A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros brings together biography and an exploration of the history and meanings of the simple act of taking a walk. Gros pulls together an interesting selection of philosophers, writers, and leaders who all used walking to stimulate ideas and some even to push for social change.
On a personal level, I really do love taking walks through different cities, and that is what drew me to this book to begin with. Being able to spend the entire day just exploring, crossing bridges over a river, or stumbling upon a neighborhood I didn’t even know about… These are all experiences that allow me to clear my head and feel like I fully inhabit a place. Also, as a runner, I find that going out and doing this repetitive, sometimes monotonous and exhausting activity, allows the chatter in my mind to quiet down and a clearer perspective to emerge. Ideas often strike when I am up and out, moving around, engaged and really seeing the world. Going for a walk can be the best way to get out of whatever mental rut you find yourself in.
I suppose the most glaring omission for me is the sociological side of this story. How do power and inequality shape the movement of people through public space? How does race, class, and gender influence a person’s access to public spaces, to a sense of safety, to reaping all the benefits of being able to just go out and take a stroll? This would of course be my interest, but these aren’t Gros’s questions here and that’s a different book altogether.
One of the most intriguing parts of the book is a discussion of the history of pilgrimages and the spiritual aspects of walking. On some level, fatigue from walking can be purifying. Gros writes about how walking strips away our social roles. When I am out walking by myself, I am not my occupation or my relationship to others. These roles fall away and I am that more basic, fundamental self, that core of me that just exists and does not need to justify or defend or impress. I think this is an important aspect of spiritual life, or as Diane Ackerman calls it, “deep play.” I am really intrigued by those moments when we are engaged in whatever activity it may be that pulls us closer to…. whatever you want to call it. It could be “Buddha nature” or “God” or something else that doesn’t quite get at it either. Anyway, this is a good reminder of the importance of contemplation and solitude and walking, and overall, an enjoyable and quick read.