The Art of Travel

In his philosophical book, The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton writes, “If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest –in all its ardor and paradoxes– than our travels.”  Ultimately, he suggests that most of us are sadly ignorant when it comes to the art of travel and I suspect that’s he correct in that diagnosis.  Using his essayistic style and the aid of dead painters and poets, aesthetes, and Romantics, De Botton explores the buzz around travel in wonderful detail.  Accordingly, I highly recommend this book.

A while back, but long after this book was published, De Botton tweeted: “Travel agents would be wiser to ask us what we hope to change about our lives rather than simply where we wish to go.”  In my opinion, his aphorism smacks of truth and it largely explains what this book is about.  Using his keen command of the English language, De Botton explores the philosophy of travel in great depth.  He reminds us that we are often given advice on where to travel to, but seldom do we hear why and how we should travel.

Speaking of how we travel, you may be wondering what De Botton makes of things like the airplane.  “The plane,” he writes, “a symbol or worldliness, carrying within itself a trace of all the lands it has crossed; its eternal mobility offering an imaginative counterweight to feelings of stagnation and confinement.”

It’s interesting to note that people can manage to be either happy or miserable in the most beautiful locations in the world. The underlying problem with travel, of course, is that you can never actually escape yourself.  De Botton shares an interesting anecdote about his trip to the Barbados.  He goes on to inform readers that he had inadvertently brought himself with himself to the island.  I was reminded that when we travel as a form of escapism, it’s usually to escape something that is plaguing us internally, not externally.

Pascal was an astute observer of the humanity. “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness,” he wrote, “is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”  What we find appealing, exotic, and intoxicating in foreign lands may simply be what we secretly long for at home in vain.  Perhaps the aim of travel, then, is to learn to become a more sophisticated tourist in your own mind.

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