Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer of 18th-century Romanticism, best celebrates the solitary walker within the literature of perambulation. His political philosophy influenced the French Revolution as well as the overall development of modern political, sociological and educational thought, yet for our purpose he extols the virtues of walking alone. His book Reveries of a Solitary Walker, composed in later life (1776-1778) was an autobiographical work that reflected the late 18th-century movement known as the Age of Sensibility, featuring an increasing focus on subjectivity and introspection, and amply demonstrates the benefits derived from taking solitary walks.
Although other writers within the genre of walking literature have extolled these virtues of solitary walking as well (such as William Hazlitt, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Henry David Thoreau), it was Rousseau who appears to lend the practice its clearest voice. A somewhat bitter and ostracized social commentator toward his later years, Rousseau utilizes walking as a therapeutic and pleasurable means toward conversing with his soul, as it was the only pleasure that his fellow-men could not take away from him (Walk #1). His claim that he could meditate only while walking, as his mind only appeared to work when his feet were engaged too, gives heed to the belief that musing and movement go hand in hand! He likewise discovers in his numerous walks that following the maxim to Know Thyself, inscribed on the temple walls of Delphi, were not as easy as he had originally imagined. It required serious work with a clear focused intent, yet he states that “these hours of solitude and meditation are the only time of the day when I am completely myself, without distraction or hindrance, and when I can truly say that I am what nature intended me to be.”
William Hazlitt (1778-1830; an English writer, humanist and philosopher) in his essay On Going A Journey says he is never less alone than when alone, as when out-of-doors he has the world of nature for company! Like Rousseau though, his feeling is that the soul of any journey is liberty, and perfect freedom, to think, feel, and do, just as one pleases! Only then, within that undisturbed silence of the heart, will perfect eloquence be found. Others, as company (for him), become distractions, and, as he rightly asserts, he never argues with himself!
There is one occasion though where Hazlitt feels it is a boon to have a companion while out walking, and that is at day’s end when one is to take a meal – “I grant,” he says “there is one subject on which it is pleasant to talk on a journey; and that is, what one shall have for supper when we get to our inn at night. The open air improves this sort of conversation or friendly altercation, by setting a keener edge on appetite.” I would most heartily agree with this sentiment!
Robert Louis Stephenson, in his Walking Tours, likewise claims that a walk should be undertaken alone. “Freedom is of the essence” he says, “because you should be able to stop and go on, and follow this way or that, as the freak takes you; and because you must have your own pace, and neither trot alongside a champion walker, nor mince in time with a girl. And then you must be open to all impressions, and let your thoughts take color from what you see.”
Left to one’s own company, Stephenson claims we can find ourselves doing “happy thinking”. He says “we are all so busy, and have so many far-off projects to realize, and castles in the fire to turn into solid habitable mansions on a gravel soil, that we can find no time for pleasure trips into the Land of Thought…… to make our voice audible a moment in the derisive silence of eternity, that we forget that one thing, of which these are but the parts – namely to live.”
If these hours of solitude and meditation are the only time of the day when one can completely be themselves, without distraction or hindrance, and when one can truly say that they are what nature intended them to be, my question then becomes – when do we today find these moments? If we find these moments.
Assuming that if the esteemed authors quoted, during the 18th and 19th centuries, found it difficult, what can it be like today when our modern world tends to pollute our atmospheres with every sort of distraction?
Is it even possible for us to think our own thoughts today?
Walking becomes a form of meditation then for those who take to the “Open Road” in this more subjective, introspective way. The solitary walker, and taking walks alone, is an excellent means toward achieving health. Dietary health being not only what we nourish ourselves physically by, but also with what we nourish our souls. It is often stated that “through the wheat-fields of our minds we will nourish our souls”, and I can think of no better way to gain this life-giving principle than by taking a walk within the world of nature. Walking brings us back into relationship with the environment, creating a human scale where a sense of distance, perspective, and time is regained. We actually do come to our senses again!
As the great American poet Walt Whitman so aptly stated it in his poem The Open Road:
“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, Healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good fortune, Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms, Strong and content I travel the open road.”
Imagine; to think, feel, and be healthy and free with the world before you – a requisite dietary need for all of us at some point along the “open road” of discovering our unique genius and calling within the world. Only then, within that undisturbed silence of the heart, will we discover what nature intended us to be.”
Worth some attention.