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PT 2. How to think about exercise

Posted June 15, 2014 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Part 2.

The Soldier’s Equipment

What kind of self is intensified in sprinting and other exercises? The stories of the Iliad and Odyssey suggest one obvious but exclusive answer: the soldier.

The Greeks were a warlike civilization, and running was obviously worthwhile because it made for fitter warriors. The hoplitodromos competitors sprinted in helmets and greaves, carrying shields, because that that is how they ran on the battlefield. Plato, in his dialogue Laws, sketched an ideal city in which citizens competed in full armour for prizes. He wanted soldiers, not professional sportsmen, striving for spectacle. ‘Body agility – quickness of hand as well as of foot – is a first-rate point in the soldier’s equipment,’ he wrote. ‘Fleetness of foot has its use in flight and pursuit.’

[illustration: Greeks sprinting in armour - caption: Hoplitodromos Louvre MN704, Side B from an Attic black-figure Panathenaic amphora, 323–322 BC. From Benghazi (Cyrenaica, now in Libya). Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen)

Obviously the same point can be made for lifting weights, athletics, gymnastics, and so on: they make us tougher, so our pride is basically martial.

But I am not a soldier – not even a policeman or bouncer. Neither are most of today’s sprinters, doing laps in public parks, without the threat of rampaging Persians. Runner Cathy Freeman lives in a quiet Melbourne suburb and ‘shuffles’, she says, three times a week – hardly the Peloponnesian War. Power-lifter Clint Greagen might be built like the proverbial outhouse, but his days are spent folding linen (between reps) and preparing dinner.

Put simply, there is more to pride than this stereotypically masculine ideal of battlefield or back-alley toughness. The Greeks suggest a more profound, and also more democratic, idea: pride can suggest a more responsible character.

Racing Feet and Striving Hands

In the Iliad, the soldiers did not simply sprint for battle. They also ran to commemorate Patroclus’ memory. He was a famed sprinter, and the running races recalled his physical and moral virtues. As the crowds cheered ‘shining long-enduring Odysseus’, they recalled Patroclus. This was more than a sporting eulogy for the slain. It was a reminder for the living: glory in your muscles and lungs while you can.

Likewise in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus was, by this stage, middle-aged, weary and grumpy. Shipwrecked on Phaeacia, he was feasted by the king, but privately wept for his wife, son and island, Ithaca. To cheer him up, King Alcinous did exactly what Achilles did after Patroclus’ death: he held games. To taunt Odysseus into the contest, Prince Laodamas said: ‘What glory attends a man, while he’s alive, than what he wins with his racing feet and striving hands?’ The wording makes it clear: tough luck, mate, but there is no point moping. Get off your bum and enjoy your muscles while you have them.

Odysseus replied angrily, but was soon sucked into competition. He won the discus in a single throw, and then insulted the youths:

Not match that, you young pups, and straightaway I’ll hurl another just as far, I swear, or even further! All the rest of you, anyone with spine and spirit, Step right up and try me – you’ve incensed me so –

at boxing, wrestling, racing; nothing daunts me.

Note the combination of intense pride and regained confidence. Like all of the Greek heroes, Odysseus is proud of his muscularity and speed. The youths goad him into competition, and this works: he loses his sullen tears, and walks proudly again. Put in Hume’s language, by regaining pleasure in his body, Odysseus enhances his idea of himself. This is because the relations of ideas and passions move both ways. Joy can bring with it an existential responsibility: this is my body, my life, and I will not be beaten by age or acrimony.

Odysseus’ pride is echoed in the words of Pindar, a fifth-century bc Greek poet. No stranger to running races or pride, Pindar was paid by games victors to celebrate their conquests. In 498 bc, he wrote a song for Hippokleas, winner of the double sprint in the Pythian games. ‘The gods may feel no sorrow, but a man should be accounted happy and worthy of song,’ he said of Hippokleas, ‘if boldness and power have gained him the greatest prize for the might of hand and foot.’

This emphasis on mortality highlights our human responsibility. For the Greeks, the gods had eternity to enjoy caprice and play. They did not get ill or old. We humans have a short span of life, and an even shorter span of prime fitness. ‘If a man attains his wish let him cling to it and not let it go for something far off,’ Pindar wrote for Hippokleas the sprinter. ‘There is no telling what will be a year from now.’ Enjoy your triumph, says Pindar, because life is brief and brutal. He cautions competitors against hubris: transgressing the sacred laws of men and gods. He damns avarice and cruelty. But for Pindar, physical pride is not only pleasurable, but also virtuous. It is rightful pleasure in activity instead of passivity – in stubborn exertion, which makes the most of precarious flesh.

Be the Rock

This message from the Greeks is simple but profound, and transcends their civilization. There is, as Hume argued with devastating precision, no happy afterlife, no cosmic plan for the redemption of immortal souls. We are bodies, and we will suffer and die – all of us, without exception. In this, the pagan outlook is surprisingly modern. But this grim disclosure can also be a source of pleasure. It is precisely because intense muscular effort is so fragile and ephemeral that it is bliss. When Odysseus met him in the Underworld, Achilles famously said he would prefer to be a servant to a poor man than a dead king of kings. To live, however lowly and briefly, is a chance to strive.

So pride in exercise is more than a firmer idea of ourselves, of the ‘I’ we imagine we are. It is also a sense of the worth of this achievement: that, with limited days and vitality, we still bother to hone ourselves by striving physically. Given all the possible ways to sit idle, and to justify this, we have dedicated ourselves to some act of uncomfortable toil.

This is why, as Pindar suggested and Hume argued, pride is also a kind of virtue. In the pride of sprinting, power-lifting or pedalling, we rightly celebrate ourselves for our committed exertion; for the willingness to move as hard and fast as we possibly can, instead of watching others do so on television. We are, in short, exerting ourselves when we might equally not.

This takes not only fitness, but also a keen sense of responsibility: recognition that we might die tomorrow having never touched the edges of our own abilities. This is less about ‘seizing the day’, and other positive-thinking slogans, and more about more firmly grasping ourselves: as fragile, precarious things, with a small portion of vitality. We cannot wait for God or gods to give us our souls – the self is something we must continually, often consciously, create. In this, exercise is a recollection of the burden of existence, which gives us pleasure as we lift it.

The French philosopher Albert Camus, famous for his love of soccer, once argued that Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up the hill for eternity, was happy. It was his rock – that is, his duty, his task, and no one else’s. The pride of exercise offers this same strained happiness, only we are the rock.

6 Responses to ‘PT 2. How to think about exercise’

Dino not to be confused with asserts...

Posted June 15, 2014
Damon's a good writer.
I've told him so.
But the last sentence?
Shouldn't 'we' be in " "?

Dino not to be confused with swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 15, 2014
Sweet fn Jesus do I feel lonely here!

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JG puts forth...

Posted June 15, 2014
'The pride of exercise offers this same strained happiness, only we are the rock.'

So true. Exercising is a battle, a struggle at times, but it's also a source of happiness, pride, and self achievement. I'd rather try than not.

I ran 32km on the Gold Coast today. The three-week tapering period leading up to my first marathon now starts. Hallelujah!


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Barnesm is gonna tell you...

Posted June 16, 2014

I'm not the rock.

Dwayne Johnson is the Rock, everyone know that.

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JG swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 27, 2014

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JG puts forth...

Posted June 27, 2014
Hmm. That's strange... my comment (above) didn't paste. Here it is again:
Love the book my daughter gave me for my birthday recently: 'What I Talk About When I Talk About Running' by renowned Japanese novelist and passionate marathon runner, Murakami. It's a memoir centred around long-distance running.

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