Seneca on travelling

The things you’re running away from are with you all the time. Seneca

Seneca was very suspicious of those who travel  in order to escape from their problems or to achieve wisdom. In letter CIV he wrote:

“What good has travel of itself ever been able to do anyone? It has never acted as a check on pleasure or a restraining influence on desires; it has never controlled the temper of an angry man or quelled the reckless impulses of a lover; never in fact has it rid the personality of a fault. It has not granted us the gift of judgment, it has not put an end to mistaken attitudes. 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. The instability, moreover, of a mind which is seriously unwell, is aggravated by it, the motion itself increasing the fitfulness and restlessness. This explains why people, after setting out for a place with the greatest of enthusiasm, are often more enthusiastic about getting away from it; like migrant birds, they fly on, away even quicker than they came.

Travel will give you a knowledge of other countries, it will show you mountains whose outlines are quite new to you, stretches of unfamiliar plains, valleys watered by perennial streams; it will allow you to observe the unique features of this or that river, the way in which, for example, the Nile rises in summer flood, or the Tigris vanishes from sight and at the completion of its journey through hidden subterranean regions is restored to view with its volume undiminished, or the way the Meander, theme of every poet’s early training exercises, winds about, loop after loop, and again and again is carried close to its own bed and then once more diverted into a different course before it can flow into its own stream. But 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. This is the way to liberate the spirit that still needs to be rescued from its miserable state of slavery.

So long, in fact, as you remain in ignorance of what to aim at and what to avoid, what is essential and what is superfluous, what is upright or honorable conduct and what is not, it will not be travelling but drifting. All this hurrying from place to place won’t bring you any relief, for you’re travelling in the company of your own emotions, followed by your troubles all the way. If only they were really following you! They’d be farther away from you: as it is they’re not at your back, but on it! That’s why they weigh you down with just the same uncomfortable chafing wherever you are. It’s medicine, not a particular part of the world, that a person needs if he’s ill.

Suppose someone has broken his leg or dislocated a joint; he doesn’t get into a carriage or board a ship: he calls in a doctor to have the fracture set or the dislocation reduced. Well then, when a person’s spirit is wrenched or broken at so many points, do you imagine that it can be put right by a change of scenery, that that sort of trouble isn’t so serious that it can’t be cured by an outing?

Travelling doesn’t make a man a doctor or a public speaker: there isn’t a single art which
is acquired merely by being in one place rather wan another. Can wisdom, then, the greatest art of all, be picked up in the course of taking a trip? Take my word for it, the trip doesn’t exist that can set you beyond the reach of cravings, fits of temper, or fears. If it did, the human race would be off there in a body. So long as you carry the sources of your troubles about with you, those troubles will continue to harass and plague you wherever you wander on land or on sea. 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.

What you must do, then, is mend your ways and get rid of the burden you’re carrying. Keep your cravings within safe limits. Scour every trace of evil from your personality. If you want to enjoy your travel, you must make your travelling companion a healthy one. So long as you associate with a person who‟s mean and grasping you will remain a money-minded individual yourself. So long as you keep arrogant company, just so long will conceit stick to you. Cruelty you‟ll never say goodbye to while you share the same roof with a torturer. Familiarity with adulterers will only inflame your desires. If you wish to be stripped of your vices you must get right away from the examples others set of them. The miser, the swindler, the bully, the cheat, who would do you a lot of harm by simply being near you, are actually inside you.

Move to better company: live with the Catos, with Laelius, with Tubero. If you like Greek company too, attach yourself to Socrates and Zeno: the one would teach you how to the should it be forced upon you, the other how to the before it is forced upon you. Live with Chrysippus, live with Posidonius; they will give you a knowledge of man and the universe; they will tell you to be a practical philosopher: not just to entertain your listeners to a clever display of language, but to steel your spirit and brace it against whatever threatens. For the only safe harbour in this life’s tossing, troubled sea is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring and to stand ready and confident, squaring the breast to take without skulking or flinching whatever fortune hurls at us.”

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