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Marietta McCarty

Marietta McCarty

Philosophy Goes To the Gym

A Total Workout Stretches Both Mind and Body

Recently I gave a talk on the merits of philosophizing and engaged in animated conversation with a group at a local gym. They meet once a month with guest speakers covering all sorts of topics - science and literature and music, etc. I was struck by how absolutely appropriate it was to devote time for both a mental and physical workout. Some participants worked out before we gathered and others hit the bikes afterwards. Isn't it odd that the raging focus on physical fitness isn't matched by the challenge of mental conditioning? Why would anyone think it wise to elevate brawn over brain power? If our minds are in bad shape, what will become of us?


In ancient Greece, Socrates put in his hours at the public gymnasium, but his priority was daily philosophizing. This master question-asker called himself a gadfly on the hide of Athens, seeking to shake complacent citizens awake to an active mental life. "Are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give as much thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul? I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul" (Apology). YIKES!


The Greek troublemaker would have been in his element with our group. What great questions were posed and thoughtful insights exchanged. "Why can't I sit still and concentrate on one thing at a time? I know I fill my life to the brim and regret it at the end of the day." Everyone could relate, as always, to the unnecessary busyness we create for ourselves. "How ‘connected' do I really want to be? I rarely use my cell phone and don't want to be bombarded by emails. I want technology on my own terms with me at the controls." Everyone jumped into this one just as the employee/event organizer's phone rang! "I am just returning to school now that my kids are older and taking just one class, but I am excited all the time. I feel alive. i walk for an hour and study for an hour and repeat!" Here we paused to discuss what restored energy and new possibilities could come to our daily lives if gyms reserved a room for philosophical pursuits. Like Pilates or Nia or Yoga, what about a series of daily interactive classes designed to invigorate and strengthen the brain muscle? What is the good life? What does it mean to be wise? Should the idea of success be investigated anew? Is a life marked by integrity achievable? How much truly healthier would we be as individuals and as a society if we held fast to a philosophical regimen? How would you describe a fit person then?


The last question of my morning with the gym philosophers stays with me still. A woman, soon to be doing leg presses, sought just the right words and spoke deliberately: "I would like to know what to do with my heart. Where should I give it?" I picture her face as I continue to think about her powerful query. What could be more important than knowing THAT? And what crisp, clear thinking is required to arrive at an answer!


On the way home I recalled these words from Annie Dillard's Holy the Firm: "There are no events but thoughts and the heart's hard turning, the heart's slow learning where to love and whom. The rest is merely gossip and tales for other times."


Where to love and whom? What do you think?

Photo taken by Jonathan Mudd.

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