Arjun Yadav

Walking your way to Philosophy

Walking Stewart - Wikimedia

Credit for the image.

Background

This summer, I ran a blog called the Symposium Project where I talked about a bunch of random topics. The blog failed, not completely sure why but it was probably because I was a bad team player.

One of my favourite posts from the blog was this one, the story of John "Walking" Stewart, I stumbled upon this story completely at random and it was so fascinating I decided to write about it.

I had reposted this on LessWrong to very little reception. So, for the sake of preservation, I am keeping the story and my retelling of it here.

A child prodigy sets sail

In the 1760s, a young John Stewart, declared a blockhead and a dunce by his father, set sail to the east. It is there where his life changed forever, as he walked his way to philosophy.

Born as an only child to a well-respected Scotch family, John was sent to one of the best schools in the country but their way of learning never clicked with John. "He was only remarkable for his inattention to learning", a relative says.

John, at only 13 years of age, used to compose moral essays at his home. The family's master, who must have read some of them, said that they "elicited genius far superior to that of any boy in the class". But his father must not have been impressed, as he sent him abroad to study.

Misadventures in India

John planned to learn the local language and become an interpreter to earn enough money to go back to England.

But, learning a foreign language would be the least of worries. He came across none other than the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, Hyder Ali. They became acquaintances and John decided to join the military.

Soon, he got injured, and the surgeons could not understand John. He applied for a leave of absence in order to go to Europe to get treatment. This did not bode well with Hyder Ali, who thought that he was going to betray the Kingdom of Mysore to England.

This sparked an assassination attempt where Hyder Ali commanded the guards to kill John at night. John deduced that something was not right and when he found the right moment to escape, he went to a European fort to seek treatment.

Once he finally escaped the grips of the tyrant, he realized something. He was broke. Luckily, he saw an opportunity to work with Muhammad Ali Khan Wallajah, who was the Nabob of Arcot at the time. He was an ally of the East India Company and so John had a bit of assurance that he wasn't going to be murdered at night.

John earned a handsome sum for his work with the Nabob, and with this money, he left India and set foot for England. And by foot, I mean foot.

Cold feet and the Death of John Stewart

He travelled all the way from India to England on foot, rarely using a horse or a caravan. He (miraculously)¹ made it to England in one piece.

After returning home, John became a full-time philosopher and, strangely enough, became an eccentric.

The life of such an interesting man came to an end the morning after his seventy-fifth birthday. His relative, who wrote the main source for this whole post, says it best.

On Ash Wednesday morn, this good and amiable man died, without a pang, at his residence in Northumberland street. From the suddenness with which this lamented circumstance took place, the members of his family, and his faithful friends, had scarcely time to arrive: the few who were present could not but observe the smile that remained on his face, even after death.²

Afterword

A note on materialistic pantheism

The reason why I said that John "walked his way to philosophy" is not because he started to think about philosophy during his adventure. His moral essays that he wrote as a teenager were probably his introduction to the discipline.

No, I believe John walked his way to philosophy when he developed materialistic pantheism. I would like to believe that he developed while seeing the wonders of the world during his travels. Alas, I have no evidence for that.

Pantheism is the belief that reality is itself divinity. In its most broad sense, pantheism says that all things compose god.

From what I can gather, materialistic pantheism is the belief that mental states can be reduced to matter. If anyone knows more about pantheism in general, I would love to get in touch!

Remarks

I think it is quite incredible how a blockhead became a philosopher by escaping a tyrant and walking all the way from India to England. It goes to show that education takes many forms, and nothing beats experience.

Below are all my sources, footnotes and some further reading.

Sources

Footnotes

  1. John just escaped an assassination attempt from one of the most powerful people in Asia at the time. Excluding that, the very trip must have been exhausting, he could have easily died of starvation, disease or dehydration among many other things.
  2. This is both heartwarming and very creepy.

Further reading

- 2 toasts