Friday, 18 November 2016
TLS, November 18, 2016
WALKING WITH PLATO
A philosophical hike through the British Isles
224pp. Oneworld. £12.99. 978 1 78074 656 2
Friedrich Nietzsche used to walk for up to eight hours a day, often rising well before dawn. “I am always on the road two hours before the sun comes over the mountains,” he wrote from Switzerland in 1877, “and especially in the long shadows of afternoon and evening.” His fellow philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was of a similar disposition, writing to his niece thirty years before: “every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it”. It is no coincidence that these two men, each physically and mentally tormented, were both keen walkers.
As Gary Hayden, the author, previously, of You Kant Make It Up!: Strange ideas from history’s great philosophers (2011) observes in his latest book Walking with Plato: A philosophical hike through the British Isles, there is something about walking that soothes the spirit and frees the mind, especially for those with a less than cheery temperament. Walking with Plato has the appearance of a semi-serious travelogue, in which the author and his wife make the sometimes arduous and often dreary hike from John O’Groats to Land’s End. One might expect Bill Bryson with a dash of Alain de Botton. But Hayden, by his own admission, isn’t very interested in the landscape. He hasn’t even taken a notebook with him. It’s mostly an inventory of damp campsites and nondescript hotels, where “we lounged on the bed, ate crisps and chocolate and watched Strictly Come Dancing. But, apart from that, it’s all a blank”.
Candid throughout about his own sombre constitution, Hayden is here, rather, on an inward journey. The physical act of trekking becomes a challenge in itself, the landscape a sideshow. He introduces us to other characters for whom the simple act of perambulation was an end in itself. The cast includes Bertrand Russell (“The secret of happiness is to understand that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible”), Charles Dickens, who composed A Christmas Carol in his head in a series of nocturnal ramblings in the winter of 1843, and Plato, who came to learn that physical vigour promotes intellectual vigour, and that the two promote psychological vigour.
The author emerges at the end a happier man in this affable affair. “I did take pleasure in pitting myself against these obstacles, day after day, and overcoming them.” At Land’s End he surfaces as a naive, everyday Nietzsche – the philosopher who proposed that life was about accepting strife in order to overcome it.