Athletics and Stoicism

The old Stoics were often practiced Athletes and Soldiers and so on. How important were these visceral but disciplined activities to their practice of living?

I think they must have been critical – one had to become pretty hard-boiled to pursue the contrarian path of philosophy. For a lot of us, we cannot learn exertion without miserable struggle, cannot do more than we thought we could without being pushed and pulled, internally and externally. Such knowledge and discipline – the literal physical discipline of struggling on when your Self wants to quit, when one is tempted to falter, are necessary for any advancement in life. “Keeping at it”; to “ganbaru” (in Japanese). Persistence and application. Even in philosophy itself, the attempt to regulate and devalue the passions, it is probably a general need.

In this way, the competitive and brutal becomes a basis for the moral. (What a world! as the old Witch of the West said.)

We are various to begin with; we begin as merely what we are. We learn what we are when we fail or crash, and we learn what we are when we succeed – the two have to blend, and the result is never simple and complete, and certainly not changeless. For myself, hitting bottom and having to reconstruct myself after each fall has been my formative pattern. I find myself ill-gifted for the world of achievement; when young, my reponse to “challenges” that I felt I was going to fail at was to give up, to fall by the side. This meant a lack of sustained hardship, or RESPONDING to sustained demands; it has left me weak in important areas, both animal and moral. More physical discipline, the necessity or unavoidability of it – requiring exercise, regulation, effort – would have left me better in pursuing life and sustaining change.

The successful person takes up appearances and works on them, and with them, and through them – but he or she works. A favorite Bill Cosby quote (not verbatim) is pertinent here: “You have to want it more than you’re afraid of it.” But this is crucial: Why did I fall by the wayside in younger years? Because of fear – not a specific or rational fear, but a geneal, inborn and automatic DREAD of people and of interaction with people ( ). This condition alone tends to ensure that the subject will never learn much or ever excel in things that are taught socially, by the herd or by the team. Add to this condition Distractedness and Laziness and you have a perfect recipe for habitual failure and idleness.

But while team-disicipline would have helped me become more of a man sooner, would it have made me “better”? There is always the problem of “Winnerism”, the necessary athletic creed, that

“Winning is not the important thing, it’s the ONLY thing.”

Yet we know that that kind of zeal can also be corrupting to our better selves, not to mention redolent of NAZIs and Death Squads. So, must we identify with the Team above all else, above decency? Will the binary of Winning with the Team or Losing Alone become the measure of everything? Must the Team be the limit of our awareness and determine our lives? It often looks that way, what with work, business, politics, government, neighborhoods, military service, the world-wide-economy. When is esprit de corps just? Or are chaos and violence, strength and cunning, the only kind of justice on this earth? (What a world!)

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