Walking in solitude provides a chance to explore, quiet our minds, mull over ideas and conceive new concepts. The very act is a counter to the relentless pace of life in modern society where we’re overstimulated and bombarded with information, requests and notifications.
And as history has shown us, some of the greatest thinkers and creators were also habitual walkers. From Aristotle to Beethoven to Henry David Thoreau, here are some famous thinkers from history who have benefitted from taking a stroll.
Famous Thinkers Who Walked Routinely
1. Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden, was one of the world’s most famous walkers. An advocate for spending time alone in nature, he famously wrote:
“Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”Henry David Thoreau
Related: Why Walking Helps You Think
2. Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf, famed feminist and literary goddess, was one of England’s most renowned writers for using the stream of consciousness technique. She was also an avid walker.
As part of her writing process, she’d recite her drafts aloud during her daily walks.
Her love for walking is evident in her writing, where it’s a recurring theme across many of her works.
In Mrs. Dalloway, for example, the main character Clarissa walks through London using “interior monologue to represent memory and urban spaces.” The act of walking itself is what connects the characters of the book together.
Her 1927 piece Street Haunting, the narrator dips in and out of the minds of passersby as she saunters down the city streets observing.
A diary entry from a few years later hints more at how she used walking as part of her writing process. As she noted, “To walk alone in London is the greatest rest.”
3. Albert Einstein
In addition to his reputation as a super sleeper (more than 10 hours nightly), Albert Einstein was a devoted walker. Perhaps the combination of the two contributed to his genius.
During his tenure at Princeton University, for instance, he typically walked a mile and a half round-trip daily as he refined his thoughts and theories on quantum mechanics.
4. Charles Darwin
The father of modern evolutionary theory built walking into his intellectual routine. Charles Darwin took three 45-minute walks every day for a large portion of his life.
There was a gravel track near his home in Kent where he’d conduct his ambling, kicking pebbles as he strolled and theorized.
5. Ludwig Van Beethoven
Walking helped fuel Beethoven’s musical creativity. It also fulfilled his love for nature and served as a form of therapy.
He would take short breaks during his workday to clear his mind, and made it a ritual to take a longer walk each afternoon. He’d bring paper and a pen for when inspiration struck.
6 & 7. Socrates & Aristotle
Both Aristotle and Socrates used walking as a pedagogy to process, teach, and learn. Just like Socrates before him, Aristotle conducted his lectures to his students, the peripatetics, while walking the grounds of the Lyceum with his books in hand. The early Greek philosophers inextricably linked thinking to walking.
8. Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche used to walk in solitude to not only clear his mind but to also stimulate it.
To Nietzsche walking was more than mere relaxation, it was where he worked best. He’d bring along a notepad and paper and scribble down thoughts as they sprung to mind.
His maxim “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking” was born out of experience: when writing his works, he would walk alone for up to eight hours a day.
In fact, The Wanderer and His Shadow was written almost entirely on foot.
9. Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant would also take daily walks to reinforce his rigid routines and self-discipline as a scholar.
His ritualistic roaming wasn’t meant as a physical practice, but rather as an escape from his arduous work.
10. William Woodsworth
The renowned Romantic poet William Wordsworth was a lover of nature, and his affinity for the natural world often led him on long, reflective walks. He found profound inspiration in the Lake District’s scenic landscapes, where he would often walk for hours. These walks became not only a means of transportation but a vital part of his creative process.
Wordsworth’s poems frequently reflect his walking experiences, filled with vivid imagery of the English countryside. In his lengthy walks, he developed and pondered his ideas, allowing the beauty of nature to inform his philosophy and poetry. For Wordsworth, walking was more than mere exercise, it was an existential experience, a way to connect with nature, and a path to understanding oneself.
11. Charles Dickens
Known for his detailed and colorful depictions of Victorian London, Charles Dickens was an avid walker. Dickens’s walks were long and often nocturnal, taking place late at night when the streets were quiet. These walks were not only for pleasure but also an essential part of his writing process.
Dickens would walk as much as twenty miles in a single outing, exploring the city’s various neighborhoods. These journeys helped him absorb the atmosphere of London, understand its people, and gather the sensory details that make his novels so vivid and immersive.
His nighttime rambles allowed him to see a different side of the city, one that influenced his portrayal of London’s grittier aspects. Dickens’s habit of walking connected him deeply to the city and its inhabitants, and this connection is palpable in his writings. His novels are filled with the life and energy of the streets, a testament to the inspiration he drew from his many miles on foot.
Frequently Asked Questions About Famous Walkers
Why did great thinkers practice walking?
Many great thinkers practiced walking because it aids in creative thinking and problem-solving. Walking can stimulate blood flow to the brain, encourage a meditative state, and provide a break from focused work, allowing for free-flowing thoughts. Some believe that the rhythm of walking fosters a conducive environment for generating ideas and reflections.
Do walks help you think?
Yes, walks can help with thinking. The physical act of walking stimulates blood circulation, including to the brain, and can foster a meditative, relaxed state. This environment often leads to clearer thinking and the generation of new ideas. Walking can be a helpful tool for brainstorming, problem-solving, and reflective thought.
What did Aristotle say about walking?
Aristotle was known to walk as he taught, and his school of thought was even named the Peripatetic School due to this practice. The term “peripatetic” comes from the Greek word “peripatein,” which means “to walk up and down.” Aristotle believed in the connection between physical movement and intellectual activity, although specific quotes on walking are not recorded.
Which philosophers loved walking?
Many philosophers have enjoyed walking, including Aristotle, who taught while walking in the Lyceum’s covered walkways. Friedrich Nietzsche, Henry David Thoreau, Immanuel Kant, and Søren Kierkegaard are other examples of thinkers who found walking essential to their intellectual processes. Some saw it as a means to clear their minds, while others found inspiration in the natural world.
It’s not just for fitness or weight loss. Walking can have cognitive benefits too, which is why so many of history’s most influential thinkers were habitual walkers.
If you’re looking to improve your focus and creativity at work, try taking a short break every hour and go for a quick stroll instead of scrolling mindlessly.
We’ve compiled some famous historical figures who made walking a part of their routine (and we like to think they would be proud to be part of this list of flâneurs).
What are your favorite ways to incorporate walking into your routine? Do you share our love of all things cultural like museums and galleries? Or do you find yourself drawn more towards nature walks with plenty of fresh air?
Let us know by leaving a comment below!
Originally Published: August 30, 2019