René Descartes was a famously clever chap. Yet it wasn’t until he left his native France that he realised that “those who have views very different from our own are not therefore barbarians or savages, but several use as much reason as we do, or more”. In a passage of staggering sub-gap-year naivety, the 17th-century rationalist recounts how he came to realise that someone “raised from his infancy on among the French or the Germans, would become different from what he would have been if he had always lived among the Chinese or the cannibals”. Who would have thought it?
This little footnote in the history of ideas is as good an example as any of how travel can broaden the most expansive mind, even if it doesn’t always do so. The problem is that with greater breadth can come greater shallowness. This can be the result of misunderstanding another lesson Descartes learnt, that “we are clearly persuaded more by custom and example than by any certain knowledge”.
If we become too impressed by this fact, it is easy to conclude that there is no such thing as morality, merely convention. And if we do that, laudable cosmopolitan pluralism can become amoral permissiveness. Sex tourists convince themselves that underage prostitution in southeast Asia is “just what they do”, while driving a hard bargain with someone struggling to feed her family is simply following the local bartering customs.
What cultural differences should teach us is not to take all values as equal but, as Descartes saw, “not to believe too firmly in anything which I had been persuaded to believe merely by example and by custom”. Rather than becoming credulous about other cultures, we should learn to be more sceptical of our own. This is something travellers often fail to do but, again, Descartes identified the source of the error: “When one spends too much time travelling, one finally becomes a stranger in one’s own country, and when one is too curious about things which went on in past ages, one usually lives in considerable ignorance about what goes on in this one.”
Many years ago each new stamp on my passport would give me the thrill of having acquired a badge of honour, the more exotic the destination the better. I grew out of this over time and no longer collect locations but that ethos has grown stronger in the wider culture, to the point where you might end up feeling like a pariah among your peers if you don’t have itchy feet.
Travel can yield many benefits. There is the challenge of having to deal with novel and unexpected situations, learning about the world and adapting to different customs. It is something that is meant to forge our character and make us more flexible individuals, confronting our prejudices along the way.
Of course travel isn’t guaranteed to do any such thing. It might in reality create expense and discomfort while merely reinforcing our biases. Things back home can seem so much more civilised. The quality time with your family you were hoping for turns out to be more stressful than life at work. Instead of taking the opportunity to learn about local customs you end up getting drunk with your compatriots.
But there remains a lingering feeling that there is something wrong with being uninterested in travel. Much of this is likely to come down to cultural pressure but there is one way of making sense of it, which is that an unwillingness to travel can reflect a general lack of curiosity about the world.
Still, some people simply feel that what drives their curiosity happens to be close to home. Far from being a problem, this can be an advantage, if it means that what thrills and stimulates them is nearer, cheaper and more in their control. But then one of the benefits of travel is to be receptive to what is unfamiliar. Taking that lesson means allowing ourselves to be open to other things that stretch our comfort zone.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England.
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Illustration by Laura Carlin