On Travel

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.
― Augustine of Hippo

The above quote by St. Augustine is perhaps one of the, if not the, most popular, quotes of his, more than all his sayings on Christian theology and philosophy. This is a testimony to the fact that the love or dream of travel is universal. Some of the most famous epic poems (e.g., The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy), myths (e.g., Icarus, Phaeton), science fiction novels (e.g., Around the World in Eighty Days) and TV series (e.g., Star Trek, Doctor Who) all revolve around travel. When people are asked what they would do if they win the lottery or, failing that, when they retire, they would say without hesitation, “Travel around the world”.

Perhaps for people like me who grew up on the coast, the love of travel is inborn. Our eyes are always set on the distant horizon, like the ancient Greeks, who were “adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment”, “born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others”, as Thucydides so eloquently put it, who contrasted the character of the sea-powered Greeks with that of the land-based Spartans in The Peloponnesian War. Travel by sea in particular, was and still is, necessary for the acquisition of wealth through war or commerce, and the building of empires.

Then came a time when travel became a mark of culture and sophistication. The inability or unwillingness to travel is viewed as a lack of prestige, class or character. As a result, people travel in haste and collect places and souvenirs as if amassing wealth.

“Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.”
–Søren Kierkegaard “Either/Or”

This idea of the desperate necessity of travel is also reflected in philosophy, the aim of which, according to Wittgenstein, is “to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle”. I have to confess that I have not read Wittgenstein, and know nothing about his approach to philosophy beyond that quote. I still remember when someone first mentioned it to me, I was impressed by the vanity (for lack of a better word) of it all. Firstly, did he not realize that, compared to a fly in a fly bottle, he himself was in a much more confined space? What is the surface of the earth compared to the universe? Secondly, even if he can help the fly, who is there to help him out?

It appears that Wittgenstein is keen to observe the limitations of others, but does not perceive the plank in his own eye; Proust, on the other hand, seems to recognize the limitations of his own perspective:

“The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is;”
— Marcel Proust “Remembrance of Things Past”

The question is: We are not other people, how can we see the universe through their eyes?

From a Platonist perspective, we can see the universe through the eyes of another, only because the hundred universes that we behold have one and the same underlying intelligible reality, the common ground upon which we share. To use an analogy in ontology, as species, we are unique individuals, and different from one another, but we possess humanity, the genus, in common. Similarly, though our thoughts and perspectives are different, we share the same Intellect, which is higher and present in All.

According to Plotinus, who had a profound influence on Augustine, Man is a tripartite entity consisting of Intellect, Soul and Matter in descending order. The stars in the heavens correspond to the glories of the Intellect which enters and illuminates the Soul. We ascend to the stars, the intelligible entity, not by space travel, but by the ascent of the soul to pure Intellect. Every man is a universe. Wherever we travel, whoever we meet, we are looking at our images in the mirrors, perhaps without recognizing them, because we don’t know ourselves.

“People travel to wonder
at the height of the mountains,
at the huge waves of the seas,
at the long course of the rivers,
at the vast compass of the ocean,
at the circular motion of the stars,
and yet they pass by themselves
without wondering.”
–Augustine of Hippo

I suspect that most people are unaware of the context and true meaning of the first quote by Augustine: The universe is a creation of God, the Book written by Him as a manifestation of His Word. Therefore, to travel is to read His Word just as one traverse the pages of a book. Man travels to seek wonder and beauty, he sees it in nature but does not perceive it in himself. Yet man himself is the masterpiece of God, created in His Image.


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