Virtue, happiness, and riding a bike

Part 2 of a review of Neil Peart’s The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa.

Peart 2John Muir and Neil Peart were alike in two ways. When they took their long journeys—Muir on his walk from Indiana to Florida in 1867 and Peart on his bike ride in Cameroon 120 years later—each carried two books to read along the way, even though it was necessary to travel light.

Muir took the New Testament and poems of Robert Burns, and Peart Aristotle’s Ethics and Vincent van Gogh’s Dear Theo (letters to his brother).

The second similarity is that both men used their travels as the inspiration for thinking and writing books that interpreted the natural and cultural worlds they experienced.

In an earlier review of Peart’s book, The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa, I gave a brief account of what he and four companions did from day to day as they spent a month traveling through remote sections of West Africa. The entire book is redolent with pungent observations of what Peart saw, heard, and thought.

Tucked away in this fascinating story are several sections, from a few paragraphs to a few pages in length, in which the author develops more extensive meditations as he comes to a fuller understanding of himself and the world around him. The two summarized below caught my attention.

Slow: a habit of mind and metaphor of life: Elsa was the one rider out of the group who seemed least able to develop a cycling rhythm that meshed with the others. David, the tour leader, felt obligated to linger behind with her as she slowly, awkwardly, stubbornly moved along, refusing to follow the examples set by the others who seemed better able to surmount the challenges of their trip.

Halfway through the book, Peart comments that because she was 60 years old Elsa “was fully entitled to be slower than the rest of us.” He then notes that being a slow rider “has nothing to do with strength or age; it can be a mental thing. . .At whatever speed, sensible riders choose their pace and stick with it, taking breaks at considered intervals, and if a hill is too steep they’ll walk up it. But they keep going.”

In contrast, he has noticed, slow riders “are often the last to be ready in the morning.” They dally at every stop and stop more often than necessary. The reason, he explains, is “a certain lack of focus, of sloppiness of mind [that] seems to carry over from their personalities to their cycling, and it slows them down” (122).

As an octogenarian cyclist, I understand that slowing down is an unavoidable adjustment caused by age-related bodily changes. With my doctor’s encouragement, I am learning how to let myself be slower than I used to be.

But as Peart makes clear, slowness as a habit of mind and metaphor for life—this kind of slowness, which I often see on my travels through life—is something to avoid, regardless of one’s age.

Happiness, virtue, and a mode for travel: In the busy, noisy, stifling streets of Bafoussam, Peart and his companions spent a night at a hotel where they “felt the benediction of hot water.” They showered, washed their clothes, and for the first time in two weeks were clean. They all looked happy.

“And with perfect synchronicity, I was reading about that very subject. ‘Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.’ Typical of Aristotle, it takes a book to expand on that terse maxim, but the main points eventually came clear to me” (171).

Peart acknowledges that virtue is a word now out of fashion and notes that some translators prefer excellence as the English equivalent to Aristotle’s Greek word. Whichever translation is used, he muses, “you wouldn’t call anyone happy because he experienced a momentary pleasure, or laughed once, or had one hot shower in two weeks. Happiness takes time, in a real sense. It’s not the prize you win, but the way you ride the bike.”

Putting Aristotle aside, Peart proposes that excellence is doing something well, whether it be “playing the piano, tuning an engine, planting a garden, making tortellini, or just plain living. And that would be perfectly in tune with my understanding of Aristotle’s meaning—“Happiness is excellent living” (172).

Peart acknowledges the fragile foundation of happiness-virtue, and recites a period early in his career as musician. The “small-change gigs were over, and there was no money and no more work.” He found himself willing to accept a little money from someone who befriended him even though Peart knew that the cash had been stolen from some “luckless petrol-station owner.” His conclusion, though unsettling, is closer to the truth than I like to admit.

“So, I have learned that my precious integrity is no less than a precious luxury. I have been fortunate (and stubborn) enough to be able to be honest, to be uncompromising, to pursue excellence. To ride a paved road.”

And to write a good book that rock musicians, classical music buffs like me, and cyclists of every kind can enjoy.

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