Does Travel Lead to Wisdom?
“What good has travel of itself ever been able to do anyone?” Seneca asks in Letter CIV. “All it has ever done is distract us for a little while, through the novelty of our surroundings, like children fascinated by something they haven’t come across before.”
His answer? “Travel won’t make a better or saner man of you. For this we must spend time in study and in the writings of wise men, to learn the truths that have emerged from their researches and carry on the search ourselves for the answers that have not yet been discovered.”
In our era of digital nomads, self-help gurus, and group identities, of keyboard warriors ranting away from their rooms in ressentimenton social media, of academics and journalists “interrogating” truth with the theoretical cudgel of postmodern, post-Marxist criticism, nearly everyone, it seems, is dissatisfied with life and the ways we have to live it.
Post-World War One, a lost generation traveled to Paris to express its dissatisfaction with life through fiction and art, in the post-Berlin Wall 90s another generation traveled to Prague and Eastern Europe to, well, drink cheap beer and eat goulash in dissatisfaction with life, and now digital nomads travel to Chang Mai, Phnom Penh, and Medellín to blog and YouTube about their dissatisfaction with life, and how much better life is if you spend it traveling from place to place, expressing your dissatisfaction with life where you came from.
If you follow the Reddit subreddit on digital nomads, many of these postmodern nomads mainly express dissatisfaction with their inability to make friends in foreign environments, despite being surrounded by other nomads expressing their dissatisfaction with their inability to make friends in foreign environments. The locals, it seems, are more concerned with rising rents and the cost of living than making friends with the dissatisfied.
This is what happens when you live your life in a citation circle, whether it’s in academia, journalism, or social media.
So, once the novelty of travel wears off, what are we left with? Seneca calls this mode of living drifting. “Does it surprise you that running away doesn’t do you any good? The things you’re running away from are with you all the time.”
Now, before all the dissatisfied drifters go into attack mode, hear me out. I’ve been an expat for twenty years. I’ve spent over $300,000 on travel in the last ten years alone. That’s enough to buy a house or a Ferrari 488. I’ve idealized living in other cultures, lived in those other cultures, and once the novelty wears off, what was I left with? Wisdom? Not really.
We travel in dissatisfaction, charmed by novelty, wishing for another life than the one we have, and guess what? We settle down in some foreign environment stuck with the life we have. Travel has its purposes and perks, but wisdom isn’t one of them.
Oh sure, I’ve learned things, learned languages, learned about cultures, and learned about myself, (to quote Seneca again) my “cravings, tempers, and fears.” But has all this lead to wisdom? If I’m truthful with myself, and why shouldn’t I be, the most important things I’ve learned have been from reading and studying the wise while I’ve been traveling.
I could have done that anywhere.
The fact that I chose to do that while traveling the world, well, that’s my life. I’m not saying you should do that. Find your own path, face your own fears, tempers and cravings. Instead of whining and whinging about the loneliness of foreign places, read Seneca, read Nietzsche, read Henry Miller, read Hayek, read Plato, read the greats, the wise, learn truths and discover truths.
Stop running away from yourself.