Have Horse, Will Travel

“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

– G. K. Chesterton

A horse with wings?

Andrew Sullivan has had a series of posts over the last few weeks about the wisdom of travel.  The theme arose in his review of Justice Souter’s hermetic happiness, continued with Chesterton, and followed on to Emerson, David Foster Wallace, and finally ended up with a reader and Sullivan himself.

So, the question is:  Should the wise person travel?

The refrain that echoed through Souter, Chesterton and Emerson, was an emphatic “No!”

So let’s parse this out.


“I have never managed to lose my old conviction that travel narrows the mind.”

The Cowboy was ready to dismiss Chesterton’s statement as pure xenophobia, but of course, the fullness of his thoughts are more complex.

“So long as he thought of men in the abstract, like naked toiling figures in some classic frieze, merely as those who labor and love their children and die, he was thinking the fundamental truth about them. By going to look at their unfamiliar manners and customs he is inviting them to disguise themselves in fantastic masks and costumes. Many modern internationalists talk as if men of different nationalities had only to meet and mix and understand each other. In reality that is the moment of supreme danger–the moment when they meet. We might shiver, as at the old euphemism by which a meeting meant a duel.

Travel ought to combine amusement with instruction; but most travelers are so much amused that they refuse to be instructed. I do not blame them for being amused; it is perfectly natural to be amused at a Dutchman for being Dutch or a Chinaman for being Chinese. Where they are wrong is that they take their own amusement seriously. They base on it their serious ideas of international instruction. It was said that the Englishman takes his pleasures sadly; and the pleasure of despising foreigners is one which he takes most sadly of all. He comes to scoff and does not remain to pray, but rather to excommunicate. Hence in international relations there is far too little laughing, and far too much sneering. But I believe that there is a better way which largely consists of laughter; a form of friendship between nations which is actually founded on differences.”

It is not xenophobia but xenophilia that drives Chesterton’s admonition against travel.  When we study foreign peoples, we can learn about them in a meaningful, profound way, being fascinated by their differences while understanding the fundamental truth of their similarity to us.

“Man is inside all men.”

Hmmm….  Let’s move on to see what Emerson has to say.

“Travelling is a fool’s paradise.”

Well, that’s pretty clear, but here’s some elucidation for grins:

“But the rage of travelling is a symptom of a deeper unsoundness affecting the whole intellectual action. The intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters restlessness. Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.”

Emerson worries about distraction and intellectual laziness.  We should force our minds to travel.  Chesterton’s argument carries more weight with the Cowboy.  Dear, dear Emerson, you’ve let us down.

How about David Foster Wallace?  Oh, heck.  Here’s the whole thing via Sullivan:

“As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way.

My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all.”

My god.  No wonder he killed himself.

Now for Sullivan’s reader.  The Cowboy REALLY would love to know who this is.  It’s the best part yet:

“Inward and outward journeys are simply not opposed, and to pretend that they are in order to adhere stuffily to the superior excellence of the inward journey is just irritating.  It doesn’t make people deeper and more thoughtful and more excellent when they consciously seek ways to use delicate perceptions to rise above the unquestioned truisms of the mob; it just makes them irritating.  They are irritating in this respect even when–as sometimes happens–I agree with their conclusions.

David Foster Wallace has a far more penetrating take on the question of tourism when he points out how humbling it is.  The passage you quoted from him seemed to fit right in with my doubts about so many of the conservative positions I have read.  People who take a stand on tradition, seeing it as an island of tested order amid the dangerous chaos of possible futures, are likely to look for sophistical ways to reject that experience of humiliation, since the doubtful new has, in this worldview, a constant, intrinsic strike against it.  Furthermore, such people are likely to see their own attitude as a praiseworthy battle against ephemerality and indiscipline.  I experience it as fear resulting in an ill-founded pride.  Priding themselves on preserving the high beauties of the old ways against the destructive Philistinism of the unruly  and uneducated, they patronize and trivialize the past, while refusing the creative future.  That seems to me the reverse of excellent.  Worse, it leads too easily to a refusal to look critically and humbly at ideas that, in my view, can only stay alive if they are constantly required to converse honestly with reality.  The strains of conservatism of which I complain here often fail to look critically at the past and view the future with wariness and a presumption of contempt.  The dislike of travel for such a person is the expression of something existential.  I can’t admire it.”

Wow.  I wish I had written that.  I didn’t get that out of the Wallace, but then I’m just a simple cowboy.  I couldn’t see past the doom and gloom.

And finally, we need to see what Sullivan says in response.

“I take the Burkean and Oakeshottian view that conservatism epistemologically means an abandonment of certainty in practical life, which means a skepticism toward both radical change and toward rigid aversion to all change. Conservatives who never want change or who resist it consistently are not conservatives in this sense. They are reactionaries, hewing to an abstract ideology or theology or simply unthinking temperament where true conservatism would allow itself flexibility. Conservatives who embrace all change regardless or without due caution are obviously not conservative at all. What marks the conservative temperament, rather, is a willingness to change, sometimes radically, but never without a deep sense of  loss. Conservative change has none of the thrill of liberal “progress”. It has a tragic tincture to it, even as the conservative statesman will sometimes go further than any liberal might. Think Disraeli on suffrage, or Lincoln on war, or Burke on American independence, or Reagan on nuclear weapons.

The proper conservative resistance to travel is not, therefore, a blinkered resistance to the new; it is an understanding that we have never fully absorbed or understood what we already know; that the places we love are still mysterious, and understanding of them should never be mistaken for simple familiarity. Seeking new superficialities at the expense of familiar depths is a neurosis, not an adventure.”

This is Sullivan at his best.  And the Cowboy loves this definition of conservatism.  Heck, he might even be willing to call himself a conservative by this definition.

So what is the Cowboy’s take on travel?  You have to start here.

The Cowboy sees the development of thought as one component in the development of the person.  And for the latter, travel is paramount.   Hopefully, for the thinking person, it also helps put thoughts into context and drive their development.

Would the best thinker be a person devoid of emotion?  Of senses?  Perhaps.  But more likely not.  For it is the senses and emotions that frame our thoughts and direct them.  For the Cowboy, the same can be said of travel.

For the person as a whole, for “EQ” as well as “IQ”, for leadership skills, for creativity, even for imagination, travel is an incredible tool.  It fosters humility as well as understanding.  It opens the mind.  It shows new ways of thinking.  It challenges assumptions.

How can anyone who believes in the development of the person deprive themselves of the benefits of travel?  And if one is blessed with a strong mind and cares to exercise it, why limit its inputs?  Why restrict its ability to see new things.  No.  Give it wings and let it fly!

Conservative?  Progressive?  Yes.  But with a horse.  And wings.  Definitely with wings.

Published in: on May 21, 2009 at 21:54  Comments Off on Have Horse, Will Travel  
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