Stoic advice: traveling like a Stoic

[To submit a question to the Stoic advice column send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]

M., writes: “How should a Stoic approach travel? When you travel — particularly to a part of the world that has a much different culture and language than one’s own — you are thrust into unfamiliar situations and environments, giving you a different perspective on things you may have taken for granted back home. These are great conditions and opportunities for practicing Stoicism. In the familiar situations and environments that many of us find ourselves in when at home, it often seems as though we have more control over external conditions than we actually do.”

“To be a traveler in an unfamiliar place is to remove this illusion, quickly and effectively. We can expect delays, strange food, different climate, uncomfortable hotel rooms, language barriers. If approached with a positive attitude, and in a mindful way, however, these situations can help one cultivate Stoic virtues such as patience, flexibility/adaptability, non-judgment, and appreciation. The Stoic Pledge that you created identifies the following precept which could complement a traveler’s philosophy rather nicely: ‘I will reject nationalism and any other kind of parochial view of humanity. My creed is that of cosmopolitanism.’ You then quote Seneca: ‘I will view all lands as though they belong to me, and my own as though they belonged to all mankind.’ (On the Happy Life, XX) It seems, then, that Seneca would encourage travel as a form of Stoic exercise. Seneca did, however, advise against traveling for the wrong reasons: ‘You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate. Though you may cross vast spaces of sea, and though, as our Vergil remarks, Lands and cities are left astern, your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel…. What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or in surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? It is because you flee along with yourself. You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.’ (Letters to Lucilius, XXVIII) So, is traveling for pleasure — at least in some of the ways it’s practice today — a frivolous luxury that a Stoic would discourage, except perhaps under certain circumstances? Is going on a holiday an unnecessary expense? An exhibition of wealth and disposable income? A way to (subconsciously) flaunt one’s position in the social hierarchy? Or is travel instead a much recommended activity, something that forces one to confront the world as it is, encountering different cultures, and becoming a ‘citizen of the world’? There is obviously a wide range of travel styles that would dictate how you would answer these questions. At the one end of the spectrum you have ultra-luxury cruise lines (that separate people from the very environment they are meant to be visiting); at the other end of the spectrum you have ‘minimalist’ backpacking, a style of travel that immerses the traveler into a culture more intimately (although by no means a guaranteed). In summary: what would be a Stoic approach to travel?”

Well, it seems to me like you don’t really need a lot of help here! I concur with your analysis thus far, and actually recommend it to other readers. But perhaps there are a few additional points to be made.

To begin with, the ability to travel, for whatever reason one does it, is of course a preferred indifferent, that is, it is not strictly necessary for the pursuit of virtue. And indeed, as stressed in the quote from Seneca to Lucilius that you mention, sometimes people travel for the wrong reasons, as a way of escaping the responsibility for self analysis, in which case traveling becomes a dispreferred indifferent.

You highlight two different dimensions characterizing ways of traveling: first, the modality, from the luxury cruise to minimalist backpacking. Second, there is variability in terms of the motivations for one’s travels: for leisure, for learning, or both.

While none of the above changes the classification of traveling — in whatever mode and for whatever reason — under the category of preferred indifferents, it is arguably the case that there is a difference of gradation, i.e., some indifferents are more (or less) preferred than others.

That said, a strict interpretation of Stoic doctrine suggests that even indifferents should be pursued (or avoided, if dispreferred) only insofar as they facilitate (or hinder) the pursuit of virtue. That would seem to exclude luxury cruises — because luxury presents a constant temptation to stray from the virtuous path, as it constantly tests our temperance. (Yes, one could argue that resisting such temptations for a whole week or two is a perfect exercise in self-control, but I think there is a high risk of rationalizing at that point…) You don’t have to go minimalist (unless you are attracted by the Cynic life style!), but luxury cruises seem to be decidedly un-Stoic.

Also, traveling only for leisure would be low on the list. It is true that a degree of leisure is necessary for the human mind to maintain balance and sanity, and therefore to pursue virtue. But it is also the case that one can always choose destinations and modes of vacation that couple leisure with some learning, and learning about other cultures is something that seems more directly prone to help us on our path to virtue.

Therefore, my recommendation (which I do practice, by the way) would be to go for an at least moderately frugal style and for vacations that entail at a minimum some degree of cultural experience and learning. Again, none of this is mutually exclusive with the idea of relaxing and enjoying oneself.

Finally, I want to go back to your suggestion that traveling itself — pretty much regardless of modality and destination — is a splendid exercise in the dichotomy of control. If you want an account of how I experienced precisely such a thing during last year’s vacation in Turkey (inclusive of decidedly unexpected coup d’etat!), check this essay.


7 thoughts on “Stoic advice: traveling like a Stoic

  1. Travel has traditionally been a cure for melancholy as well. It allows some distance from situations that can seem overwhelming at home. Perhaps one can return with a new perspective that allows one to better practice stoicism by realizing how relatively indifferent some things are which we previously thought to be essential.

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  2. Dear Massimo

    I very much enjoy your advice blog and look forward to them every week. Thanks for your efforts.

    I have a puzzling question I’ve been pondering of late and wondered if you could grant me some advice.

    I recently had a troubling dream in which I was in the character of a spy in possession of some secret information, but unfortunately captured by an enemy force. This information, if divulged by me would result in the death of ten others of my espionage unit. Now, my brother happened to be captured along with me and was held in a different cell.

    In my dream, I was given a 24h ultimatum to give up my secret which would lead to certain death of my ten colleagues or if I did not, my brother would be killed. I offered my life instead but was rejected and kept on suicide watch to ensure that I didn’t try to kill myself.

    My dream cuts out there…but what would a Stoic have done l? Weighed up the relative values of my innocent brother against my friends? Cato the Younger had the fortune to commit suicide before Caesar could put him in such a quandary but I often wonder what he would have done I’m such a situation? He helped his friends and family escape Utica so he must have placed some value on their lives.

    Life, I know is a preferred indifferent but when a coerced choice has to be made about which life to take or rather give up, I wonder what a Sage would do under such coercion, if she couldn’t take hers?

    Thanks and I look forward to receiving your thoughts on this.

    Best wishes


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  3. Along similar lines of Seneca’s in (Letters to Lucilius, XXVIII), this essay on the art of manliness has been the best travel essay I have read, ever. My brother and I noticed when we went backpacking that people were in search for fulfillment or some kind of paradise, but really, they were never going to find it by simply moving around in space.


  4. As a full-time traveler and digital nomad for the last 15 months (and still going), I have had plenty of opportunity to practice Stoicism. (I am of the backpacker ilk and just turned 60.) some of the very best experiences have come from engaging deeply with the local cultures and peoples. Many times I have been embarrassed by Americans who travel with their bubble of comfort and entitled attitudes, demanding this, complaining about that, and generally appearing to not understand the concept of foreign travel. This open-ended journey has been the ideal playground for learning how to constantly be aware of learning opportunities.

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  5. Success in life is the outcome of constant self-renewal. Renewal comes from change and an important source of change is travel. Whenever we come to rest we begin a process of encrustation that inhibits our responsiveness to changes in the environment and reduces our capacity for renewal. The right kind of travel is a process of excoriation that removes the shells constructed by custom, habit, prejudice, routine and comfort, opening us to other possibilities.

    This process of excoriation exposes the surface of our mind, allowing it to be infected with other points of view, other values, other approaches and other possibilities.

    For this to work we must be driven by curiosity and fuelled by the desire to understand. Most important, we must leave our ‘self’ at home, with all its biases, prejudices and certainties allowing us to engage more fully with the ‘other’.


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