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How to Lose a Culture: Reflections on Walking and Migration by András Lánczi

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How to Lose a Culture: Reflections on Walking and Migration

Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker” suggests that thinking or contemplation is best depicted as motionless activity. This further implies that serious thought can only occur by separating the thinker from the outside world. This is wrong. While thinking can certainly take place when a person is physically stationary, it is more fitting for it to happen when he is in motion. Discursive thought is a motion from one point to another. Since thought joins what is exterior and material with what is interior and intellectual, both aspects are to be expressed in the process of thinking itself. Of course, the interior motion of thought should not be identified with any kind of physical motion, but thought necessarily implies motion. But what is the relationship between physical motion and interior motion? Or, to make it concrete, how does walking relate to thinking? And is there a contemplative walking that ought to be distinguished from the purely practical use of walking, particularly walking for the purpose of migration?

Migration and contemplative walking are self-evidently forms of movement in physical space. Despite what Rodin would have you believe, the Western tradition actually often ties walking with the idea of intellectual development and contemplation. Migration, conversely, is directed to achieve economic and political goals. To clarify: walking in its purest form is ultimately about how to nurture and maintain one’s self or one’s culture; migration is about how to implement a new distribution of people, living facilities, and goods between civilizations. Thus, walking should be considered as a specifically cultural phenomenon, and migration as a globalized movement stirred by economic, political, and environmental needs. 

It seems vital, however, that we consider and evaluate the vigorousness of our culture by various standards with a special emphasis on the state of philosophy and contemplation in our culture which has gained a decisive support from love of wisdom and country. But most people in the West today who encourage (or even champion) mass migration probably do not realize that their apparently philanthropic attitude is in fact based upon a fundamentally relativistic vision of truth. It has been pointed out for many years by various thinkers that the greatest danger to our culture today is the relativization of truth. Relativism implies that objective truth is inaccessible, if it exists at all, therefore we ought to think and act accordingly. 

The idea of the relativity of truth was initiated by early modern philosophers who had wanted to find a way out of religious skepticism gaining grounds mainly as a consequence of the rise of modern science and of the turmoil of religious and political debates from late 16th century until at least the end of the French Revolution. More and more thinkers suggested that the truth about physical nature lies with God, but human life depends on achievements planned and executed by men. Thus you can only know things which were made by men. G. Vico, for instance, argued that verum and factum are identical in the sense that truth is made, i.e. factum. In politics this suggestion about truth necessitated creating compromises among political adversaries in order to secure peace. Hence the notion of modern social contract theories.

For those of us who reject relativistic understandings of truth, we must consider how it is that truth is discovered and known. This sort of question is often answered by appealing to a methodology or way of seeking it. What we have today is a highly sophisticated description of the methods and standards of scientific acquisition of knowledge. Walking as a means is certainly not included among them, although we have ample evidence that the habit of walking helped thinkers to find ways to truth. But walking as a method? Today it is denied together with the original conception of philosophy, i.e., love of wisdom. 

Walking and the Western Tradition

Walking can serve the recovery of a sick body, but it also encourages a healthy spirit. Thus, it has a spiritual meaning. Indeed, walking serves as a symbol of European intellectual history. In Jon Day’s essay, “From Wordsworth to Nietzsche: The Power of Walking Examined,” he provides a veritable treasure trove of quotations from Modern Western philosophers and poets who treasured the intellectual value of walks: 

“All truly great thoughts” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols, “are conceived while walking.” Henry David Thoreau thought that his ideas began to flow the “moment my legs begin to move.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau said he could “meditate only when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.” For the Romantics, walking, and talking about how much you liked walking, was almost a competitive sport…. Thomas De Quincey, himself no slouch, asserted that William Wordsworth’s legs, though “pointedly condemned by all female connoisseurs,” had carried the poet “175,000 to 180,000 English miles” over the course of his life.

This list, though itself impressive, is far from a complete catalogue of thinkers who have written about the intimate connection between walks and intellectual motion. And, though the topic is rarely, if ever, made the central focus of any philosopher’s work, it often touches on the very mode of their composition. 

“[Thomas] Hobbes,” Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, “even had a walking stick with an inkhorn built into it so he could jot down ideas as he went.” Kant, who never left Königsberg, took a walk every day in his town, but in contrast to many other philosophers, this was not in order to gain new insights, but merely for exercise, because Kant obtained many of his ideas sitting by the stove and staring at the church tower out the window. The link between walking and thought is a perennial one that touches us today, as French philosopher Frédéric Gros’s 2014 A Philosophy of Walking reminds us. 

On surveying this wealth of authorities who support the assertion that walking and thinking are connected, we must ask ourselves a simple question: do we still take walks to discover, contemplate, and create thought, as well as to maintain our culture? Sadly, the answer seems to be no. We in the West tend to live a sedentary lifestyle, which is not only detrimental to our health, but it is also harmful to our culture. Sitting is the new smoking.

Migration, on the contrary, does not have an essential connection with reflection and truth. Migration may incidentally help a given person to have new experiences and meet new people, but its aim is seldom an intellectual one. A migrant will be confronted with new attitudes and behaviors, and he may even contribute to the well-being of his new country, but he cannot be aware of the foundations of the culture into which he has been integrated. 

When ‘migration’ refers to an individual person’s experience, it has no real cultural or political meaning, so the fact that a person’s action does not support the intellectual life is negligible to Western political life. However, when it comes to mass migration one cannot say the same thing, because it is always about more profound, even existential, issues. Mass migration tends by its nature to change a culture because it changes the composition of the political community, whether or not this is intentional. If mass migration goes on for long enough and is not handled properly, it can even cause the destruction of the host culture. Small nations are, of course, more aware of this threat than bigger ones, but it is becoming clearer to large nations with every passing year.

The survival of European culture depends on the search for truth, the love of wisdom. Without it, the West will be unable to sustain itself. Therefore, everything connected with and conducive to this search, including the practice and idea of walking, must be considered seriously. 

Walking and thinking

Walking is a precondition of human common life. It is vital, like eating or breathing, and it is connected, not just with man’s struggle for mere existence, but also with the very meaning of his life. Walking can join physical motion with spiritual travel, or contemplation. Taking steps can mean moving from one point in space to another to fulfill a practical need, or it can simply occur so someone can meet with another person. This latter kind of walking is very human; indeed it is exclusively characteristic of man. Animals are also capable of taking steps, but their movement cannot be called walking, because they move without any spiritual meaning. Therefore, walking is more than the mere sum of single steps taken in a limited range of distance and time. The mere physical action of taking steps, as when a toddler stands and begins to use his feet, does not yet have a goal, but walking does. Even the shortest walk has a goal, which suggests that it is a meaningful human activity. We human beings are subject to motion, and we act in order to achieve goals. This is why it is a tragedy when someone loses his ability to walk. Moving is living, and when someone is limited in his mobility, he is also limited in his sphere of action, regardless of any assistance offered by other men. However, a physically handicapped man can continue to use his mind, for man moves by two means: physical and mental. They are connected, although this is not simple to prove.

It is quite common for people to move physically while thinking intently—walking back and forth, or fiddling with a ball or a pebble, or throwing stones into the water, or throwing a ball repeatedly against the wall. Heidegger’s insight that thinking is making distinctions fairly fits the idea that the thinker should move from one position to another.

Motion: a precondition of change

Walking is usually associated with Nature, but it can take place in urban circumstances as well. Despite the fact that one can walk anywhere, it is fair to say that when we wish to take a walk then we usually want to go out into nature. Why? Because urban living conditions deprive us of walking freely. In the city, we are compelled to rush from one point of fulfilling duties to another to do the same, or as a tourist we are geared to visit predictable and recommended sights. Although the air of the city makes one free, at least in the Middle Ages, today urban air is smeared with pollution. Urban life involves a concentration of man-made things and human actions, and as a result those who live in the city can live their daily lives with no direct meetings with Nature. This is a loss. Since Nature acts as a mediator between God and man, walking should be a mediator between man’s physical needs and his spiritual aspirations.

The declared relationship between philosophy and walking began with Aristotle. This is what we know from Diogenes Laertius: “when Xenocrates became head of the Academy, and that on his return, when he saw the school under a new head, he made choice of a public walk in the Lyceum where he would walk up and down discussing philosophy with his pupils until it was time to rub themselves with oil. Hence the name “Peripatetic.” But others say that it was given to him because, when Alexander was recovering from an illness and taking daily walks, Aristotle joined him and talked with him on certain matters.” Whatever the actual circumstances were, walking up and down is the physical expression of how thinking goes.

Although most discussions of the relationship between thinking and walking have been tangents in larger works, we do have two notable pieces dedicated to the subject. The better-known work is Henry David Thoreau’s 1852 lecture (later published in The Atlantic) “Walking”; the other is a lesser-known booklet Wanderung by Hermann Hesse. Let us begin with Thoreau: 

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived ‘from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going Ă la Sainte Terre,’ to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean.

Thoreau’s focus on the word “saunter” and “saunterer” is worth dwelling upon. By “saunterer,” he means the man who takes a walk for the sake of walking, and, we could add, for the sake of contemplation. Contemplation is the highest activity of the mind because it is directed to the infinity that we are unable to conquer. But this infinitude demands contemplation if we are to place ourselves within the cosmic order.

Herman Hesse was almost desperate when he wrote his loose series of essays about “wandering” or “walking.” Facing the Second World War, he used the image of meandering, wandering, to convey his argument that borders, which hindered free movement, are not simply unjust, but despicable. In language reminiscent of the noble savage, Hesse wrote the following:

The wandering man becomes a primitive man in so many ways, in the same way that the nomad is more primitive than the farmer. But the longing to get on the other side of everything already settled, this makes me, and everybody like me, a road sign to the future. If there were many other people who loathed the borders between countries as I do, then there would be no more wars and blockades. Nothing on earth is more disgusting, more contemptible, than borders. 

As he makes clear in this passage, Hesse believed that it was the borders in Europe that had caused its wars and many of its other hardships. Today, we all regard the dismantling of borders as a crucial development in the history of Europe, and if it is free wandering that helps to boost this insight, so much the better. But accepting this point does not logically require accepting the comprehensive claim that all borders must, always, and under all conditions must be removed. Anyone who refuses to recognize this distinction is suffering from a special intellectual blindness.

But moving has many other meanings and practices. Today, moving mainly denotes travel. Travel, however, can take on several meanings, such as when one travels for recreation, study, business, or religious purposes like pilgrimage. Migration is certainly not mere walking or wandering or travel. A man can only migrate if he has a definite purpose for his moving or travel. But migration itself can have several meanings: in ancient times ostracism was a forced migration, and we should remember that modern slave-trade was a form of forced migration. Modern slavery is the prime example of forced migration, but there are many others. For instance, members of hated social classes in the communist world were forced to leave their homes and constrained to live in faraway places in the countryside. Today we have the opposite of this. People come by their own decisions to live and work in Europe. And they come in masses and from other cultures. Most of them seek the higher standard of living promised by modern Western liberalism and its claim that man has the right to live anywhere he wishes. The claim that such a human right exists is, however, lacking in a strong foundation. Rights must correspond to human nature, and the human person has the need for community and an intellectual and cultural life, but mass migration is contrary to all three of these. Neither contemplation nor belonging means anything for today’s human right liberals.

Mass migration

Today we have been confronted with the experience of mass migration all over the world. Unlike other continents, Europe has not faced a similar phenomenon for a long time. Europe is known as a geographical place for launching fleets, armies, and missions to conquer unknown lands, and extract both their human and material resources. Now there seems to be a counter-process, practically beginning after the collapse of the colonial system. More and more people from Asia and Africa are trying to settle down in the West. Constant decline demonstrated by demography is the evidence that European nations have been unable to reproduce themselves. Recent Eurostat figures support this remarkable statement: “From 2012 to 2016, net migration contributed 80% to total population growth in the EU, compared with less than 20% from natural population change.” A detailed explanation is then also given: 

The total fertility rate is the mean number of children that would be born alive to a woman during her lifetime if she were to conform to the age-specific fertility rates for a given year throughout her childbearing years. Demographers suggest that a fertility rate of 2.1 is required in developed world economies to maintain a constant population (in the absence of any migration); this rate is often referred to as the natural replacement rate. As shown above, Europeans have been having considerably fewer children in recent decades; in 2015, the EU-28’s total fertility rate was 1.58 children per woman.

All the EU Member States recorded fertility rates in 2015 that were below the natural replacement rate. Some of the highest fertility rates were found in the western and northern EU Member States: France and Ireland had rates of just less than 2.00 live births per woman, followed by Sweden (1.85), the United Kingdom (1.80) and Denmark (1.71). By contrast, the fertility rate was less than 1.40 children per woman in five southern EU Member States (Portugal, Cyprus, Greece, Spain, and Italy) and in Poland.

Without entering into statistical tinkering whether smaller nations are less or more affected than bigger ones by these trends, we have to take into account that bigger nations with or without colonial past would react differently to this latest but robust phenomenon.

There are, however, other factors to be considered while assessing demographic decline in Europe and most of the developed world, which betrays the secret of modern process: Westernization produces similar effects all over the world. In our case, fewer and fewer children are born in countries, or rather in cultures, despite the sharp increase in living standards for decades. These effects include next to demographic plummeting developments like waste of resources, growing lack of trust in faith and meaning of life, suffocating measure of boredom, and succumbing to a virtual reality that replaces actual or natural reality. In exchange, the civilians of Western civilization enjoy safety especially by force of relative material abundance. But when a would-be newborn child is subject to a consideration of personal calculation, then that culture is doomed sooner or later. 

Every civilization thrives to the extent it provides cohesion between its members. And it is rather a matter of intellectual energy than anything else. And the vigorousness of the intellect depends on certain preconditions, most importantly moving. Leaving aside the philosophic debate between Heraclitus and Parmenides about the possibility of change and identity, we must be aware that moving has different meanings when it refers to walking and when it refers to migration. From the European or Western perspective walking is about thinking, migration is about achieving some useful aims.

Earlier migration was usually applied to an individual who “moved from one place to another.” The Latin migrare simply implies the meaning of moving or transporting. As a rule, it meant a move within one’s own culture, although there have always been exceptions. A migrant and its variants like vagabonds or travelers, contrary to much contemporary thought, did not visit various places in order to settle down, but to gather experience and knowledge or skills. They were more like visitors than people seeking new homes or countries. The original meaning of a visitor was the Greek “theorein” which means “to look at.” If a representative or member of a city had wanted to establish contacts with other city-states, he had to visit them and watch their ways of how they contemplate the divine which was telling about their understanding of harmony or order, i.e., the real world. But always within a culture, and not among them. Moving and mixing between cultures is called globalization fuelled by economic needs.

Debate about migration at an age of the masses

There are, as usual, two completely opposing views about migration. The first is that there are in principle no problems with migration at all, because migration has always occurred, albeit in carrying degrees. This position is often accompanied by the claim that migration is a fundamentally good thing, and thus it is useful for Europeans. The second view is that today’s mass migration is one of the most vital issues of our civilization in the Western hemisphere, and serious threats are lurking around the corner under the disguise of mass migration finally leading up to a conclusion that it is the European civilization as such being jeopardized. Why is there a sharp contrast between these two judgments? 

The relativistic approach would dictate that the truth is somewhere halfway. Those who would conclude a compromise along this line, forget about the current state of the Western mindset which is occupied by some liberal dogmas dictating that truth is relative, thus all judgments must be based on a compromise which means that nobody is right at the end of the day, and democracy will survive at the expense of traditional philosophy. Since our age is imbued with the dogma and prejudice of equality, no one really dares to declare that truth can be on either of the opposing sides. So, when we are confronted with the intellectual duty to judge today’s mass migration, most Western citizens would believe that since all values are equal, we do not have a right to say what truth is in this or in any other issue. Thomas L. Pangle said the following: 

The equalization of values is the greatest danger. Values and cultures can and must be ranked in accordance with the degree of resoluteness or seriousness with which the basic values are held or advanced, and in accordance with their depth or shallowness, their comprehensiveness or narrowness, their honesty or hypocrisy, their communal responsibility or irresponsibility, their degree of veneration for their past and of revolutionary creativity looking to their future.

Basically, this insight was developed by some other authors back at least to the beginning of the post-war period. For instance, James Burnham’s Suicide of the West published in 1964 saw liberalism as the ideology of decline precisely because of liberalism.

Well before Ortega y Gasset, Nietzsche provided a prophetic speculation about the future of the West.  He argued that, owing to the spread of socialism’s ideas, fewer Westerners would be willing to work menial jobs, and as a result Europeans would consider inviting “barbarian masses from Asia and Africa to get them to work” in order to serve the civilized world. 

I am sure that today’s political economy can and should find answers to the new wave of mass migration. I am just wondering if the Western nations believe that they can maintain their rule, what is the basis of their beliefs? Different cultures have diverse views, history, sensitivity, and values that they represent and fight for. Those who are convinced that integration is possible hold a relativistic conception of truth. Thus, the pro-migration arguments regard the relativity of truth as the greatest achievement of European intellectual development, whereas the representatives of the opponents adhere to the idea of the non-relative truth. As long as the relativists have fought against the non-relativists within our culture, the relativists could claim certain advantages, but now they tend to fail to notice that their arguments are sheer nonsense in the eyes of the members of other cultures. The conception of the relativity of truth might easily lead to the decay of a culture in which contemplative walking should be reinvented, and acknowledged as a source of thinking. In the old days children were threatened by not allowing them to the playground if they misbehave; today the same threat is that you will be sent out to the playground, and you have to shut down your computer. There is hardly a more succinct expression of the fundamental change of Western attitude towards education and the conditions of a flourishing life due to a radical change between the real and the virtual. It is more than likely that we are at the threshold of a new concept of nature which will be called virtual nature.

András Lánczi is the rector of Corvinus University in Budapest and president of the board of the Center for European Renewal. His book Political Realism and Wisdom was published in 2015 by Palgrave Macmillan.


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