Sunday, December 27, 2009

Peripatetic Blogging

I have neglected my walking of late and have consequently fallen behind in my blogging. The walking and the blogging are tightly connected. If I don't get out and walk, I lack things to observe and comment upon and, more importantly, my mind has difficulty seizing upon ideas. When I sit quietly, my mind goes blank. But as I walk in the world, ideas mysteriously come to my consciousness like bubbles rising to the surface of a pond from the shadowy depths.

The relationship between perambulation and cogitation has a long history. In 335 B.C. Aristotle founded the peripatetic school of philosophy, so-called from the walkways or colonnades (peripatoi) of the Lyceum gymnasium in Athens. Aristotle, according to some later histories, would conduct his lectures while strolling with his students.

The dependence of thought on sensory impressions was recognized by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. From the teachings of the peripatetic philosophers, Thomas Aquinas adopted the Peripatetic Axiom: "Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses."

In the modern era, there have been divergent opinions about how walking affects thinking. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) saw the value of observing nature during a walk but discouraged deep thinking and mulling over ideas. Rather, he saw walking as a way to give the mind rest. He summarized his views in an 1785 letter:

"The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far. The Europeans value themselves on having subdued the horse to the uses of man. But I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained by the use of this animal. No one has occasioned so much the degeneracy of the human body. An Indian goes on foot nearly as far in a day, for a long journey, as an enfeebled white does on his horse, and he will tire the best horses. There is no habit you will value so much as that of walking far without fatigue."

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) held a differing opinion. He asserted, "All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking."

I fear that I have to depart from the great Jefferson and side with Nietzsche on this matter, although in general I find Nietzsche's philosophy distasteful and wish that he had done a great deal more walking before he put his thoughts to paper.

In my experience, walking awakens the mind and begets ideas. At least those are my thoughts right now after a short stroll to the post office. If I had walked farther, I would probably have better insights to share.