9 Virtues Blog

Finding Wisdom through Solitude

by N. Karl Haden, Ph.D.

07/28/2017

“Someone said to Socrates that a certain man had grown no better by his travels. ‘I should think not,’ he said; ‘he took himself along with him’.”

                                    Michel de Montaigne, Essays, Book I, Solitude

As August approaches, we are reaching the last month of the summer vacation season. I travel a lot—almost every week and usually for business. Generally, I enjoy traveling, and I almost always carry myself along with me. That is, I carry my AAL roles and responsibilities along with me. Clients expect it. They expect expertise, engagement, and attentiveness. Montaigne decried that, “We take our chains along with us; our freedom is not complete; we still turn our eyes to what we have left behind, our fancy is full of it.” I wonder what this 16th century French essayist might say about today’s technological chains that tether us 24/7, wherever we go.  

While business travel is a necessity for me, leisure travel remains optional and influenced by another purpose. I would characterize that purpose as experiencing solitude, which means leaving behind myself—the self as defined by roles, responsibilities, and others’ expectations.  I enjoy becoming an anonymous pilgrim on life’s journey. While in Rome this spring, I stood before a slab of marble engraved with the names of scores of Roman senators. I walked the streets of the ancient harbor city of Ostia Antica. I find leaving myself behind more easily done in such environs because I get a sense of place, my place, in the grand scheme. My anonymity joins thousands of anonymous lives that led governments, built houses and streets, sold their goods to travelers from around the world, dined with friends, worshipped their gods, and experienced the variety of humanity's foibles and gifts.

What is meant by growing better by one’s travels? Among other things, one grows better by gaining perspective. Such perspective includes a healthy dose of self-reflection. Without reflection, we cannot learn. And if we do not learn, we cannot grow better. Travel is an occasion for reflection, the kind of reflection that leads to self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is the sine qua non of wisdom.

To quote Montaigne again, “It is not enough to have gotten away from the crowd, it is not enough to move…we must sequester ourselves and repossess ourselves.” Whether this summer’s vacation or the next time you travel for leisure, consider leaving yourself behind.