Emily Thomas is a distinguished academic philosopher who has ‘spent a lot of time by herself getting lost around the world’. Here she uses a trip to the wastes of Alaska to launch an extended meditation around a compelling question: what does it mean to travel? What is the significance of our urge to go off around the globe — not for trade, not to fight or conquer, but for its own sake?
By narrowing it thus, Thomas begins in 17th-century Europe, with the restless spirit of the Enlightenment. So we have no Pytheas, Odysseus, Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta. Travel in her specific sense began as the prodigal child of science. It was about investigation, learning, the compulsion to explain, understand and systematize. On completing his formal education, Descartes left home to continue it at large: ‘Resolving to seek no knowledge other than that which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world, I spent the rest of my youth traveling.’
A generation earlier, Francis Bacon had already called for a complete natural history, a universal study to be conducted not by contemplation but by observation. In the frontispiece of The Great Instauration, with its ambitious plan to restore all that there is to know, all that was lost at the Fall, a ship is set against a flat and distant horizon: ‘Many shall go to and fro,’ reads the caption, ‘and knowledge shall increase.’
Travel became an empirical exercise. In London, the Royal Society met to discuss travel reports. It issued guidelines for the gathering of material (be sure to record longitude and latitude, climate, fishes and meteoric activity) and steered many inquisitive travelers towards places of interest — Greenland, the Caribbean, Transylvania, Egypt and Persia. Men like Henry Blount and John Ray took to the road in pursuit of knowledge. In the 19th century, the voyages of the Challenger and the Beagle transformed our view of the natural world. Darwin quotes Bacon at the beginning of The Origin of Species: ‘let no man… think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well studied.’
Yet for all its functional benefits, many of travel’s enduring rewards are more metaphysical. Thomas shows the sensibilities of travelers enlarging over the years to take in elements of the sublime, to seek out grandeur in landscape, to pursue the transcendental. Margaret Cavendish was not a traveler herself but wrote a utopian tract based on a fantasy journey. ‘Travelers,’ she suggests, ‘have most reason to adore and worship God best for they see most of his wonderful works.’
How do these philosophical musings inform the 21st-century traveler? Thomas gives us useful discussions of the age-old gendering of the journey, traditional male roles articulated in the roving adventurer — and how it is changing. On the increase are scholarly studies of women travelers, which ‘chip away at the beardyness’. She speaks of trends like ‘cabin porn’, the online popularity of huts in the wilderness and ‘doom tourism’, the compulsion to see places before environmental damage destroys them.
In essence, though, the travel experience offers something perennial. It is not a prerequisite for understanding — Socrates and Kant hardly budged at all. But for all those who do set off — scientist, explorer or backpacker — an immersion in the unfamiliar is invariably rewarding. Thomas distinguishes between such trips and commuting or tourism: ‘The difference between everyday journeys and travel journeys lies in how much otherness the traveler experiences.’ ‘I want to forget my western outlook,’ mused the Swiss traveler Ella Maillart, ‘and feel the whole impact made on me by the newness I meet at every step.’
But going to far-off places has another effect. Travel reduces the significance of home. As you travel further, your native habitat grows smaller. The ultimate example is the 1968 ‘Earthrise’ image, taken from Apollo 8. The furthest that anyone had ever traveled revealed the cosmic frailty of our planet in an image that has been described as ‘most influential environmental photograph ever taken’.
Thomas has used her command of the philosophical canon to extend our understanding of an impulse many of us share but few examine in such depth. The Meaning of Travel is a manifesto for the virtues that travel can bestow: not just an increase in knowledge but a humility at the scale and diversity of the world, and an enduring wonder that we live on such a planet.
This article is in The Spectator’s April 2020 US edition.