In our age, it is a truism that travel is an important part of a life well-lived. It is true that cultural diversity, rightly understood, should include real, concrete encounters with the customs and habits of other peoples and places.
Yet some commentators go further: in their view, a life filled with travel is the best sort of life. They place great value upon being a “nomad,” traveling and experiencing a particular culture for some time before picking up to see the next. The merit of this way of life is supposed to be its freedom from oppressive attachments: to work, to place, even to family.
In this view, travel has no further telos. “We travel,” writes Andrew Blackman, “in order to travel.”
Anyone who has traveled to another country or city can surely describe the vivid, unique experiences and tangible sights that made their trip eye-opening and fulfilling. Seeing other parts of the world brings a renewed sense of wonder and awe at the great variety of customs and the cultures they represent.
Yet there is a deeper and more nuanced significance to travel that is often either ignored or explicitly rejected. Reflecting on the ancient Greek practice of political theory can help us to understand travel in a more holistic and integrated way, both in terms of its own goodness and of its importance for society.
Such reflection also demonstrates why it is crucial for us to foster dispositions of settlement and place within our globally connected, technology-driven world.
Learning from the Greeks
The ancient Greek practice of political theory was rooted in the centrality of travel.
At the request of his city, the Greek theorist would travel to and observe various other city-states. Through close and attentive observation, the theorist assessed the practices, customs, and way of life made manifest in the language, history, architecture, philosophy, and social and political institutions of each city. The theorist would then return to his home city and give a reasoned explanation of what he had seen.
In other words, a vital part of the theorist’s office included being able to articulate why the other city’s inhabitants lived the way they did.
The theorist would assess other city-states’ cultures, analyzing whether certain practices were good and relating his analysis to perennial questions about human happiness, justice, civic life, and most especially friendship. His account was meant to help the citizens living in the theorists’ own homeland to achieve a greater understanding of their own habits and customs.
For example, observation of the Spartan way of life, with its esteem for military virtue, was not only of scientific, anthropological interest. It also provided an occasion for asking whether and to what extent the Spartan way was in accord with the good life.
In his Politics, Aristotle argued that although some form of military is indispensable for the sake of justice, the reductive Spartan perspective would inevitably lead to an empire in which the military had an outsize importance.
The Purpose of Travel
This ancient practice can help illuminate and correct our contemporary notions and practices regarding travel. The first illuminating position worth calling to mind here pertains to the goodness of travel as an end in itself.
When the Greek theorist traveled to other cities, it was presupposed that such a journey was worth doing for its own sake. The aesthetic experiences, the participation in games or ceremonies, or the culinary particularities of other lands were a testament to the varied goodness that was manifest beyond one’s own cultural and national borders.
Attending an opera in London can help us to see the arts, and the necessity for high culture, in a way before unknown to us. Drinking wine from one of the many local vineyards in the Napa Valley can provide us with a deeper awareness and sensitivity to the centrality of soil and agriculture for a flourishing regional economy. There is a healthy kind of cosmopolitanism in these experiences that can help us overcome parochialism and narrow-mindedness.
Although such experiences are worthwhile for their own sake, there is an additional end to which travel is ordered. This is what the practice of the Greek theorist shows us.
The sort of theorizing that has been described above is not typically modern; it is not excessively abstract, scientific, or rationalistic. Rather, the type of knowledge that can be the fruit of traveling is one steeped in the irreducible singularities of the places we have seen. Political knowledge, as well as that pertaining to the totality of a culture, is practical.
In other words, it includes the vast complexities and messiness of human affairs and actions that cannot be reduced to a one-size-fits-all mentality. In fact, Aristotle laments those political theorists who argued that knowledge of the varieties of human affairs was akin to the exactness discovered in theoretical knowledge (Politics 1266b-1269a29).
At the same time, this does not mean that all theory should be discarded for the primacy of praxis. The Greek theorist understood his office as intimately connected to practice. The relationship between theory and practice was considered to be one of mutual enrichment, and not an antagonistic “either/or.”
As John Seery argues, this is what made Greek political theory epic, for it had “the intellectual reach to challenge society’s fundamental assumptions.” This was possible precisely because of the link between theory and civic devotion. As Patrick Deneen puts it:
philosophic activity is undertaken on behalf of the city, born of the same gratitude and concern that prompted him to defend it bravely in the terrible Athenian defeats at Potidaea, Amphipolis, and Delium. For Socrates, there is an unbreakable connection between this civic loyalty and his critical activity. We misunderstand ancient ‘theorizing’ if we do not recognize the entwinement of patriotism and philosophy.
Travel and Patriotism
These reflections on travel and political theory can provide insight and a defense of loyalty to one’s own place. The notion of place elicits sentiments and ideas related to home, oikos, which have significant implications for our social and political life.
Professor Kelly Scott Franklin recently identified this concept as a central feature in Homer’s Odyssey.
Homer’s Odyssey emerges as much more than simply an epic journey home. Instead, we can see Homer urgently concerned with preserving the stability of the family unit, and working out the frightening social and political consequences of familial breakdown.
Franklin’s argument echoes Aristotle’s view that the integral relation between home and political life stems from the fact that the latter is the final cause of the former. Our identity as domestic beings is, as the Odyessy reveals, fundamentally tied to the manner in which we participate in communal life.
Yet this participation and care for others in our neighborhoods and local communities is first rooted in a defense and love of the home. Roger Scruton observes:
Home is the place where, if you make a mess, you clear it up, the place where you are conscious of those who share it, and of the lastingness of what they share. It is marked by those ceremonies and events in which time stands still and the presence of others, not the living only but also the dead and the unborn, is felt among us. Of course, in our consumer society it needs a little effort to stop the onward rush to gratification and allow these experiences to dawn on us. But we do it, and we can be encouraged to do it more fully, so as to amplify our attachments in ways that benefit us all
Today, our typical way of understanding ourselves and our desire to travel can lead us to disconnect from the communities that form and mold our identities as human beings. It becomes difficult to see ourselves as domestic, civic, or ecclesial beings—real participants in the order and governance of some particular place—if we foster a perspective that is construed in more globalized terms.
“Global citizens” claim to be at home in the world but, oddly and regrettably, they are not attached to any particular place.
These ideas have been illuminated well in Utah Senator Mike Lee’s recent findings published through his Social Capital Project. The project’s Executive Summary provides a detailed analysis of the present state of associational life in America. The central line of reasoning that pervades the entire report is that Americans have been experiencing a rapid decline in social capital, especially witnessed in the undermining of attachment to family, civic life, and frequent religious practice.
Feelings and experiences of greater disconnect from such communities have resulted in increased existential angst and a loss of purpose.
Hopefully, the next time we are on the road, we can keep before us this ancient perspective on travel. It is one that sees the goodness and beauty in other places and fosters a richer type of cultural diversity.
This kind of diversity can see the beauty of another culture without denigrating either the primacy of truth or one’s own native country in the name of “globalization.” And yet—though it may seem paradoxical—this fuller account of traveling can prevent us from neglecting what Roger Scruton calls the most important resource we have: “home and our attachment to it.”
Brian Jones is a philosophy PhD student in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Republished with permission from The Public Discourse.