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A Stoic Response To Wanderlust (and the Travel Bug)


“Do you suppose that you alone have had this experience? Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.” — Seneca

Ah, the dream of travel. The perennial bug to hit the road and see the world. It is older than you think. Even in Stoic philosopher Seneca’s time, even in Socrates’ time, the ancients shared our same lust to see pretty sites and far flung places.

It was a trend that the Stoics were, while not totally opposed to, skeptical of. Because they knew that far too often travel was not being sought for the noble reasons of education, of exposure, for challenging oneself or even for tranquility. Even 2,000 years ago people were traveling as a luxury good and as an escape. Even 200 years ago they were, as Emerson said, “bringing ruins to ruins.”

So the Stoic response to wanderlust is first, as it is to so many things, a simple question: Why are you traveling?

There is nothing inherently valuable in travel, no matter how hard the true believers try to convince us. You don’t magically get a prize at the end of your life for having been to the most places. Or really, any places.

Seneca has a great line about the restlessness of those who seem compelled to travel. They go from resort to resort and climate to climate, he says. “They make one journey after another and change spectacle for spectacle. As Lucretius says, ‘Thus each man flees himself.’ But to what end if he does not escape himself? He pursues and dogs himself as his own most tedious companion. And so we must realize that our difficulty is not the fault of the places but of ourselves.”

He would also write to a friend in a letter titled “On Travel as a Cure for Discontent” how Socrates would say the same:

“Socrates made the same remark to one who complained; he said: “Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.” What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or in surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? It is because you flee along with yourself. You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.”

For a Stoic it would be hard to see anything to envy in most people who travel. Because deep down they are simply fleeing themselves and the lives they’ve created. Or worse, they’re telling themselves that they’re after self-discovery, exploration or perspective when really they are running towards distraction and self-indulgence.

Is that why you’re packing up your things and hitting the road? Remember, nothing has wasted more precious life than the cult of travel for its own sake. So so-and-so has been to Africa? And? So they’ve spent a month in hostels in Thailand? Yes? What did they really learn there, that they couldn’t have gotten from some other source? What did they really do? What was the purpose of any of it? Wisdom doesn’t come from going places.

The purpose of travel, like all important experiences, is to improve yourself and your life. It’s just as likely — in some cases more likely — that you will do that closer to home and not further.

So what you can think about when you travel is that “why.” Is it as a form of escape or for more noble reasons such as education?

So know your why. Travel with a purpose—or don’t, stay put with a purpose. As Emerson would write, “They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth.” His point is that the cult of travel-as-a-religious-experience is an absurd, bankrupt notion. The cities you’re traveling to see were built by people who sat down and worked instead of flittering around the way that only rich white kids seem to think is their birthright.

So when you have that urge to travel to escape, keep in mind Seneca’s advice that the ability to live the good life can be found anywhere: “…you are not journeying; you are drifting and being driven, only exchanging one place for another, although that which you seek – to live well – is found everywhere.”

Don’t bring ruins to ruins. Build a life worth visiting, that you don’t want to flee.

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