Ethics is Sympathy and Intelligence

"Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” John Lennon wrote the soundtrack for the mad rush of students on their way to the next classroom to resume their education. I wonder how many potential ethics learning experiences are lost in life’s mad rush.

Thoreau believed that lessons in life are best received by walking. Just as the yogi recognizes the power of breathing to focus on his inner spirit, Thoreau recognized the power of walking to focus one’s mental powers. In Walking, he wrote, "My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant. The highest that we can attain is not knowledge, but sympathy with intelligence.”1 Seems to me that "sympathy with intelligence” is a perfectly compact definition for medical ethics. Along with reading, writing and case analyses perhaps teachers should promote walking as a way to digest the principles of medical ethics.

Certainly, the disconnected world depicted on the nightly news and heralded in the morning papers fails to provide us with any sense of the ethical life. Likewise, the Internet disintegrates tactile reality and replaces it with a virtual netherworld – available 24/7 from the comfort of your barcalounger. How can we begin to understand the purpose of an ethical lifestyle or how to deal with suffering and promote caring from shadows and symbols on a computer monitor – even with images that are a full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution?

Thoreau believed that walking is the vehicle to transport us back to a tactile world. Breathing is automatic, and so is walking. You don’t have to think to walk. As such, walking can free the mind for other conscious activities. "Like a camel,” Thoreau said we are free to "ruminate when walking.”2 On a recent walk across campus, I took a detour through the Medicinal Garden to escape the intense Florida sunshine. Plants grown in the garden are harvested by pharmacy students to create medicinal tinctures and salves.

Nutrition classes also use the herbs and organic vegetables in their studies. In the center of the garden is a "reflexology path.” I take my shoes and socks off and continue barefoot. Walking barefoot on a reflexology path is supposed to massage and stimulate acupressure points in the soles of the feet connected to various energy meridians of the body. Each step that I take gives me a totally different perspective, both inwardly through the soles of my feet, and outwardly through the constantly changing scenery that surrounds me. Powerful forces are at work here. This world can only be described, not created. My perspective is not a result of established points of view, lectures or PowerPoint presentations; rather, the garden is a natural setting for my inner thoughts and perceptions. It is as if I am an artist and as I walk through the garden I experience it like a painter, creating an impressionistic masterpiece.

One way to rediscover our own spirit is to rediscover the mystical relationship displayed throughout nature and how these interrelations point towards a common purpose. Thoreau believed that intellectual growth happens when we admit we know nothing and aim our attention in a totally new direction. Through constant movement and changing viewpoints, the walker learns how to combine parts of the whole picture in order to formulate a coherent understanding of life in general. Our own place in life becomes meaningful when integrated into the grand scheme of things. In order for this type of learning to happen, Thoreau suggested that the posture of the walker needs to be free from effort and analysis - free from the mad rush to get someplace other than where we are at the moment. His image of the "hundred-headed dragon” acts as a metaphor for the multitude of perspectives available to the walker. "Such is always the pursuit of knowledge. The celestial fruits, the golden apples of Hesperides, are ever guarded by a hundred-headed dragon which never sleeps, so that it is a Herculean labor to pluck them.”3 Thoreau believed that the walker dwells on the idea of the apple tree in order to better understand himself and his place in life, adding that the result of whatever hardships we may have will "bear a sweet fruit…more palatable for the very difficulties it has had to contend with.”4

Ethics is more than the knowledge of age-old principles and philosophical theories about living the good life. It is recognizing the parts we play in one another’s lives and how our own place in life is meaningful in the grand scheme of things. Walking is a way for us to learn from the world around us - a world that shows us over and over, day in and day out, that the highest we can attain is not knowledge, but sympathy with knowledge. Along with reading and writing, teachers could encourage their students to disengage from the mad rush and engage in walking.

Walking contributes to the flavor of the apple of knowledge, for it is outside the walls of the classroom where its sweetness can be appreciated.


  1. HD Thoreau, “Walking,” The Portable Thoreau, ed. Carl Bode (NY: Penguin Books, 1982): 599
  2. Ibid, 596
  3. HD Thoreau, “The Wild Apples,” The Works of Thoreau, ed. H.S. Canby (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co, 1937): 720.
  4. Ibid, 725


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