A “vagabond” is “a person who wonders from place to place without a home or job.” They are known as “wanderers”, “travellers”, “nomads”, “wayfarers”, “drifters”, and sometimes, a slew of other less neutral titles. All these names are derived from the fact that a vagabond’s existence is transient. He or she stays in a place for an undetermined amount of time—usually dictated by whim or implicit instinct—and with minimal possessions. Home, to a vagabond, is wherever they happen to be. Family, to a vagabond, is whoever happens to be around. A day, to a vagabond, signifies possibility and is rife with uncertainty.
For most of us, there’s something attractive about the idea of such an existence. We imagine it to be a light way of life, a free, joyous way to move through the world and through time. But in reality, we shrink from it. We like fixed abodes, established routines, our illusions of permanence and stability. These things are comfortable and a vagabond existence is not. So, like a poseur who gains silent satisfaction from the belief that he could write a great novel or direct a theatrical masterpiece, like a coward who nourishes himself on visions in which he imposes his anger and hatred upon the world but is not brazen enough to attempt it, becoming a vagabond is nothing more than a pleasant idea.
What if it wasn’t? I, like you, enjoy my illusions. I like living with my partner. I like the order that my life and my work represents. But I can still be a vagabond to some degree—an intellectual, not a physical, vagabond.
An intellectual vagabond, like a physical vagabond, wanders from location to location, from domain to domain. One day he is in the realm of antiquity, reading the works of Xenophon, Herodotus, Thucydides, Seneca et al., the next he is exploring the Renaissance, journeying through Leonardo’s Notebooks and Vasari’s Lives. The intellectual vagabond discusses trends in technology with one person and classic takes on the human condition with another. He feels at home in worlds of dystopian sci-fi, epic fantasy and period drama. He can turn his mind’s eye to verse, to prose and to aphorism, to fiction, non-fiction and everything in between. Like a physical vagabond, the intellectual vagabond has few possessions, only a handful of core assumptions about himself and the world. In the words of Paul Graham, his identity is small—and because of this deliberate smallness, the world is big and full of wonder. He is at ease amongst people and apart from them. If others share his location, he will talk to them. If not, he will keep his own counsel, conversing with his past, present and alternate selves.
The life of a physical vagabond is not for the majority, for you or for me—it requires a certain cast of character, a particular type of spirit. But the life of an intellectual vagabond is eminently more achievable—although it requires a significant sacrifice. It requires that we pare down our beliefs, abandon our assumptions, and set our sights upon uncertainty, and its cousin adventure. It requires that we leave the domains we call home and make everywhere and anywhere a place of comfort, satisfaction and interest.