Damon is one of the few philophers I know who engages with the general public in a way that doesn't make them reach for a hand gun. (OK, he is actually the only philosopher I actually know, but the point still stands).
This week and next I'm going to run some extracts from his new book, How To Think About Exercise.
Sprinting is one of the world’s most popular sports and has been since the ancient Greeks dashed around stadiums (sometimes in full armour). And the Greeks were unashamedly proud of their victories – often to the point of boastfulness.
This pride remains a vital part of committed exercise. It is not simply conceit or arrogance, but a pleasure in our own existence. In this, it is also a sign of existential responsibility: a drive to define ourselves more ardently before youth and life leave us.
Freedom and Nausea
It is an ordinary spring afternoon: fickle blue skies and copious pollen. I am at the foot of an ordinary suburban hill, next to red-brick retirees’ apartments with massed pelargoniums. Most of my neighbours are watching television, or in their offices, perhaps grabbing a takeaway coffee for the drive home.
My day, so far, has been equally ordinary. Transcribing edits for this book, I looked like a stock photo in a news story on modern sedentary ailments: typing at the laptop, my bum sinking ever lower into the faded bridge chair. At one point, it felt as if my lower back and the chair had become one: a grand union of the kind praised by mystics and rightly condemned by physiotherapists. Business as usual for a thirty-something professional.
But I am about to do something unusual: hill sprints. Despite my congested sinuses and the obvious fact of gravity, I will run up this hill, as fast as I can. I will then jog back down to the foot. Having pulled up my torn, sagging compression tights, I will then do it all again: fourteen times.
The sprints are, quite frankly, a buzz. After the day’s intellectual labour, they suggest freedom: the impression of reaching out and up, past myself, to the hill’s apex. Each burst feels like potential energy realized: not just calories converted into work, but all my morning’s restlessness transformed into a single unchecked, uncomplicated movement.
In Born to Run, Australian Olympian sprinter Cathy Freeman describes this as being ‘happy and free’ – even after ten laps of an old sawdust track, the young Freeman was ‘safe and strong, like [she] was the only person in the world.’ And running has no monopoly on this. Champion cyclist Cadel Evans, in Close to Flying, writes of ‘riding for the love of it’. ‘You float . . . drift . . . sweep,’ he says, like flying. Again: a feeling of being liberated from ordinary concerns, of being above the usual guff.
Much of adult life requires a quantum of caution or care – the need to censor words, restrain aggressive urges. My hill sprints are the antithesis of this: they have a purity to them – a simple, single- minded dedication, which refuses second-guessing and delicacy.
The point is not that running is an easy craft. On the contrary, it requires serious concentration on technique: footfall, stride, balance, rhythm. The point is that, as with cycling downhill or pushing weights, once I have committed to the exertion, it has an emancipating simplicity to it. This is me, unimpeded by the chair’s mahogany arms and my own moderating anxiety.
As the sets add up, I slow down. I push myself to run as fast as possible, but my ‘possible’ is more sluggish and breathy. Sprinting has become running has become jogging. By the fifteenth sprint, my body is numb from impact on the concrete, and my heart has a drum ’n’ bass cadence to it. The feeling of liberty has vanished, and what remains is plodding, slightly desperate stubbornness, and then retching disorientation.
I do not feel free. I feel sick.
But alongside my drained nausea is pleasure. It begins once the exercise is done, and continues well after the queasiness and fatigue have gone.
It is similar to the satisfaction I feel when running on an inclined treadmill, sprinting pell-mell on a stationary bike, or, with trembling quadriceps, combining kettle-bell squats with upright rows.
Importantly, this need not be enjoyed in spring sunshine. Australian writer and amateur power-lifter Clint Greagen writes about the ‘raw animal-type thrill’ he gets from evening workouts in his garage. Seeing the stacked bar bent over his back gives Greagen a buzz. ‘It’s very primal and a great change from the thinking part of myself,’ he writes, ‘which I’m stuck with the majority of every day.’
I enjoy this pleasure now, as I describe my puffing ascent: it is pride.
Pleasure in Oneself
What exactly is pride? To get to the bottom of this pleasure, we have to take a detour around Christian ideas. Pride was almost a four-letter word in the Christian West. ‘Do not love the world or anything in the world,’ says 1 John 2: 15–16. ‘If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world.’
There is an otherworldliness in this, which denies pleasure in general, and pleasure in oneself in particular. The more we get pleasure from ourselves, the less we attend to the Lord. In doing so, we make ourselves the source of beauty and joy, rather than the Godhead. This is why, for the Church fathers and theologians, pride was one of the chief sins: a love of oneself that turned away from God.
To avoid this, the Church recommended humility instead of pride – seeing ourselves as somewhat ugly. If we are born broken, then we need fixing: we will seek pleasure in God’s grace instead of our own ‘lust of the eyes’. No hill sprints for John the Evangelist.
A better source of wisdom on pride is the philosopher David Hume. He was not a sprinter or power-lifter. As his portrait suggests, he was not an avid exerciser at all – more a sedentary gourmand. But the great Enlightenment thinker gave a very helpful definition of pride, which avoids the Christian distaste for bodily gratification. It also fits with the ancient Greek pleasure in physical exertion, which we will turn to a little later.
Hume’s definition of pride is a deceptively simple one: pleasure in oneself.
In his landmark A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume pointed out that pride actually has two parts: the cause of the pleasure, and the object we attribute it to. The cause is something like muscular legs, for example, or a heart that beats steadily and strongly. I get pleasure from these, because they suggest power, speed, robustness. These, in turn, promise more pleasure: of safety from threats, cardiovascular health, desirability to my wife, and so on. (In other words, we can also find pleasure in the promise of pleasure.) So pleasure is not random. It is based on what we value.
But how does this pleasure become pride in ourselves? This is why Hume introduced the idea of the object. With pride, the object is myself. I can never actually see or touch this ‘self’, but I do have an idea of it. And this idea is related to other ideas: ‘my’ legs, ‘my’ heart, for example. So the pleasure is passed along psychologically: from legs and heart to ‘me’.
Hume noted that this pleasure is natural, but not everyone will feel pride in the same things. This gets back to value. We appreciate value by ‘constitution . . . custom, or by caprice,’ writes Hume. For example, we might agree that a leg is muscular, but not find this beautiful. It all hangs on the ties between ideas: muscular legs might make me feel more manly and desirable, or awkward, brutish and repugnant. Next to my sedentary friend’s soft calves, my legs encourage pride; next to my weightlifting friend’s striated quadriceps, they inspire humility.
And what is ‘cute’ to a spectator might be useless for an athlete. American Olympian Carmelita Jeter sees her naked body as beautiful: but for its strength and agility, not its petite prettiness. ‘I’m not here to look cute,’ she told ESPN. ‘I’m out here to be powerful, be aggressive.’ In short, there are no simple rules of pleasure.
This is why pride is often considered a virtue: because it shows that we value the right things. What is ‘right’ will change with age, geography, era – and profession, as Jeter’s example suggests. But civilisation works because we are taught as children not just to think about what’s important, but also to like it; to find it pleasant or fulfilling.
Put simply, pride is sanctioned pleasure in something worthwhile, which we associate with ourselves.
The Joy of a Firmer . . . ‘I’
But what is valuable in exertion? For this, we can return to the ancient Greeks, who generally had no religious hang-ups about bodily beauty and strength. They were also happy to boast about their muscles and swiftness – pride was a virtue, not a sin. If we cannot all have their climate, we can still learn from their seemingly arrogant attitude: they reveal the existential value of pride.
At the Olympic games, held in Olympia every four years, the most prestigious contest was the pentathlon. Pentathletes vied in five events: long jump, discus, javelin, wrestling and the stadium sprint, which was about 220 yards. As with today’s hundred-metre sprint, the sprint was the most prestigious competition. And it was not the only footrace. The Greeks also competed in a double sprint, a longer run of three miles, and another race in military armour, called the hoplitodromos.
Like today’s Olympians, the ancient Olympic track stars received no prize money, but some were given pensions, free food (for life), parades, portraits in sculpture and over-the-top adulation. (‘This is indeed a very wrong custom,’ complained the sixth-century bc philosopher Xenophanes, ‘nor is it right to prefer strength to excellent wisdom.’)
As this suggests, the Greeks were not ashamed to praise and be praised, particularly when it came to running. Achilles, in Homer’s eighth-century bc poem the Iliad, is regularly called ‘swift runner’. His friend Patroclus was ‘the fastest on his feet’. The Iliad also contains a description of a dramatic running race, which demonstrates how comfortable the Greeks were with physical competitiveness. After Patroclus’ death, Achilles held funeral games to celebrate the dead soldier’s memory and lift morale. In a contest resembling the pentathlon, Odysseus sprinted against fellow soldiers Ajax and Antilochus. Odysseus, known for his lies and tricks, was given extra speed by the goddess Athena, who also tripped Ajax, his chief rival. Ajax fell into a pile of fresh cow dung. Did the spectators condemn the foul play? ‘They all roared with laughter at his expense,’ wrote Homer. Odysseus was then given the prize by Achilles: a silver bowl, said by Achilles to be the best in all Greece.
This pagan braggadocio, however off-putting, is instructive. It reveals the source of pleasure: not just victory or fairness, but the basic fact of dogged exertion, displayed bodily. What mattered to the Homeric heroes were displays of physical excellence. Even if the sprinters had a divine coach slipping them supernatural steroids mid-race, the victors were celebrated. Why? Because they gave the onlookers pleasure. And the victors, in this, felt their own pride enhanced. As Hume noted, part of our pleasure in ourselves is gained in sympathy with others: we feel their pleasure in our success, alongside our own. This, in turn, firms up the idea we have of our own character: something more vivid, lively, intense. No doubt Odysseus smiled guilelessly as the Greeks cheered his prize, and heckled his crap-covered rival; it all increased his impression of himself.
Competition can hone this pleasure – not by giving us someone to beat, but by offering us a comparison: our self against others’. In this, exercise provides the physical proof of someone else’s striving, and goads us to match or surpass it. The goal is not simply to win, but to impress upon the world the stamp of our own existence; to walk away with a heightened feeling of our own enterprise, as Odysseus did in his race with Ajax.
So exercise is not merely a way to tone muscles or increase the heart’s efficiency – although it does both. It also offers a firmer idea of oneself: of the ‘self’ associated with bodily effort. We cannot see ourselves, this ‘I’ we imagine at our core. It is, as Hume noted, something of an illusion. But we can infer it with more solidity, as we watch ourselves step, pedal or lift – as we see the flesh hardening and stretching beyond its limits. Put simply, pride is the joy we feel at a more intense existential impression: a more vibrant, finely drawn self-portrait.