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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’