By Matthew Flinders
New Year is – or so I am told – a time to reflect upon the past and to consider the future. Put slightly differently, it is a time to think. Is it possible, however, that we may have lost – both individually and collectively – our capacity to think in a manner that reaches beyond those day-to-day tasks that command our attention?
The sheer pace and speed of life; the challenge of somehow stepping outside the storm in order to gain some sense of where you are going (and why); a capacity to pause and think, has arguably become an increasingly precious commodity in an ever-busier world. This is reflected in the changing nature of higher education and the imposition of pressures and expectations that have arguably combined to squeeze-out the space for scholarly thought and reflection. Fifty years ago the founding professor of the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield, Sir Bernard Crick, used to insist that all students and all members of staff would ‘walk out’ together in the Peak District every Wednesday afternoon in order to nourish both physical and intellectual health. The realities of scholarship in the twenty-first century leave little room for such endeavours (i.e. some space to think).
In ‘taking strength from the hills’ Bernard Crick’s attitude had much in common with those expressed in 1782 by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Reveries of the Solitary Walker. As a fell runner I appreciate ‘the pleasures of going one knows not where’ and as a writer I understand the manner in which physical activity and a sense of remoteness ‘animates and activates my ideas’. ‘I can hardly think at all when I am still; my body must move if my mind is to do the same’, Rousseau wrote; ‘The pleasant sights of the countryside, the unfolding scene, the good air, a good appetite, the sense of well-being that returns as I walk…all of this releases my soul, encourages more daring flights of thought, impels me, as it were, into the immensity of being, which I can choose from, appropriate, and combine exactly as I wish’. These words capture almost perfectly exactly why I run.
So, where can we rediscover that time to think? The hills and valleys therefore provide exactly that escape, that sense of isolation, that passing moment of release from the instrumentality of grinding social conformity, from the pressures of daily life that many crave but so few appear to be able to achieve. A deeper account of the reveries of the lonely fell runner or walker might engage with Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) with its focus on the idea that a fundamental tension exists between the conformity and control demanded by civilization and the instinctual freedom demanded by individuals. Freud therefore leaves us with a core paradox that takes us not just back to Rousseau but forward to more recent works such as Alan de Botton’s Status Anxiety (2004), Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice (2005) and Oliver James Affluenza (2006) in the sense that the social and economic structures that we have created to protect ourselves from various risks (squalor, want, disease, etc.) seem unable to make us happy. The growth of research and writing on the ‘science of happiness’ in recent years therefore reveals (or more accurately recognises) a longstanding fault line in modern life.
Although Alfred Wainwright (the British fell walker, guidebook author, and illustrator) would have given short thrift to such ‘scientific’ pretensions he was undoubtedly a man who understood the need to draw inspiration and energy from the hills. The paradox that Rousseau reflected on and that caused Wainwright such angst was the realisation that by drawing attention to the reveries of the solitary walker – to the raw and simple beauty of the fells and peaks and moors – they risked destroying the very peace and tranquillity that the countryside provided. And yet in their writing both Rousseau and Wainwright could not conceal the pleasures of escaping – albeit temporarily – the trials and tribulations of modern life. Indeed, at the beginning of his poem ‘Sylvie’s Walk’ (L’Allée de Silvie, 1747), written nearly thirty years before he began the Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote,
As I wander freely in these groves,
My heart the highest pleasure knows!
How happy I am under the shady trees!
How I love the silvery streams!
Sweet and charming reverie,
Dear and beloved solitude,
May you always be my true delight!
With these words in mind let a lonely (but happy) fell runner offer you a Happy New Year in which you find the space to think.
Matthew Flinders is Professor of Parliamentary Government & Governance at the University of Sheffield. He was awarded the Political Communicator of the Year Award in 2012. Author of Defending Politics (2012), he is also co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of British Politics and author of Multi-Level Governance and Democratic Drift.
Matthew Flinders is now writing a monthly OUPblog column on current affairs and politics; watch out for it on the first Wednesday of every month! Read more of Matthew Flinders’s blog posts and find him on Twitter @PoliticalSpike. And, in case you were wondering, Matthew is a member of Dark Peak Fell Runners!
Image credit: Trail running. Photo by thinair28 via iStockPhoto.