In Defense Of Travel


A reader writes:

I hope you'll consider the argument below from John Stuart Mill's On Liberty as a defense of travel. As a twenty-something American who has had the good fortune to be able to travel both personally and professionally, including to some conflict zones, I feel that travel is an important, if not essential component to understanding our complex world. At the risk of making the mistake Mill warns about and making assumptions about the age we're living in, it seems to me that as the world grows more connected and conflicted, we suffer precisely from not knowing enough about others and about ourselves as seen through others' eyes. To use Mill's formulation, my world has grown immeasurably with each new part of it I've come into contact with, with each new sect, new opinion, new party, new country. But, perhaps more importantly, travel has given me experiences and opportunities for discussion that have challenged the assumptions, preconceived notions, and biases that each of us inherits from our own circumstances, wherever we are born.

I'm familiar with the Emerson essay you cited, and I've struggled with to come to terms with it over the years. In the end, I think it's Mill's formulation that rescues travel from the idolatry, imitation, and boorishness of tourists, and places it in terms that Emerson might have respected. Emerson is correct to argue that when we travel, we should remain "at home" in some sense, but we should also remain open to the opportunities that travel gives us to examine our homes and ourselves in new ways and we should celebrate and the fact that travel equips us with the only tools available to make sound rational judgments about our common condition: new facts and new experiences to discuss. John Stuart Mill:

"Unfortunately for the good sense of mankind, the fact of their fallibility is far from carrying the weight in their practical judgment which is always allowed to it in theory; for while everyone well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion of which they feel certain may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable. Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects. People more happily situated, who sometimes hear their opinions disputed and are not wholly unused to be set right when they are wrong, place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them, or to whom they habitually defer; for in proportion to a man's want of confidence in his own solitary judgment does he usually repose, with implicit trust, on the infallibility of "the world" in general. And the world, to each individual, means the part of it with which he comes in contact: his party, his sect, his church, his class of society: the man may be called, by comparison almost liberal and large-minded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country or his own age. Nor is his faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes, and parties have thought, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient worlds of other people; and it never troubles him that a mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same causes which make him a churchman in London would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Peking."

Shortly following the positing of the counterargument against relativism and the intellectual paralysis it can produce and Emerson also rejected:

"Why is it, then, that there is on the whole a preponderance among mankind of rational opinions and rational conduct? If there really is this preponderance-- which there must be unless human affairs are, and have always been, in an almost desperate state - it is owing to a quality of the human mind, the source of everything respectable in man wither as an intellectual or as a moral being, namely, that his errors are corrigible. He is capable of rectifying his mistakes by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument, but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it."

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