Why does a man climb a mountain?
“Because it is there.”
The cliched use of this expression has come to shroud its genuine philosophic significance. Such a rationale implies that the endeavor in question is an end in itself, that it requires no justification and has no practical goal. The many alpine expeditions I have made in my home state of Alaska convince me that the sport of mountain climbing can only be an end in itself. Alpinists do not climb mountains in order to achieve some goal; they receive no tangible reward for their efforts and generally return from the endeavor much the worse for wear.
This notion of an activity as an end in itself vividly reflects Josef Pieper’s description of a “free act.” Drawing from Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Pieper describes as “free” an act that does not serve another purpose, that does not aim at any end beyond itself. In this sense, Aristotle and Pieper agree, philosophic contemplation is the most truly free pursuit. Other human activities aim at achieving some goal and are evaluated by how close they come to attainment. Philosophy, by contrast, “is an endeavor containing its own meaning and requires no justification from a purpose served.”
With this definition of “free activity” in mind, one could view mountain climbing and philosophy as parallel pursuits. I have often reflected on climbing as “physical philosophy,” or entertained philosophy as “metaphysical mountain climbing.” Comparing a physical to an intellectual pursuit disturbs the modern mind only because of certain prejudices introduced by Descartes’ radical dualism. The ancients, on the other hand, were comfortable with the interrelation of body and soul and held that neither could be comprehended without an understanding of the other. Plato’s Republic, for example, depicts a physical ascent—the walk from the Piraeus back toward Athens—in order to symbolize the intellectual ascent of the interlocutors.
The idea of an ascent provides a further parallel between mountain climbing and philosophizing. As one “ascends” philosophically, one gains purer and purer knowledge, or vision, of reality. Similarly, as one ascends the side of a mountain, one attains an increasingly broad view of physical reality. The point of this physical ascension is, of course, to reach the peak, where the climber receives his fullest, panoramic view of the world—a beatific vision of sorts, which shames only in the fact that it sees merely the physical, and not the whole of Being.
Pieper explains that as a free act, philosophy must “look at reality entirely receptively—in such a way that things are the measure and the soul is exclusively receptive.” Philosophy properly understood does not seek to change or impose itself on the world but only to contemplate and experience it. This is equally true of mountain climbing. Any man who ascends a peak in order to use or change it is a surveyor or an engineer, not an alpinist. A true climber seeks not to alter but simply to encounter nature and, by casting his gaze from a summit, to “receive” as much of it as possible.
Of course, some might perceive mountaineering as man’s attempt to conquer or prove his superiority to nature. A true alpinist, however, views the mountain as something greater than himself and uses it as a measure against which to test himself. This relationship assumes that nature is something greater than oneself and not an object of conquest. I am acutely reminded of this fact when I return from an expedition physically exhausted and gaze back at the mountain, which remains as thoroughly unchanged for my visit as it would for my constant returning.
Pieper explains that such “receptive” acts bring man his greatest happiness, for man’s ultimate contentment lies in contemplating reality rather than in changing it. This notion carries the necessary assumption that Being is essentially good. For Pieper, this is the prerequisite to all philosophy: “to acknowledge, before any consideration of specifics and without regard to usefulness, that reality is good in itself.” Without this assumption, no man could find joy in contemplation. With it, sorrow in contemplation becomes paradoxical.
And similarly, for the climber to find contentment in his enterprise, he must first acknowledge that the physical world surrounding him is essentially good, beautiful, and worthy of his contemplation and love. Inherent in the rationale “because it is there” is the presumption “because it is good.” Out of this faith that nature is ordered towards the good grows a love of nature and a desire to embrace it.
When from such love a man seeks the fullest and purest view of reality—whether from atop a mountain or within a Platonic dialogue—then does he make real Pieper’s definition of contemplation as a “loving gaze.” Immanuel Kant, echoing Gregory the Great, observes that the proof of love lies in one’s deeds, in the effort one expends to incarnate that love. The climber’s adoration finds proof in his aching body and sore legs after he has battled his way up and down a mountain bearing the knowledge that his efforts will accrue no reward beyond a full and deep experience of nature. He makes such efforts gladly—joyfully—because he adores nature and deeply trusts in its essential goodness. William Wordsworth affirms this sentiment when he remarks, “nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”
Thus, in many ways the sport of mountain climbing proclaims the value of receptive, contemplative activity. I have long thought that mountain climbing can accomplish this largely because it removes man temporarily from society and its utilitarian concerns. One need only consider the modern city to understand this. In the city one finds oneself surrounded by buildings and streets, all creations of man and all serving some specific purpose. We do not define a city building by its physical aspects: the shape it assumes or from what material it is constructed. Rarely do we even consider its architecture. Rather, we label the building an office, a shop, or a restaurant; that is to say, we define it by its purpose or function. This way of thinking engulfs us in the city, but in the mountains it disappears entirely, for what is the function of a knoll or a peak? Ralph Waldo Emerson captures this idea when he remarks, “At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step into these precincts.”
Similarly, philosophic contemplation distances man from society and its utilitarian norms. Plato emphasizes how the philosopher can never fully practice his art when immersed in the conventions of the city, and many of the dialogues are conspicuously set outside the polis walls. Plato makes clear that man’s purest philosophic vision comes when he seeks truth in the world as a whole, and not in the social conventions which are his creation. Commenting on the Republic, Leo Strauss explains that “even Socrates is compelled to go the way from law to nature, to ascend from law to nature.”
Yet Socrates’ decision to accept the hemlock rather than endure banishment illustrates how the philosopher cannot lead his way of life without society, for he requires the company of men to practice his art. The climber, by contrast, enjoys the ability to leave the city completely behind and fully absorb himself in nature. Shakespeare, too, saw value in removing oneself from society. In As You Like It the Duke, banished for life to the wilderness by his usurper brother, nonetheless exclaims, “And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything. I would not change it.”
One particular danger of the city lies in surrounding man with his own accomplishments. The view from a mountain peak, however, puts those accomplishments in stark perspective. Here one fully appreciates the absurdity of Nietzsche’s use of the word creation to describe the works of man. Ages preceding Nietzsche held that man could not “create” but only work with or modify Creation, which is the work of—and only of—God. From the top of a mountain, one is surrounded by true Creation: open sky, clouds, surrounding mountain peaks—man’s only contribution, a pale vein of highway probing its way humbly through the valley below. Man and his works are put in their place, and, as Emerson confessed, “I am taught the poorness of our invention, the ugliness of towns and palaces. Art and luxury have early learned that they must work as enhancement and sequel to this original beauty.”
While all of these philosophic considerations are implicit in mountaineering, climbers will usually justify their art with no more introspective explanation than “because it is there.” Perhaps this accounts for the ease with which my Alaskan climbing companions—a group which normally cannot even agree on which video to rent—have always enticed each other into various expeditions. I recall one particularly memorable excursion which began with no greater impetus than three friends trying to decide how to spend a Saturday afternoon. The suggestion of climbing arose, and within an hour our packs were flung into the back of a jeep, and we were headed toward the mountains.
This particular trip persists in my memory because it was marred by the loss of an old and dear climbing companion: my cherished hiking stick, Koho, which had accompanied me up more mountains than I can recall.
The tragedy occurred when approximately halfway up the mountain we found our path blocked by a rock face rising 60 feet above us and stretching miles to the right and left. Opting to climb the precipice, we left our burdensome gear below, to be hoisted up once we reached the top.
Such “free climbing”—rock climbing without the aid of ropes—is the most exhilarating element of mountaineering, and for me has always held particular educational value because of the danger involved. (The general comfort which characterizes modern society often causes man to take his life for granted. It is in moments when we place our life at some risk that we realize our contingency—our ability to be other than we are and even not to be. This realization forces man to acknowledge that he is not only created but also constantly sustained by God; that we owe Him as much thanks for our continued existence as for our birth.)
Reaching the top of the cliff, we began to haul up our gear. It had just begun to appear over the crest when, to my horror, I saw Koho slip free of the rope and tumble down the face into the undergrowth below. I rushed to the brink and frantically surveyed the terrain, which afforded no sight of my fallen friend. The advanced hour of the day mandated that we waste no time searching, and so we continued to push upward, reaching the peak in a few hours and then descending the back side of the mountain. Despite a challenging and rewarding climb, my exultance at this expedition was largely dulled by a profound sense of loss.
A year later I was again summering in Alaska and again found myself musing with the same group of friends on how to pass the weekend. After unproductive deliberation, my friend Rob suggested that we go on an expedition to retrieve Koho—a quest, of sorts. The proposal held enormous appeal for the entire group, since we had all grown up devotees of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings and similar works of high fantasy. I believe the significance and attraction of a quest lies in its clearly defined element of telos, or end. The complexity and bureaucracy characteristic of modern society suggest to man that life is ultimately chaotic and random—certainly not ordered towards a higher and discernible good. A quest, by comparison, focuses all one’s efforts on a precisely enunciated end and thereby affords a clear sense of mission.
Admittedly, mountain climbing undertaken as a quest surrenders its status as an end in itself, for under such circumstances it does serve another goal. Our expedition, though, began with the understanding that whether or not we regained Koho, the quest would be an experience worthy in itself. This attitude was clearly articulated when, as we pulled away from the house, Rob candidly commented, “You know, we’re never going to find a five-foot piece of wood on a 5,000-foot mountain.”
Indeed, we never did find Koho. But we did enjoy a rewarding and worthwhile climb in the attempt. Koho still lies somewhere amidst those high, brambled crags.
I make my annual trip to Alaska next week.