A Philosophy of Walking by Frederic Gros

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A Philosophy of Walking by Frederic Gros

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An inspirational wander through some of the great philosophers' lives as reflected in their habit of walking, as well a meditation on what it means to walk. Insightful, thoughtful, one to savour and to return to.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: April 2015
Publisher: Verso Books
ISBN: 978-1781688373

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I confess I picked this one up from the library in my pre-lockdown forage for random stuff. Now I have to go out and buy my own copy so that I can turn down the pages I have marked and return to its varying wisdom when I need to. Some books draw you in slowly. This one had me in the first two pages, wherein Gros explains why walking is not a sport.

Sport he tells us is all about rules and technique. It is by its nature competitive and has become, by our current nature, consumerist. It is something to be worked at, excelled at, rewarded for. Walking by contrast is play, all you need to do is put one foot in front of the other. Walkers greet each other, share routes and views, offer help and guidance. He admits that efforts are made to turn walking into a sport, with all the gear and such-like but, he says none of that goes very far. It can't go far and then he says this: Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found. To walk, you need to start with two legs, the rest is optional. Everything that follows sets about showing how optional, what the options are, and how different people – writers and philosophers and the author himself – have responded to them.

Walking is not a sport – even when it gets commoditised through treks and hikes and rambles and consumerised through kit and gear, it is at best many sports. There is an infinity of ways in which one can walk. In this book Gros looks at some of them through the eyes of the people who indulged in them and wrote about it.

There are essays on Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau and Thoreau. There are discourses on the stoics and the cynics and walking as a means of teaching and as a theatre in which to teach, and to learn. There are discussions on lives spent walking by way of escape and no other means of transport, and thoughts on walking through cities as well as in the wilderness. Walking is a means of escape and of return. He talks about the promenade in formal gardens which, he believes, is not a walk but a dance and the flânerie which is also about watching and being seen. He explores the nature of the pilgrimage and the protest march, and his own experience of walking.

His philosophy is that walking is a continuous perception of gravity – gravity not as a weighing down but a holding, a connection. He also speaks frequently about the monotony of walking…a bodily monotony, that allows the mind to wander. I listened to a Buddhist teacher recently talking about the 'monkey mind' the chitter-chatter inside our heads. He explained that monkey mind needs a job, loves to have a job and if we give the monkey-mind a job to do, it will be quiet. This is why meditation often has a chant, or an object of focus, a sound, the breath, something, anything to give the monkey-mind a job: focus on breath, focus on flame…so that when the chatter arises we tell our monkey-mind quietly 'no, your job is the breath, the flame..' and that part of the mind goes back to it. I think Gros is getting at something similar when he talks about the monotony of walking, the endless one foot in front of the other, the only thing to do today is to walk, to get to the end of the next stage, to follow the path…that part of it is all giving the monkey-mind something to do. He doesn't express it in those terms. In doing so, it frees up the rest of the mind to reflect, to absorb, to be still, or to create.

The other important thing about walking is what it does to our relationship with landscape. It eloquently reminds us of our place in it, how small we are. We become part of the landscape. When we travel by vehicles, a wood or a hill or a plain is there ahead of us and then beside and then behind so quickly it flows past that we can barely notice, much less appreciate it, or ourselves in relation to it. When we walk, especially on long walks, multi-day walks, we become part of the world, of the planet, the landscape assumes its proper distance, its real proportions. A hill might seem as far away at night as it did in the morning for all the miles travelled in between.

In talking about long walks, back-pack treks, he considers the art of packing, which is about getting beyond what is merely useful down to what is essential. Everyone who has packed for such a walk knows that the first thing you do is set out everything you 'need' – then immediately discard at least half of it before you even try to pack. Then you start to pack and to heft the pack and to think about weight over usefulness and into the territory of 'what is the worst that will happen if I don't have this'. He doesn't go so far as to recommend that you sling your pack in a tree and walk on without it, although he has done so himself, but suggests that we at least contemplate what it means to get beyond what is 'merely useful'.

Walking does this to a brain…it gives it space to think about things…and there's no telling what it will come up with. I'll leave you with this from one of the early chapters entitled Slowness

Slowness, Gros says, is not the opposite of speed. The illusion of speed is that it saves time….it's an abstract calculation though, done as if each hour of the day were like an hour on the clock, absolutely equal. But haste and speed accelerate time, which passes more quickly, and two hours of hurry shorten a day. Every minute is torn apart by being segmented, stuffed to bursting. You can pile a mountain of things into an hour. Days of slow walking are very long: they make you live longer because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breathe, to deepen…

I love that.

If you're inspired to go out and walk yourself, we can recommend a couple of other titles to strengthen the desire: Walking Home by Simon Armitage and the anthology While Wandering - A Walking Companion by Duncan Minshull. We also loved Out There by Chris Townsend.

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