A Stoic Approach to Travel and Tourism by William O. Stephens

Each year, after the Stoicon conference, we ask the speakers and workshop leaders to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations, so that our readership can enjoy some of the same opportunities for learning as the conference attendees.  We continue that series now with this piece by William O. Stephens, the transcript of his talk during the breakout sessions – G. Sadler, Editor
How does a Stoic approach travel and tourism?  To answer this question I will mine lessons from the ancient Stoics Seneca and Epictetus.  These remarks apply to how today’s Stoics can be calm, confident, and content when traveling and on holiday tours.


Consider automobiles.  The automotive trade journal Ward’s Auto estimated that in 2010 the number of motor vehicles in use in the world surpassed 1.015 billion.  This figure includes passenger cars, light, medium, and heavy duty trucks and buses.  In July 2014 an industry analyst calculated the total to be 1.2 billion automobiles.  The number of passenger cars is projected to reach 2 billion by 2040.  How does a Stoic think about owning an automobile?  Seneca gives us a clue.  There were no motorized vehicles in the ancient world, of course.  Ancient Romans who could afford them sometimes used horse or mule-drawn carriages.  Seneca writes (Letter 87):

The carriage I ride in its just a country wagon.  The mules give no evidence of being alive except that they are walking; the drover has his boots off, and not because of the heat, either.  I have a hard time persuading myself to let anyone see me in such a vehicle.  It’s perverse, but I’m still ashamed of doing what is right, and whenever we run across some more glamorous equipage I blush in spite of myself.  That’s proof that the habits I approve and admire are not yet firmly established. He who blushes in a shabby carriage will boast of an expensive one.  It’s only a little progress that I have made so far.  I don’t yet dare to wear my frugality out in the open; I still care about the opinions of travelers….[1]

Seneca’s point about a vehicle is that frugality is a virtue to admire.  So, whether your vehicle is pulled by mules or is an automobile, and whether it is modest, worn down, rusted, or even a complete clunker, it doesn’t matter.  The purpose of any vehicle is transportation.  Those who boast about their fancier, pricier vehicles suffer from ignorance.  Their boasts rest on false judgments.  A Stoic feels no shame riding in a clunker because she tries to be frugal and doesn’t worry about the false judgments of fools.  Image is everything to fools.  Image is nothing to Stoics.
Seneca thinks that many people embark on trips to varied locales to shake off gloom and heaviness from their minds.  In American English the word vacation implies this motive.  To go on vacation or holiday is to suspend our work or study, to release ourselves from duty, business, or activity.  We vacate the usual burdens of our lives and seek temporary escape.  But Seneca believes that travel is useless for clearing a mind cluttered by burdens.  He writes: “You must change the mind, not the venue” (Letter 28. 1).  Travel does no good because the new countries you fly to, the cities you tour, and the sites you see, cannot relieve you of what weighed on your mind and drove you from home.  The mind must free itself from its burdens, and merely moving the body from place to place cannot do that.
For Seneca, frequent travel is a sign of disquiet.

“The mind cannot find strength in its leisure unless it stops looking around and wandering around.  To keep your mind within bounds, you must first stop your body from running away” (Letter 69. 1).

The mental burdens and gloom we experience result from the bad desires that become bad habits that harden into vices.  To dispel the heavy gloom, we must root out those vices.  This requires a protracted cure.

You should rest without interruption and forget your former life.  Let your eyes unlearn what they have seen; let your ears grow accustomed to more healthful words.  Every time you go out, your old desires are stirred anew, even before you reach your destination” (Letter 69. 2).

Travel to a new destination does not cure a sick, troubled mind.  The mind is cured when it leaves the baggage of its illness behind and, now unburdened, occupies a new, healthy place.  A Stoic’s real destination is a fit and healthy mind.
Seneca writes:

What has travel as such been able to do for anyone?  It doesn’t control pleasures, curb desires, check outbursts of temper, or mitigate love’s wild assaults: in a word, it removes no troubles from the mind.  It does not bestow judgment or shake off error; all it does is provide a change of scene to hold our attention for a moment as some new trinket might entertain a child. Apart from that, travel exacerbates the instability of a mind that is already unhealthy.  Indeed, the very movement of the carriage makes us more restless and irritable.  The result is that people who had been passionate to visit some spot are even more eager to leave it, just like birds that fly from one perch to another and are gone more swiftly than they arrived. Travel will acquaint you with other races, it will show you mountains of strange shape, unfamiliar plains, and valleys watered by inexhaustible streams.  It will enable you to observe the peculiarities of certain rivers— . . . yet it will not improve you, either in body or in mind. We need to spend our time on study and on the authorities of wisdom in order to learn what has already been investigated and to investigate what has not yet been discovered.  This is the way for the mind to be emancipated from its miserable enslavement and claimed for freedom.  But as long as you are ignorant of what to avoid and what to pursue, and remain ignorant of the just, the unjust, the honorable, and the dishonorable, you will not really be traveling but only wandering. Your rushing around will bring you no benefit, since you are traveling in company with your emotions, and your troubles follow along.  . . .  A sick person does not need a place; he needs medical treatment. If someone has a broken leg or dislocated a joint, he doesn’t get on a carriage or a ship; he calls a doctor to set the fracture or relocate the limb.  Do you get the point?  When the mind has been broken and sprained in so many places, do you think it can be restored by changing places?  Your trouble is too grave to be cured by moving around. Travel does not make one a doctor or an orator.  One does not learn a skill from one’s location.  Do you suppose that wisdom, the greatest of all skills, can be assembled on a journey?  Believe me, there is no journey that could deposit you beyond desires, beyond outbursts of temper, beyond your fears.  If that were so, the human race would have headed there in droves.  So long as you carry around the reasons for your troubles, wandering all over the world, those troubles will continue to harass and torment you. Are you puzzled that running away is not helping you?  What you are running from is with you.  You need to correct your flaws, unload your burdens, and keep your desires within a healthy limit.” (Letter 104)

So, Seneca believes that neither boredom nor discontentment are helped by trips because travel brings no self-improvement.  To find good reasons to travel we must turn to Epictetus.


Epictetus notes that religious festivals and athletic competitions attracted pilgrims and tourists in the antiquity.  Epictetus addresses a student who is desperate to see a magnificent gold and ivory statue of Zeus at Olympia fashioned by the famed artist Pheidias.

 . . . you regard it as a misfortune to die without seeing such sights. But when there is no need to travel at all, and where you are already, and Zeus is present in his works—will you not desire to contemplate these things and understand them?  Will you never perceive either who you are, or for what you have been born, or the purpose for which this vision has been given to you?[1] (Disc. 1.6)

From a Stoic’s perspective, the entire natural world is a spectacle worthy of study and admiration.  The earth, the sky, and all of nature’s wonders in between provide those who are circumspect with plenty to see and appreciate.  Epictetus urges the fellow who is dying to travel to eye glitzy statuary to recognize that he was not born and given vision for the purpose of being entertained at a remote location.  Even the most dazzling artifacts pale in comparison with natural wonders imbued with divine craftsmanship.  If the determined sightseer does travel all the way to Olympia, then she ought to appreciate the spectacle of the artwork and tolerate any discomforts of the tourist destination.  If the trip is judged to be worth the trouble, then the Stoic takes the hassles in stride, remaining calm without complaint.
A legitimate reason Epictetus gives for travel is to be an intelligent cosmic spectator.  A trip to see a famous work of art is not necessarily illicit, so long as it is undertaken with due caution and the right motive.  The right motive is to behold and appreciate a wondrous, enduring spectacle of the cosmos.  A wrong motive would be to want to gawk at a flashy, cunningly crafted statue on the false belief that such an artifact remotely approaches the beauty, grandeur, or wise governance of Nature.
What does a Stoic think about going on holiday to escape the grind of one’s workaday life?  Epictetus believes that a Stoic does not need a vacation.  A Stoic is content with where she is and whatever sights surround her.  A Stoic perceives in these sights orderliness and good management.  She understands that vision is to be used for the purpose of discerning this providential governance.  Contemplating the natural marvels within her ambit is entirely up to her.  A Stoic does not yearn to glimpse what lies beyond the horizon.  In contrast, a desire for “quiet and leisure, and travel” makes you abject and subservient to those who control your access to quiet, leisure, and travel (Disc. 4.4.1).
So, a Stoic doesn’t hanker to go sightseeing.  But neither does a Stoic resist traveling when it is required.  Epictetus cites with approval the willingness of Socrates to be sent on campaign and leave Athens (Disc. 4.4).  Socrates was too wise to set his heart on leisurely conversations with young men in Athens when military service called him away.  Socrates was content to follow the will of god.  A Stoic does not make herself anxious wondering what her final geographical destination will be.  Nor does she fret about how long it will take to arrive.  Instead, she rejoices in what each moment brings on each step of her journey.
When his student bemoans being far from his familiar friends and familiar places at home, Epictetus scolds him.  He tells him that he deserves to be homesick and cry because he foolishly judged that he would never need to leave home.  In so doing, the student has:

… become more wretched than ravens or crows, which, without groaning or longing for their former home, can fly where they will, build their nests in another place, and cross the seas” (Disc. 3.24.6)

The student objects that ravens and crows react that way because they lack reason.  Epictetus responds that the gods gave us reason not to make us live our lives weeping in misery (Disc. 3.24.7).  Rather, Epictetus insists that the power of reason enables human beings to be at least as happy as ravens and crows, who are never homesick and relocate without distress.  Notice that it is not wings that make such birds capable of traveling and establishing new homes without misery.  They can do so even lacking the degree of reason human beings possess.  It is their nature as animals that migrate freely and without anguish.[2]  Nature has similarly made human beings animals that locomote.  We are not made to remain rooted to one spot like plants (Disc. 3.24.8).

And, if any one of our friends should leave his home, should we sit and cry, and when he comes back, should we dance and clap our hands like children? Shall we never wean ourselves, and remember what we have heard from the philosophers . . .  that the world is one great city, and the substance out of which it is formed is single, and there must necessarily be a cycle of change, in which one thing gives way to another, and some things are destroyed and others come into being, and some things remain where they were and others are moved.

Stoics believe that we all inhabit a single cosmopolis (universal city).  Changes within this one cosmopolis include day and night, the four seasons, coming to be, passing away, and movement.  On this view, travel is never worrisome.  Wherever one ventures, one remains at home within the world.  The Stoic traveler cannot be alienated from the cosmic city that embraces all locales.  The Stoic ‘citizen of the universe’ can never become lost.[3]  Cosmopolitanism also explains why exile is no evil for the Stoic.  Banishment from a particular locale in no way unsettles her residency in the cosmos.[4]
Not only does the idea of the cosmopolis provide geographical comfort to the Stoic traveler, it also provides solidarity among its residents.  Whenever we travel with fellow travelers, we are with our fellow citizens of the world.  Stoics can remember absent friends while judging that the travels that separate them from us is inevitable, not regrettable.  A Stoic can take cheer with whatever company she has.  She is equally content with no human company at all.[5]  Strangers encountered along a journey should not be feared as threats but welcomed as friends.  Stoic traveling therefore precludes xenophobia, racism, and cultural provincialism.
Friends are often a reason to travel.  Epictetus thinks there are circumstances when it is necessary to risk one’s life for one’s friend, and circumstances when one ought to die for one’s friend (Disc. 2.7.1–3).  He cites the example of Maximus sailing all the way to Cassiope during the winter with this son, in order to see him on his way (Disc. 3.7.3).[6]  If a father ought to accompany his son on a risky voyage, then it stands to reason that a similar occasion would call for someone to travel with her friend.  So, just as one’s friendships with others can warrant travel, so too can one’s familial responsibilities.
Epictetus says that a Stoic must be ready to perform whatever task she is assigned.  This includes travel, since it is not possible for everyone to stay in the same place, nor is it better (Disc. 3.24.31).

Everyone’s life is a kind of campaign, and a long and complicated one.  You must observe the character of a soldier and perform each act at the bidding of the general” (Disc. 3.24.34; cf. Ench. 17).

Therefore, if her employer sends a Stoic on a business trip, she should do as she is asked.
How does travel relate to our purpose, according to Epictetus?  Our roles determine our purposes.  He says:

What is the usual practice, then?  People behave like a traveler, who, returning to his own country, comes across a good inn on the road, and because the inn pleases him, remains there. Have you forgotten your intention, man?  You were not traveling to this place, but only through it.  ‘But this is a fine inn.’  And how many other fine inns are there, and how many pleasant meadows?  But only to be passed through on the way. Your business is the other thing; to return to your country, to relieve the anxieties of your family, to perform the duties of a citizen, to marry, to have children, and to hold public office. For you have not, I think, come into the world to pick out the most charming places, but to live and act in the place where you were born, and of which you have been appointed a citizen. (Disc. 2.23.36–39)

Epictetus’ students traveled far from their homes to his school in a small town in northwest Greece.  So, I think Epictetus would say that it is perfectly fine to travel to London to attend Stoicon and learn about Stoicism, so long as we return home and carry out our responsibilities to our family, friends, co-workers, and fellow citizens.
A Stoic must remember, Epictetus teaches, that the material possessions we come to own can be taken away from us.  They don’t belong to us forever.  Moreover, our spouses and children are mortal, and so they do not belong to us permanently either.  As long as other people and possessions are with us, we must daily remind ourselves that they are only on loan to us.  Therefore, we ought to take care of them as travelers treat an inn (Ench. 11; cf. Disc. 4.1.107 and Ench. 7).  The people we love are mortals and a Stoic is convinced that we should love them on these terms.
What if a storm threatens our trip?  Epictetus was convinced that reason could dispel false beliefs, foolish judgments, and groundless fears.  Reason equips the Stoic traveler with peace of mind amidst the storm of uncertainties of life.  Flight delays, flight cancellations, turbulence, and the rudeness of other passengers are all beyond the control of the airline passenger, and so need not disturb a Stoic traveler.  Treating airline personnel and fellow-passengers with courtesy, on the other hand, is up to a Stoic and so is her responsibility.  The maintenance of one’s automobile and driving it safely are up to the motorist.  The weather, road conditions, traffic, and the road rage of other motorists are not.  The latter challenge one’s equanimity, but the motorist is responsible only for the former.  One need not believe in Zeus, cosmic reason, or divine providence to find such considerations reasonable.  One need only believe that reason is nature’s gift to us.
Would doubt about divine providence block the judgment that it is perfectly fine that one’s boat is sinking or that one’s lorry has broken down?  I think today’s Stoic traveler who suspends belief in divine providence would not judge it good per se that her boat is sinking or that her lorry has broken down.  But she can feel confidence in her ability to cope with such challenging and easily foreseeable events.  Today’s Stoic traveler would not judge these events to be demoralizing mishaps, but occasions requiring resourcefulness and level-headed problem-solving.  To judge herself to be victimized by such travel mishaps is a mistake.  Such urgent situations are times to swim vigorously toward floating debris, or to make for shore while assisting others if possible.  They are not times for decrying her terrible luck.  They are times to roll up her sleeves and apply her automotive know-how, seek roadside assistance, or get walking.  They are not times to kick the bus or yell at the lorry driver.  A Stoic is convinced that she is never victimized by the bumps along the road she travels.  While she may never reach her real destination, namely, is to become fully virtuous and wise, a Stoic relentlessly propels herself forward, straining to approach that goal as closely as she can.
[1] Translations, sometimes modified, are from C. Gill (ed.). The Discourses of Epictetus, tr. rev. by Robin Hard.  London: J.M. Dent, 1995.
[2] Montiglio, 212 thinks that in 3.24.6 Epictetus represents migratory birds as the ideal of freedom, since they can choose to fly (wander) wherever they want but we have no such freedom.  This misunderstands Epictetus’ conception of real freedom, which is the internal mental disposition of desiring only what is in one’s power always to achieve, not the physical ability to move about in space unhindered.
[3] For a discussion of what “getting lost” means in the relationship between wandering and knowledge for Odysseus and Dio Chrysostom, see Montiglio, 202 and ch. 3.
[4] See Disc. 2.6.20–25.  The same holds for prison.
[5] See Disc. 3.13.1–6 where Epictetus defines desolation (e0rhmi/a) as the condition of being bereft of help and vulnerable to injury rather than the condition of being alone.  Stoics must train themselves to become capable of being self-sufficient, as Zeus is at the ekpurōsis.
[6] As noted above (Skeel 93; Casson 149–150), sea voyages in winter were especially dangerous.
[1] All translations of Seneca’s Letters on Ethics are from A.A. Long and Margaret Graver, Univ. of Chicago Press (2015).
William O. Stephens is Professor of Philosophy and Classical Studies at Creighton University. He is also President of the Beta Chapter of Nebraska Phi Beta Kappa Society. He is the author of Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the PerplexedStoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom, and The Person: Readings in Human Nature, and the translator of Adolf Bonhöffer’s  The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus. He has published many articles on such topics as Star Wars and Stoicism, the film Gladiator (2000) and Stoicism, Stoic views of love, death, animals, sportsmanship, travel, and ecology, and on philosophical vegetarianism.

5 thoughts on A Stoic Approach to Travel and Tourism by William O. Stephens

  1. Mortran says:

    A well written article! I particularly enjoyed the quotes from original classic Stoic authors.
    One little correction though: In the English language (just as in French or Spanish) the default gender of a pronoun is masculine, whenever the sex of a person is not specified.

    • Adrian Lever says:

      Hi Mortran,
      It is good to see someone point out the correct use of ‘he’ when talking in general and where the sex is not specified. Just as with the species dog, the male is a dog and the female is a bitch, and so when talking about individual dogs in general one refers to them as ‘dog’ or ‘he’. Likewise with the human species, all members of the species when being talked of in general are referred to as ‘mankind’ or ‘man’ regardless of age or sex and hence when referring to any individual of the human species in general they are referred to as ‘man’ or ‘he’.
      This is especially noticeable in Wales where, when talking directly to a female, one is liable to call them ‘man’ – such as ‘What are you doing, man?’ This is counter to the fact (certainly in many parts of England) that it is considered to be rude to say ‘What are you doing, woman?’ in that this can carry an element of appearing to be talking down to the female concerned. (I am not sure what to make of the approach in the Midlands where in face to face conversations, regardless of sex, the same question may be couched as ‘What are you doing, ducks’ so signifying friendliness.)
      Personally I find the use of the word ‘she’ where it has always been appropriate to talk of ‘he’ to be rather pretentious – used to make a political point or to say ‘Look how politically correct I am.’ The problem is that this is approaching the issue of sexism from the wrong direction by casting women in general as ‘victims’ – which to my mind is to be degrading regards women.
      Following the comic line regards ‘equality’ whereby it is said that women should not want equality to men as she should not want to lower herself to such a level, and to use a less confrontational approach, I see that the use of ‘he’, when used as you say, talks of individual’s in general. Whereas the use of the word ‘she’ talks of the individuals within the species that are special in that they are able to give birth to the next generation.
      So out of my respect for women I would object to being referred to by the all-inclusive ‘she’ in that in their being the mothers of the species I, a mere man, can never be their equal.
      Something was lost over the years whereby women became a lower class citizen in many cultures. But also the same something is lost in the quest for equality. Women ought not to be seeking equality with males, but instead seeking to get to the point whereby their special nature as the bearers of our children is recognised – both by men and by women (especially feminists).
      Certainly Stoicism rather clumsily tried to make this point. Looking past the words and an element of male ego that crept into some of the writings of old, it is the common responsibility of the males of society to ensure that the women of society are supported in their roles as mothers, while recognising that women as a whole are just as capable as men as a whole in nearly all other areas of life.
      Society since the advent of feminism is now degrading the woman in that giving birth and child rearing is looked down on as something that has to fit in around a so called career and generally behaving as badly as the males that they are encouraged to emulate in the irrational drive for ‘full equality’.
      By changing the confrontational approach of the ‘snowflake’ politics of today and instead getting back to recognising the importance of the female to the species, maybe we could start to ensure that women got the appropriate respect and consideration of their role as the child bearers and early educators of our children, while ensuring that ability rather than equality was the standard for gaining jobs etcetera.
      I am sure that many a suffragette would turn in their graves if they could see what is happening today in the name of feminism. They simply wanted to break down barriers. They did not want to move away from the good manners that society expected when it came to the interaction of the sexes. As it is, women have lost so much today when they could have had it all by way of respect for their special role in life.
      So instead of tinkering with the language, would it not be better if we looked to ensure that society got to the stage whereby the nature of mankind, and hence the nature of women, trumped intellectual ideas about ‘how it ought to be’.

  2. Marcus Holmes says:

    A wonderful and timely Stoic critique for the modern travel mania. I’ve been cynical about travel myself for many years and feel vindicated.

  3. Jorge McNulty says:

    I agree with being frugal with vehicles. They are to get from point A to B. Disagree on travel. I really have no burdens to leave at home. I travel to appreciate the awe of history and geography. I travel for exercise and health. I travel to learn about other cultures and bring their ideas of simplicity and frugality back to my home life.

  4. James says:

    This brings up a question I have for Stoics: To what extent does Stoicism allow for the use of tools to make practicing it easier?
    The modern world has more distractions than the ancient one. Sure, the concept is the same–but the degree is very different. Seneca never had a smartphone. One use of vacations in the modern world is to get away from those distractions. In Seneca’s day, distance was the norm; in our day, we need to put some effort into making ourselves as difficult to communicate with as the most gregarious Roman would have been. Travel inherently cuts us off from certain lines of communication, often by taking us away from the devices we use to communicate. And more and more people seem to be using travel to do exactly that. This isn’t new concept by any means; monasteries, for example, were often populated by people who had exactly that mentality, and rich Romans (even Stoics) often had country retreats. But the modern approach is certainly a new variation on this theme.
    Yes, a sage could be alone and undistracted amid a riot, but we’re not sages; many people find it useful to use vacations to help them achieve that goal.
    I doubt any serious philosopher is going to say that the use of such tools is inherently wrong (well, a Cynic might). So the question is, when is using such a tool proper and when is it not? And, more generally: To what extent are we allowed to use crutches to help us achieve a proper Stoic mentality?

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