An unrivalled journey into our simplest wildness.
Frederic Gros’ short book on walking seems innocuous enough. The back cover of A Philosophy Of Walking hardly captures the imagination with its lead statement:
“The many different ways we get from A-to-B and what they say about us.”
And yet, through carefully written, simple prose he renders us transfixed companions in the felt experience of walking, captivated by the wisdom he reveals from the great walkers of both literary and philosophical canons.
The book is divided loosely into two types of chapter through which Gros delivers the many and varied merits of walking. The work is underpinned by his own personal experience as a walker and supported by the often surprising biographies of the likes of Rousseau, Rimbaud and Kant.
What we can learn from famous walkers.
Gros uses famous walkers from history to illustrate far-reaching values of walking.
In The Daily Walk, a chapter about the philosopher Kant who walked the same route at the same time every day, we discover how walking can be a vehicle for dedication, discipline and will. This contrasts with Rimbaud’s insatiable and indefatigable drive to walk huge distances throughout Europe and Africa for very different reasons in the chapter The Passion for Escape.
The chapter on Rousseau is particularly powerful. A man who went through the “masked play-acting” still familiar to many of us (search ‘social media’ for reference) before walking away and writing his greatest works, Gros draws some life-affirming conclusions.
“When there is nothing left to do or believe, except to remember, walking helps retrieve the absolute simplicity presence, beyond all hope, before expectation.”
The final biography is that of Gandhi, a man whose image is indelibly linked to walking. Gros discusses many reasons why Gandhi found walking his ideal perfect protest vehicle that led him to several of his most famous long distance, non-violent marches to resist the ruling British. These reasons distill, for me, to one passage buried within the account.
“Gandhi promoted through the marching movement a dimension of firmness and assurance: to keep going. That is essential, because walking calls for gentle but continuous effort.”
What our own walking can teach us.
In-between the biographies, Gros drops chapters about the base thrills and benefits of walking as well as the many reasons why we may get up from our desks and walk.
These cover ideas such as Energy, Silences, Freedoms and Pilgrimage which he tells through anecdotes of his own experiences and philosophical thinking that dates back to the Ancient Greeks.
Gros sets us up to enter these varied dimensions of walking with his manifesto-like opening chapter. Discounting the effect of commercialisation on walking (as has befallen running and yoga among other activities), Gros opens the book with Walking Is Not A Sport, a two-page destruction of the idea that walking is a competition.
This first chapter’s themes are picked up again throughout the book, enabling us to see the values he draws out that sit outside of our everyday achievement-based value system.
Here I am preparing to challenge our achievement-based value system (otherwise known as going for a walk). Image by Rowan Heydon-White.
Why should we want to read about walking?
Walking is merely a function to most of us; it is just the simplest way to trample the tarmac from A-to-B and get on with the more interesting aspects of living. So why should we read about it or consider it’s potential as a philosophy.
Well, for a reason hidden in this mindset.
Walking is a functional act. It does carry us from A-to-B. But by disappearing this action into an unfelt and unmemorable place, by relegating it to the purely functional act of transport, is to deny the richness that lies within it.
It denies the freedom and new perspective found in the disconnection of walking.
“Not only does your world not collapse within these disconnected moments, but those connections suddenly appear to be burdensome, stifling, over-restrictive entanglements.”
It denies the indulgence and relief that comes through walking away from noise to discover silence.
“Walking: it hits you at first like an immense breathing in the ears. You feel the silence as if it were a great fresh wind blowing away clouds.”
And so on, until we have a bagful of reasons why we should rise, simplify and travel on foot. And while Gros describes the idyllic benefits of walking through typically mountainous landscapes, he also offers us ways of bringing these values to us immediately, whatever our situation.
Some obvious reflections I had when thinking about the book included:
What if we chose to make our quotidian walks opportunities to check in with ourselves, rather than check-in on some far-away, abstracted social media world? Or what if a walk could be thought of as a chance to really hear the world around us rather than just plough, head-down and determined, through the clouds of stimuli.
Read articles on Hiking here (including guides from the US, Spain and Japan).
Go for a slow journey with A Philosophy of Walking
Gros manages to show the multitudes of potential values to each of us without falling into typical esoteric, vaguely idealistic traps or moralistic pleas. He keeps our feet on the ground and walks us across the solidity of experience, philosophical thought and biographies of great minds who found personal motivations in this simple bodily action.
His simple appeal seems to be this: if we were to walk with an openness to its possibilities, we could change our lives.
This is a book for lovers of literature, philosophy, walkers and those who are intrigued by walking. In short, it is for us all; an invitation to reconsider this simplest of actions many of us neglect to value. And like a good walk, I will be returning to this book for wisdom again and again in the future.