Travel won't save you
Travel is the silver bullet that solves all problems. Want a new perspective? Go travel. Want new friends? Go travel. Feeling unsatisfied with your life? Go travel. Have no idea what you’re doing? Go travel.
So I traveled.
And when it didn’t solve all my problems, I went to stoic philosopher Seneca for the answers.
(This is a historically accurate interview with Seneca based on his "Moral Letters to Lucilius". His responses are either direct quotes, or based on his writings. Citations are included so you can see the original context for each response.)
DKB: I went backpacking around Europe recently, and did a lot of travel. I thought it would help me clear my mind, and figure my life out. But I still feel mostly the same.
Seneca: Do you think you’re the only one who’s had this experience?
Are you surprised that after seeing all these different scenes, you haven’t been able to solve your mental problems?
You need a change of soul, not a change of climate. You might cross over vast spaces of land and sea, but as Virgil says, “Lands and cities are left behind, but your faults will follow you wherever you travel.”
Socrates said the same thing to someone who complained to him: “Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.”
It would be quite a blessing for some people to wander away from themselves. As it is, they cause themselves worry, demoralization, anger, and fear. You don’t need another place, but another personality.
What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or in taking instagram pictures in different tourist spots?
All of your moving around is useless. You have to lay aside the burdens of the mind.
Until you do this, no place will satisfy you.
DKB: That’s a bit extreme, don’t you think? When you travel you can see things you’ve never seen before, experience new cultures, and gain a new perspective on life.
I’m sure it helps some people, even if it didn’t work for me. I probably just didn’t do it right.
Seneca: Really? What benefit has travel itself ever been able to give anyone?
Travel doesn’t help us moderate pleasures, restrain our desires, or control our bad temper. It can’t give us better judgment, and provides no opportunity to heal our minds.
All it does is distract us for a little while, through the novelty of our surroundings, like children fascinated by something they’ve never seen before.
You get to see beautiful mountains, stunning architecture, and all the wonders of the world. But none of this will help you become a better person, or solve your inner problems.
A sick man needs medicine, not scenery. If someone breaks their leg, they don’t take a vacation to solve it, they call in a doctor to fix it. When your mind is broken, do you really think you can fix it with a change of location?
Travel as far as you like, but you still won’t escape desire, fear, anger, and all of your other mental problems. If it was that easy, the whole human race would have just hopped on a boat together, sailed off to an exotic island, and lived happily ever after.
Travel can’t save you.
DKB: What do you expect me to do then? How do I get a fresh perspective to figure my life out?
Seneca: If you really want to change your perspective and heal your mind, then change your company, not your scenery. You are the people who you surround yourself with, so surround yourself with better people.
You can do this with real people, but you can also do this with books. Reading a book is like bringing the author back to life and spending time with them.
So fill your life with better friends. Spend your time with wise people of the past like Socrates, Pythagoras, and Zeno. They will give you knowledge of humanity and the universe. They will teach you how to live, and how to die. They will give you powerful perspectives for finding your own way.
They will also teach you to be strong, and brace against whatever comes at you. The only safe harbor in the storms of life is to refuse to be bothered about what the future will bring, and to stand ready and confident, preparing to take whatever life throws at you without flinching.
Once you solve your inner problems, all the changes of scenery will become genuinely enjoyable. Right now you aren’t really journeying, you’re drifting and being driven, exchanging one place for another.
What you really seek – to live well – can be found anywhere.
"Do you suppose that you alone have had this experience? Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind?"
"You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate. Though you may cross vast spaces of sea, and though, as our Vergil remarks, Lands and cities are left astern, your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel."
"Socrates made the same remark to one who complained; he said: "Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels." What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or in surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? It is because you flee along with yourself. You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you."
"Socrates is reported to have replied, when a certain person complained of having received no benefit from his travels: "It serves you right! You travelled in your own company!" O what a blessing it would be for some men to wander away from themselves! As it is, they cause themselves vexation, worry, demoralization, and fear! What profit is there in crossing the sea and in going from one city to another? If you would escape your troubles, you need not another place but another personality."
"What benefit has travel of itself ever been able to give anyone? No restraint upon pleasure, no bridling of desire, no checking of bad temper, no crushing of the wild assaults of passion, no opportunity to rid the soul of evil. Travelling cannot give us judgment, or shake off our errors; it merely holds our attention for a moment by a certain novelty, as children pause to wonder at something unfamiliar."
"What travel will give is familiarity with other nations: it will reveal to you mountains of strange shape, or unfamiliar tracts of plain, or valleys that are watered by everflowing springs, or the characteristics of some river that comes to our attention. We observe how the Nile rises and swells in summer, or how the Tigris disappears, runs underground through hidden spaces, and then appears with unabated sweep; or how the Maeander, that oft-rehearsed theme and plaything of the poets, turns in frequent bendings, and often in winding comes close to its own channel before resuming its course. But this sort of information will not make better or sounder men of us."
"It is medicine, not scenery, for which the sick man must go a-searching. Suppose that someone has broken a leg or dislocated a joint: he does not take carriage or ship for other regions, but he calls in the physician to set the fractured limb, or to move it back to its proper place in the socket. What then? When the spirit is broken or wrenched in so many places, do you think that change of place can heal it? The complaint is too deep-seated to be cured by a journey."
"I assure you, travel as far as you like, you can never establish yourself beyond the reach of desire, beyond the reach of bad temper, or beyond the reach of fear; had it been so, the human race would long ago have banded together and made a pilgrimage to the spot."
"Change therefore to better associations: live with the Catos, with Laelius, with Tubero. Or, if you enjoy living with Greeks also, spend your time with Socrates and with Zeno: the former will show you how to die if it be necessary; the latter how to die before it is necessary. Live with Chrysippus, with Posidonius: they will make you acquainted with things earthly and things heavenly; they will bid you work hard over something more than neat turns of language and phrases mouthed forth for the entertainment of listeners; they will bid you be stout of heart and rise superior to threats. The only harbour safe from the seething storms of this life is scorn of the future, a firm stand, a readiness to receive Fortune's missiles full in the breast, neither skulking nor turning the back."
"If you saw this fact clearly, you would not be surprised at getting no benefit from the fresh scenes to which you roam each time through weariness of the old scenes. For the first would have pleased you in each case, had you believed it wholly yours. As it is, however, you are not journeying; you are drifting and being driven, only exchanging one place for another, although that which you seek, – to live well, – is found everywhere."