Three reasons great thinkers liked armchair travel

Many philosophers believed books are better than travel. Pictures: Shutterstock
Many philosophers believed books are better than travel. Pictures: Shutterstock

Coronavirus has led to unprecedented worldwide restrictions on travel.

But philosophers and others have argued for centuries that real-world travel comes second to armchair travel.

From your own living room, you can visit new places by reading about them, tucked under a blanket with a mug of cocoa.

In these grim times, here's a light-hearted look at three benefits of voyaging without leaving your home.

1. Fewer monsters

In 1605, English philosopher Joseph Hall published a voracious attack on travel. His book, Another World and Yet the Same, parodied popular books like Mandeville's Travels. It stars a man named Mercurious Britannicus, who sets sail on the ship Fancie towards the south pole. There he discovers a new continent: Terra Australis.

Mercurious spends three decades exploring its lands. He discovers that Gluttonia, Drinkallia, Viraginia, Moronia and Lavernia are populated by gluttons, drunkards, women, morons and criminals. Afterwards, he argues that people shouldn't bother travelling:

Have you considered all the dangers of so great an enterprise, the costs, the difficulty? ...

Hall believes it's better to visit new worlds by reading, avoiding storms, sails, and "never-ending tossing of waves". Certainly, there are no serpents or Patagonian Cyclops in your living room.

2. Many books are better than one trip

The Greek philosopher Socrates believed there was more to be learnt in books than travel.

The Greek philosopher Socrates believed there was more to be learnt in books than travel.

Socrates refused to set foot outside Athens. He argued he could learn much more about the world by reading: "You can lead me all over Attica or anywhere else you like simply waving in front of me the leaves of a book".

Similarly, a 1635 Mercator atlas claimed that allow you to see at home what others have sought through travel: "uncouth Continents... the Rocks, the Isles, the Rivers and their falls... God's greatest Work".

Like Socrates, philosopher Immanuel Kant never travelled far from his birthplace of Knigsberg (now Kaliningrad), Prussia. Yet he was fascinated by the world, reading travelogues, writing and teaching geography. He said he didn't have time to travel - because he wanted to know so much about so many countries.

3. The best travel writing was free of travel

Some of the best travel writing is made up. One such tale is that of English sailor David Ingram, who lost a sea-battle in 1567 and was marooned on the coast of Mexico. Ingram claimed he spent the next 11 months trekking through north America, covering around 6000 kilometres to Nova Scotia.

The distance itself is impressive - in modern times, writer Richard Nathan re-traced the trek in nine months. Less plausible are the things Ingram encountered along the route: elephants, red sheep, giant birds with peacock-like feathers, and cities laced with gold, pearls and crystals.

Richard Hakluyt published Ingram's account alongside writings by exploration giants such as Gerardus Mercator, Francis Drake, and Martin Frobisher. Yet historians have long doubted its veracity. One writes that the most fantastic thing about Ingram's tale is not that he made this journey "along rivers that for the most part flowed the wrong way", rather that "intelligent" people believed it.

But Ingram was far from alone. At the turn of the 19th century, Franois-René de Chateaubriand published several beguiling travel books - large chunks of which were probably imaginary.

His Voyage en Amérique describes a six-month trip during which he visited New York, New England, the Great Lakes, Niagara Falls; met George Washington; lived with native Americans; and roamed Ohio and Florida. In 1903, a historian argued that this trip was impossible, and its descriptions were plagiarised from earlier sources.

As another historian put it, to treat Chateaubriand's journeys as a source of authentic information "would be folly".

In 1704, Frenchman George Psalmanazar published An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa. This travel book about latterday Taiwan was a complete fabrication, based on other books and the contents of Psalmanazar's head.

What's amazing is how far Psalmanazar took the fraud. Despite his blond hair and blue eyes, Psalmanazar convinced England he was Asian, kidnapped from Formosa by Jesuit priests.

  • Emily Thomas is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Durham University
  • This story first appeared in The Conversation

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