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Taking a Stroll or Aristotle’s Method

When grappling with an academic problem, or waiting for an inspirational idea to hit, sometimes a walk can be a powerful tool, extricating one’s mind from the mundane rigours of calculus or dithyrambic verse, and launching one headlong into nature, with all its many resplendent (and sometimes less than resplendent) wonders. It is often the case that a person’s best ideas can occur away from the desk, at a moment when their subconscious mind is allowed to the surface, to be inspired, in the words of Russian author Vladimir Nabokov, to ‘invent the world’.

So it was for the students and followers of Aristotle. These followers were given the moniker of the ‘Peripatetic School’. Aristotle was a pupil of Plato, who taught at what could reasonably be argued to be the first ‘university’ in the Western tradition, called The Academy, located in a place called Akademia, north of Athens in around 385BC.

There is a long-standing, possibly spurious, etymology for the term ‘peripatetic’ in relation to Aristotle’s school. It could derive from the Greek verb peripatein, meaning ‘to walk about’. It is actually more likely that it is from peripatos, referring to the covered walk, or ‘colonnade’, of the Lyceum, Aristotle’s own school. But let us go with the former, perhaps more romantic origin.

The origin of the word is illustrative of why Aristotle’s methods were so unique. Whereas Plato, often through the words of his own teacher, Socrates, often focussed on formalising ethical concepts, by discussion and occasionally argument (called elenchus), Aristotle’s work was closer to what we now think of as ‘science’. The literal meaning of the word ‘science’ is ‘knowledge’ (laying the foundation for our own English language being one of many things the Romans did for us). He was interested in the world around him, and so his method of giving lectures to students while walking around would have seemed a natural means of imparting wisdom.

Aristotle would observe things in nature, examine them, discuss his findings and then draw his conclusions. This is now called the empirical method of learning, and was the basis for all subsequent scientific enquiry. Like many of the greatest ideas, it stems from a simple concept: look at your subject of interest, allow yourself to consider it without preconception or prejudice, and then try to make sense of it.

This method, or rather the rationale behind it, namely being in touch with one’s surroundings, examining a problem, investigating it, and then reaching an answer, is as relevant to 21st century learning as it was in Aristotle’s day. Riviera Tutors firmly believes that this mode of study, where the student considers a problem with a fresh and open mind, discusses it with someone well-versed in its intricacies, and then comes to the solution, is infinitely preferable, and more likely to gain practical results, than the standard rote-learning so beloved of schoolmasters of the Victorian persuasion.

And as Aristotle showed us, the classroom, or even the study room at home, is not necessarily the only place where good work can be done. When studying, we could all benefit from the occasional walk to clear our heads, interact with nature and think of what we are attempting to learn in a different context.

Procrastination, at least in this form, need not be ‘the thief of time’, as Dickens called it. Such walks are said to have greatly aided the eminent mathematician Andrew Wiles on his quest to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem, for example.

So whether you go for a solitary stroll or, less likely, you have a group of followers hanging on your every word as you saunter through Mediterranean groves, a walk may do the world of good.

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