‘Travel and change of place impart new vigour to the mind,’ is an often cited and apparently thoughtful quote from Seneca, a wealthy and powerful Roman Stoic philosopher and writer. Many travellers use this quote as, although it was written 2,000 years ago, these words still holds some truth today. Many of us feel that taking a break from the everyday comfortable routine can be refreshing, give me a chance to see things with new eyes and look beyond the familiar daily grind, encountering vivid ideas that can lead me to innovation and change. Seeing new sights can be mind expanding and renews our get-up-and-go and connects us to Seneca the philosopher.
Wanting to understand what Seneca was saying, I searched for the specific reference or context of this quote but hit a brick wall, only finding others who state this is wrongly attributed to Seneca but no information about who the quote is from. Also the more I read about Stoicism the less sense these words meant in relation to its teachings.
Stoicism teaches the four cardinal virtues for a good life, wisdom, temperance, justice and courage. As a Stoic, Seneca argued that passionate anger or grief should be moderated and he would approve of the classic stiff upper lip. Stoicism teaches that happiness is found in acceptance and by not allowing our desire for pleasure and our fear of pain to control actions. Seneca thought it was important for everyone to consider their own mortality and face up to dying, not to encourage a pessimistic attitude but to reinforce how lucky we are to be alive and live for today. Studying Stoicism can lead to reflection and philanthropy and can help us understand our place in the world and encourage us to treat others fairly and justly. As a Stoic Seneca recognised his own short-comings compared to his own role models and was always willing to learn.
Stoicism in many ways fits well with today’s minimalist movement. A Stoic admires frugality and sees no shame in being seen wearing old clothes, driving a battered car or living in a run down house … image is nothing and boasting about a luxury holiday or posting glamorous photographs on social media would be a far cry from Stoicism.
There seems some tension between this often quoted phrase of Seneca’s and the principles of Stoicism. Some argue that Seneca would support the sentiment of the quote while considering that it is the intent of the travel and the disposition of the traveller that are important. He wrote, ‘Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive here.’
Travel to find peace of mind is not promoted by Stoicism as this inner harmony needs to be achieved from within and moving to a new place won’t make you happy, ‘You must change the mind, not the venue,’ Seneca wrote. Stoicism argues that travel in itself cannot lead to self-improvement. Yet, travel that combines frugality with learning could fit into the Stoic’s way of life.
Taking a break from work can give your mind a chance to wander into new areas and that is when some bright spark of an idea can pop in but I find that even getting out for a walk can give the same result, never mind a full-blown holiday. As Tim Harford argues in this FT article, you don’t need a long holiday to give your brain chance to relax and re-boot. A weekend away works just as well and the benefits of a longer break wear off just as quickly as a short one. Such news is all a bit distressing for someone who loves long holidays and I personally find that the benefits of a long holiday lie deeper and of course, all this is different when you are not returning to work. It is true that when we were working folk we would get away on a Friday night for a weekend and face Monday morning much refreshed.
Whether or not this quote is actually something Seneca wrote, Stoicism suggests that happiness can be found through our acceptance of how things are and imparting new vigour to the mind certainly doesn’t have to be found by investing in an expensive holiday or retreat. If a few days camping is out of the question we can all get a similar feeling of new vigour from seeing your own locality with fresh eyes. You might take a different route to work or explore a local park you’ve never visited before or even read a different genre of novel or watch a new TV programme. Constant learning and removing yourself from your comfort zone can impart new vigour to your mind.