How Riding Can Channel The Philosopher Within

Taking a ride with the philosophers

Riding with the philosophers
Riding with the philosophers.Illustration by John Breakey

Motorcycling can be a solitary experience, even when you’re not riding alone. You have time to yourself, inside your head, inside that helmet. Your days may be filled with honking cars, crying babies and booming radios. The problems at work may be piled. Or maybe you have busied up your social calendar. But eventually you may want to take a break from all that. On such an occasion, you might find yourself out on some lonely stretch of road where thinking is not only a possibility, it is an inevitability.

The ancient philosophers were big on thinking. No doubt they also experienced the mundane existence of daily life, but at some point they distinguished themselves as great thinkers because they took the time to step back and examine the Big Questions. Hermit, monk, teacher or emperor, the ancients were compelled to examine the very nature of existence. Occasionally, traveling was used as a metaphor for life, and it was not uncommon for them to frame a thought in that context. Already, the motorcyclist and the ancient philosopher have something in common.

A life without a holiday is like a long journey without an inn to rest at.

- Democritus

Admittedly, these moments of reflection don’t generally come about in the middle of urban traffic. Our brains are more appropriately attuned toward keeping out of harm’s way. It’s not until we get out beyond cities and civilization that we begin to open our minds as we open the throttle. And while we’re out tooling around the countryside, allowing ourselves the time to philosophize, often the thing we are confronted with is our place in the universe. Compared to the towering mountain or the sweeping plains, we’re pretty small, and very temporary.

Lieh Tzu was on a trip and was eating by the roadside when he saw a hundred-year-old skull. Pulling away the weeds and pointing his finger, he said, “Only you know and I know that you have never died and you have never lived.”

- Chuang Tzu

On the other hand, the feeling of the open road is what the rider is after—the sense that movement is equal to freedom. It’s easier to feel like we can speed ahead of our daily concerns. We trust in the bike’s ability to blow off the thoughts that crowd us, and soon we are only aware of our surroundings. To be connected with nature in this way is often the salve that eases our own feelings of smallness. Many philosophers, especially the Eastern variety, felt that a connection with nature was equal to being one with nature. The philosophy of Taoism, a precedent to Bud­dhism in China, is based upon the attainment of Tao, which literally translates to “way” or “path.” To follow Tao was to follow the way to enlightenment.

If I have a little knowledge, To travel the great path (Tao), I shall fear this: The great path is very flat and easy, Yet others are fond of bypaths.

- Lao Tzu

The early Greek philosophers spent their time thinking about the nature of matter and the universe—the Cosmos. They sought to create a framework for understanding the universe as a whole and our purpose in that universe. For the Greeks, philosophy was mixed with religion and myth to provide such a framework. Just as the chariots drew the sun across the sky at the beginning of each day, so were the chariots used to bring Parmenides to understand Nature.

There was I carried along, for there did the coursers sagacious, Drawing the chariot, bear me, and virgins preceded to guide them—Daughters of Helios leaving behind them the mansions of darkness— Into the light, with their strong hands forcing asunder the night shrouds, While in its socket the axle emitted the sound of a syrinx, Glowing, for still it was urged by a couple of wheels well rounded, One upon this side, one upon that, when it hastened its motion...

- Parmenides

Of course, death was often on the mind of the philosopher. Avoiding death is generally highest on our own list of things to think about, especially when you are dodging cars or trying to stay glued to a curve. The act of motorcycling in particular has an element of cheating death in the first place, since you willingly allow yourself to be hurtled along at speeds your body wasn’t designed for. And yet the objective is not to invite death, it is to experience life. Most riders would say that they accept the hazards of riding because of the thrill of being on the bike. However, at some point everyone must accept the inevitability of death. For the philosopher as well as the rider, the inevitability of death is something to think about, not to ignore.

We are all forced down the same road. Our fate, Tossed in the urn, will spring out soon or late, And force us helpless into Charon’s bark, Passengers destined for eternal dark.

- Horace

As your motorcycle is humming down the road, perhaps you have decided not to contemplate life or death after all. Perhaps you’ve decided to tackle other philosophical notions, such as the nature of good or evil, or maybe less weighty matters altogether. But at least you’re not sitting at home contemplating your own navel. You’re out there riding a steel chariot in the Cosmos, or following along the curve of the Tao. You are riding with the great thinkers. And at the end, even though you may be exhausted from the physical demands of the ride, at least you’ve given yourself something to think about.

Pass then through this little space of time comfortably in nature, and end thy journey in content.

- Marcus Aurelius