3 reasons great thinkers liked armchair travel
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.
There is heaven, you say, but perhaps you can scarcely see it through the continuous darkness.
There is earth, which you won’t dare to tread upon, perhaps because of the multitude of beasts and serpents.
There are men, but you would prefer to do without their company. What if some Patagonian Polyphemus [Cyclops] were to tear you to pieces and then straightaway devour the throbbing and still-living parts?
2. Many books are better than one trip
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 maps 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 Königsberg (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 3,000 miles 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, uncrossable rivers; 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, François-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 one scholar explains, Chateaubriand even changed geography to suit his fancy. He describes an island buzzing with “glittering baubles”: dragonflies, hummingbirds, butterflies. Between travel books, this island migrates from Florida to Ohio. 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. The book contained a fictional yet apparently convincing alphabet. And despite his blond hair and blue eyes, Psalmanazar convinced England he was Asian, kidnapped from Formosa by Jesuit priests. Psalmanazar had an answer for everything – even claiming his skin was white because Formosans lived underground.
Off on your own armchair travels
Marco Polo probably never made it to China. The safest, most learned and imaginative travel is undoubtedly embarked on from the fireside. How else can you traverse rivers running uphill, and cram more miles into a trip than is strictly possible? If you’re stuck in one place for a bit and fancy some armchair roaming, here are some classics to strike out from.
Percy G Adams, Travelers and Travel Liars, 1660-1800 (1980): This well researched but funny book collects many travel fraudsters together, describing travellers who “embellished” their tales and made up whole chunks of geography.
Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Places You’ve Never Been: On the Importance of Armchair Travel (2015): This tongue-in-cheek study argues there’s no need to visit a place to write interestingly about it, and provides lots of evidence. It includes the endearing tale of Édouard Glissant who was too old to journey to Easter Island to write a book - so sent his wife instead.
Francis Wood, Did Marco Polo Go To China? (2018): This more serious but readable study of Marco Polo’s Travels asks, how far did he really get? Wood argues probably no farther than Constantinople.
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