Plato, Temperance, and Sports

Words of wisdom from an ancient philosopher-wrestler

Posted Apr 30, 2012

Discussions of temperance, or self-control, usually center on food, alcohol, and other bodily pleasures. But temperance is relevant to other areas of life as well, including the environment and as a recent article at The New York Times notes, physical exercise and sports.

In the article, Bill Hayes discusses temperance in the context of sport. Here is the introduction to the article, which is very short:

IF only I had read Plato.

That’s what I thought when I saw my MRI: 28 images, impossible to deny, of a torn rotator cuff muscle — a consequence of years of weightlifting. And that’s just my shoulder. May I present C4, C5 and C6 (my herniated discs), my plantar fasciitis, my patellar tendinitis — residual damage done to a body, now 51, in the name of exercise, in pursuit of being buff.

Plato could have warned me. In “The Republic,” he advises “temperance” in physical training, likening it to learning music and poetry. Keep it “simple and flexible,” as in all things, don’t overdo. Follow this course, and you will remain “independent of medicine in all but extreme cases.”

I'm reminded of an ultrarunner in the Boulder, Colorado area from my grad school days who would pop large amounts of ibuprofen before a race because of the pain and damage done to his body. This is risky, if memory serves, as is ignoring the body's messages about overuse injury. Speaking from the philosopher's armchair, I believe that there are some similar non-temperate traits at work in people devoted to philosophy and physical exercise/sport. A similar "obsessive-ness" can be at work in both pursuits. I speak from experience here.

With respect to sport, there is wisdom in a temperate approach. I don't think it is always easy to determine when one's participation in sport exceeds what might be thought of as temperate. Some may think ultrarunning (races longer than the standard marathon) is a case of intemperance, but I would argue that this is not necessarily so. I recall many ultrarunners who argued that even if it was bad for their bodies over the long haul, or even if it took years off of their lives, they would prefer to engage in the sport while possible because of the quality of life that this yielded for them. And I can understand this sentiment. I no longer have aspirations to run an ultramarathon because of back surgery several years ago, but I would like to do a century on my road bike in the next few years.

Ultimately, whether or not one is taking a temperate approach to sport will not only depend upon the physical impact, but upon one's other commitments in life as well. Some phases of life or forms of life allow one more freedom than others. I couldn't train for an ultra right now even if I wanted to and maintain my family, work and other commitments in a satisfactory manner. Others can. This is consistent with Aristotle's views about virtue, when he argues that whether or not a trait is a virtue for a particular individual will vary given the particular circumstances of one's life. This is a matter of degree, for Aristotle. What may be courage at one stage of life could be rashness in another.

The lesson with respect to temperance and sport is to reflect upon the role sport is playing (and should play) in one's life, and to make whatever changes are appropriate. This applies to other pursuits in life as well. One feature of the wise person is that she engages in some form of reflection about her various pursuits and commitments, and makes changes as appropriate.

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