarly revealed in Book Five of the Aeneid when she appears in disguise to urge the Trojan women to burn their ships.
The intense focus on gaits meant that considerable effort was spent in teaching the children of the elites how to walk properly. The delicious paradox is that the gait was considered a natural indicator of character and here were the elites, training to be natural! Men walked differently from women, slaves from free men. Within the polis, elite Romans inevitably walked in groups; just two noblemen with their bodyguards was enough to comprise a small group, and the companion and the guards indicated wealth, status, and ties.
Unlike the Romantics, the Greco-Roman world was also quite hostile to walking in nature. A telling exchange can be found in Plato’s Phaedrus, when the eponymous protagonist tries to urge Socrates out of the city walls. The Greek philosopher replies, “You’ll have to forgive me, my friend. I’m an intellectual, you see, and country places with their trees tend to have nothing to teach me, whereas people in town do.”
Of course, the Peripatetic philosophers are the more commonly known example of this attitude; Aristotle believed that to leave the polis would be the act of either a god, unmoved by wild nature, or a beast.
Seneca, however, reveals an ambiguity in the Roman mind towards nature in his De Tranquillitate Animi: they are at once interested in it and yet have a negative opinion of it.
So next time you go for a walk, remember—you are not only going to get some exercise but also to contemplate, meditate, display yourself, and participate in an act of civilization. Go ahead, reveal the divinity in you!
Until next time, stammi bene!