“Show Me Your Shoulders” – The Stoic Workout by Kevin Vost

“Show Me Your Shoulders” – The Stoic Workout

by Kevin Vost


Suppose, for example, that in talking to an athlete, I said, “Show me your shoulders,” and then he answered, “Look at my jumping weights.” Go to, you and your jumping weights! What I want to see is the effect of the jumping weights. –  Epictetus, Discourses, I, 4 [1]

Now there are short and simple exercises which tire the body rapidly, and so save our time; and time is something of which we ought to keep strict account. These exercises are running, brandishing weights, and jumping…But whatever you do, come back quickly from body to mind. –  Seneca, Epistle 15 [2]

And if you form the habit of taking such exercises, you will see what mighty shoulders you develop, what sinews, what vigour…. –  Epictetus, Discourses, II, 19 [3]


Body by Stoics

While the ancient Roman Stoics of the first century AD, such as Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Seneca, clearly championed the proper use of our human thinking capacities to attain inner peace and live virtuous lives in accord with nature, they did not neglect the fact that nature has equipped us with physical bodies of sinewy flesh. Epictetus lists our bodies among those things beyond our power which we cannot completely control, but while the care and development of our bodies should not be a primary goal, this does not imply that the body should be neglected and allowed to fall into disrepair or to grow to unseemly proportions. Self-generated physical problems can impede our capacities to participate in the roles the Playwright has prepared for us and can impair our cognitive capacities as well. Indeed, modern research suggests that the catchphrase “Use it or Lose It,” appears to apply to both physical and mental capacities throughout the course of our lives, and especially in our later years.

Hear Epictetus’ teacher, Musonius Rufus, on this matter of body and soul:

Since a human being happens to be neither soul alone nor body alone, but a composite of these two things, someone in training must pay attention to both. He should, rightly pay more attention to the better part, namely the soul, but he should also take care of the other parts, or part of him will become defective. The philosopher’s body also must be well prepared for work because often virtues use it as a necessary tool for the activities of life. [4]

Musonius then recommended the kinds of ascetic practices that would accustom our bodies to enduring heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and the endurance of other physical discomforts.


Personal Training Advice from the “Lame Old Man”

Epictetus called himself “a lame old man” later in life, apparently because of a broken leg suffered during the years of slavery in his youth, caused, according to some sources, by his master twisting his leg while Epictetus calmly warned him that in continuing to do so he could break it – and did. While Epictetus was certainly then no competitive athlete, he not only frequently used physical metaphors for training and growth in philosophy, he sometimes provided very useful advice for the training of the body, in terms of both why and how one should exercise.

For example, let’s look at this article’s first quotation. There, in Book 1.4 of the Discourses, Epictetus declares that progress in philosophy is shown not in the books one can read or write, or the Stoics one can quote, but from the results, the actual changes in a person’s life –  how one lives his daily life in terms of aversions and desires, choices and refusals actually in accord with nature. His example is from the realm of physical training and it is still so on target today. Epictetus wants to see the athlete’s “shoulders,” not his training equipment. In our time, exercise contraptions and workout programs are legion, with new ones devised almost daily it seems, but if you want to show Epictetus how you are progressing with your training, show him your latest exercise device or written workout program at your own risk, because he might well tell you to go jump in a lake!

What Epictetus would want you to do is roll up your sleeve and show the results of your training. The proof of your progress in physical training is indeed in the pudding of your bodily development, not only of course, in how your muscles look, but in what they can do, in terms of making you physically stronger, more enduring, and better at the athletic activity or physical labors of any sort that you choose to pursue. So then, one very wise principle of physical training we can glean from Epictetus is that to train our bodies rationally we must keep an eye toward the results we obtain (or the lack thereof) from whatever equipment or program we employ, so that changes may be made if progress is not shown.

Not only does Epictetus give us this sound advice to focus on visible, measurable results of bodily training, he starts us on the road toward the right kinds of training we ought to pursue. For example:

The athletes first decide what kind of athletes they want to be, and then they act accordingly. If a man wants to be a long-distance runner, he adopts a suitable diet, walking, rubbing, and exercise; if he wants to be a sprinter, all these details are different; if he wants to contend in the pentathlon, they are still more different. [5]

Now, bearing in mind that most readers of this article are probably not long-distance runners, let alone sprinters, or pentathletes, I will note again that it is of practical importance to all of us to keep our bodies strong and enduring, and will note for the first time, that the main focus of this article will be particularly upon the “strong” part, how to properly train our bodies for physical strength, without ignoring or impairing our capacities for endurance. This leads us to another great Stoic with some serious bodily impairments, but surprisingly sound advice on how to make our bodies strong.


Tremendous Training Tips from a Thin-Legged, Asthmatic, Short-Statured Stoic

Lucius Annaeus Seneca once wrote that he didn’t care that someone had joked about him being bald, with poor eyesight, skinny legs, and short, because “what insult is there in telling me what everybody sees?” [6] Apparently Seneca was quite content not to worry about things he could not control regarding his own body –  and what others might have to say about it! Still, Seneca has also provided us several golden nuggets of wisdom on the proper care of the body. His youth was marked by bouts of poor health, especially from asthma, it seems. He experienced such severe attacks of loss of breath that he described them as “preparations for death.” He even admitted to thoughts of suicide at times, which he would not pursue out of concern for his father.

In response to inborn physical frailties, as U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt would become famous for eighteen centuries later, Seneca undertook a regimen of rigorous physical training to compensate for his weakness and develop bodily strength and endurance, including such activities as swimming in frigid waters. Our primary interest here though is in the second quotation we used to start this article.

Seneca advised that the philosopher should not waste a lot of time on physical training, returning quickly from brief, efficient training, to the things of the mind. He notes that it is the rational capacities of mind that define what is finest in man, and regardless of how muscular and powerful a man might become, he’ll never be a match for a first-class bull! Fortunately for man though, precisely because of those reasoning abilities he can craft rational and efficient training programs to maximum strength and fitness attainable by human beings. So what about those short, simple, time-saving exercises Seneca recommended? He mentions “running, brandishing weights, and jumping,” which suggests to me that we jump ahead 1900 years from Seneca’s time to the modern exercise world of HIT and HIIT.


How the Stoics Hinted at HIT (and HIIT) 2,000 Years Ago

It was in the 1960s, almost exactly 1,900 years after Seneca’s death that an eccentric self-taught genius, inventor, and big-game hunter named Arthur Jones developed the Nautilus line of exercise equipment and became the foremost exponent of the idea of High Intensity Training (HIT for short), whether or not one used his machines to build strength. HIT principles are founded upon what Epictetus astutely observed: that different athletic events and goals require very different kinds of training. Indeed, as Epictetus contrasted the distance runner with the sprinter, Jones did just the same for those involved in strength-related sports, at that time primarily weight lifting, powerlifting, body-building, and to some extent, American football. [7]

Jones asked those seeking strength to look at the legs of a long-distance runner and those of a top-notch sprinter. The distance runner performs for long periods of time at a moderate level of intensity of effort, and the greatest marathoners, for example, are extremely light and lean, with rather small leg muscles. The legs of an experienced sprinter tell a very different story, a story that was dramatically illustrated during the last Olympics when coverage of the 100-meter dash immediately preceded that of the 5,000 meter race (about three miles). The sprinters bristled with muscles and looked like lithe and lean bodybuilders in both their lower and upper bodies, while the milers had that extremely lean, almost emaciated look. This is not to disparage distance runners in the least, for they have physical goals of their own, but to provide a powerful lesson for those who seek to build healthy and usable bodily strength and size.

Jones argued that the crucial mistake made by people who train for strength is to train like the long-distance endurance athlete, rather than the sprinter. In other words, it is the measured use of very hard and brief (e.g. “high intensity”) bursts of effort that stimulate muscle growth, not prolonged bouts and repetitions of only moderately difficult exertion.

To sum up a huge body of knowledge and give a few practical tips to readers, this high intensity (HIT) manner of training calls for:

  • High intensity, that is, using a weight suited to oneself so that one “fails” or cannot complete any additional repetitions at the end of a set of the desired number of repetitions.
  • Progressive resistance, so that when one succeeds with a targeted number of repetitions with a certain weight, the weight is increased slightly in the next workout, until the goal is achieved with the new weight. In this way, intensity always remains high. [8]
  • Limited duration of workouts, doing no more than one intense set per exercise after warm-up, because that one set to failure will trigger a growth response, and additional sets will hamper the body’s ability to recover. Jones used to say “You can work hard or work long, but not both.”
  • Limited frequency of workouts, training a particular exercise as infrequently as once per week.
  • Proper rest to allow for growth. Strength training breaks down muscle tissue and alarms the body to produce more muscle in adaption to that stress, and it can take several days before the damage is repaired and additional muscle tissue has been gained in the process called Indeed, as a person grows stronger, he may require more rest between workouts because of the greater demands each workout will make on recuperative capacities.
  • Proper form in the execution of strength-training exercises, because quick, jerky movements, for example, can call in the forces of momentum, while a purposely slower movement, in protocols varying from 2 seconds lifting and 4 seconds lowering the weight to even 10 seconds or more in each direction, ensure that only muscle action moves the weight.
  • Focus upon a limited number of compound exercises in which involve the rotation of more than one joint and which activate large masses of muscles, for example, squats, leg presses, dead lifts, bench pressing, overhead pressing, chinning, and rowing motions, because of the way such exercises stimulate the production of growth hormone and testosterone that lead to overall body development with a minimum of time investment.

A workout such a this could consist in as little as three exercises, what I call “a push, a leg, and a pull,” to involve almost all the major muscles of the body, with a few other “isolation exercises” involving rotation around only one joint like curls, leg extensions, etcetera, for those who would care to do them. Let me flesh out an example:

A Suggested Simple, Sample, “Stoic” Strength-Training Workout


Exercise Sets/Repetitions per Set
“A Push” (Choose one of the following: barbell, dumbbell, or machine bench press, incline press, or overhead press; or pushups, parallel bar dips, or handstand pushups.) 1 set to failure or stopping at the last complete repetition when failure seems likely on the last one. For machines or weights this would likely be in the 5 – 12 repetition range, but could require higher repetitions for freehand exercises like pushups.
“A Pull” (Choose one of the following: barbell deadlift, barbell, dumbbell, or machine row, machine pulldown or chin-ups.) 1 set to failure or stopping at the last complete repetition when failure seems likely on the last one. For machines or weights this would likely be in the 5 – 12 repetition range, but could require higher repetitions for freehand chin-ups for very strong individuals, (though chins can be intensified by moving more slowly up and down removing all momentum, and in fact, this method can be used to intensify all bodyweight only movements.)
“A Leg” (Chose one of the following: Barbell Squats or Front Squats, Leg Press, Bodyweight deep knee bends.) 1 set to failure or stopping at the last complete repetition when failure seems likely on the last one. For machines or weights this would likely be in the 5 – 12 repetition range, but would require higher repetitions for deep knee bends without addition weight.
Optional Extras: (If so inclined, add 1 – 5 additional exercises targeting muscles of interest such as curls for biceps, triceps, abdominal, neck, or calf exercises.) Same set and repetition scheme as above, though many people prefer higher repetitions of up to 20 or more for exercises with short ranges of motion, such as those for abdominals and calves.

All exercises are to be performed in a slow, controlled manner with proper form and natural breathing, striving to increase if possible by one repetition or a few pounds more on each exercise in each subsequent workout. This workout can be performed as infrequently as one time per week, in as little as 20 minutes. And how will you know if it is successful? Well, look at your shoulders! That is, see if you are progressing in the amount of weight you can use, the number of repetitions you can perform, the shape and size of your shoulders (and other muscles) and whether or not you feel fitter, more energetic, and better able to face whatever physical tasks are a part of your daily life.


From HIT to HIIT

A few decades after Jones’s work in strength training, we saw a similar development in the realm of intense endurance training that I’m sure would leave Seneca smiling as well. Japanese researcher Dr. Izumi Tabata found that very brief, infrequent episodes of traditional endurance-type, cardiovascular, or aerobic training also produce superior results to easier, but longer, steady-state training.   The original protocol called for 5 minutes of warm-up on a piece of equipment like an exercise bicycle, 8 intervals of only 20 seconds off all-out maximum pedaling, followed by 10 seconds of rest after each interval, and 2 minutes of cool-down. If I’ve done my math right, that’s an 11-minute workout, including both warm-up and cooldown, with four minutes of actual interval training, and 1/3 of that spent in rest! Dr. Tabata found VO2max [9] improvements in fit college PE majors who did this protocol 5 days per week exceeded those of students who did traditional 5 traditional steady-state sessions per week lasting 60 minutes each.

I will note as well that since that first reported study in 1996, many others have had success with other High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) protocols of varying interval and rest durations and frequency of workouts. The key finding being, as Seneca notes, that there are indeed, “short and simple exercises that tire the body quickly” and let us get back to the things of the mind!

And to be fair, for Seneca even the philosopher could certainly indulge in more leisurely physical and long-lasting physical pursuits at times, noting, for example, that “we should talk walks outside so that the mind can be strengthened and refreshed by being outdoors as we breathe the fresh air.” In Letter 15, He tells Lucilius he does not intend for him to live bent over his books and his writing implements, but to intersperse reading and riding with bouts of mild exercise like walking or riding, in addition to the higher-intensity exercises he mentioned above.


The Virtues of Fitness for Everyone

Of the Roman Stoics of the 1st century AD, it appears from the extant remnants of Musonius Rufus’s lectures or post-lecture Q & A’s appearing in subsequent sources that he may have been the Stoic who placed the most emphasis on what have become known as the cardinal virtues.[10] While Musonius preached virtue in general, as opposed to vice, he also championed sophrosune (temperance or self-control), andreia, (fortitude or courage), phronesis (prudence or practical wisdom), and diakaiosune (justice).

Medieval philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, borrowing from Aristotle, and in generally in accord with the Stoics, has noted that “virtue, inasmuch as it is a suitable disposition of the soul, is like health and beauty, which are suitable dispositions of the body.” [11] And further, “if a man uses exercise, food, and drink in moderation, he will become physically strong and his health will be improved and preserved. It is the same with the virtues of the soul – for instance, fortitude, temperance, and the other virtues.” [12]

So how might the cardinal virtues relate to training the body?

  • Fortitude provides the capacity to endure hard things for worthwhile goals, making it a most fitting virtue to assist those who would endure the physical pain and discomfort involved in performing both high intensity strength training and demanding endurance training. And indeed, as Musonius has noted, when we train our bodies to endure hardships, we also train the soul.
  • Temperance, applies most directly to the self-control involved in following the proper kind of diet that will sustain our training efforts, preserve our health, and preserve us from the kind of gluttony that distracts and weakens the soul.
  • Justice involves giving each person his or her rightful due, and in the realm of fitness, this might involve showing our concern by providing advice and examples of healthy living for all those around us, perhaps with special attention to the unique fitness goals and training needs of members of various groups of people, like the young, women, and the elderly.
  • Prudence is the virtue that gets the job done, finding the right means to obtain the worthwhile ends of bodily strength and fitness, in a safe and efficient manner that leaves us with plenty of time and energy to focus on the things of the soul that matter the most.

So then, would the Stoics have us all become Milos, philosophers bristling with as much brawn as brain? We have seen that Seneca would answer no, that strength and fitness are not the most important goals for human beings, though they are still worthy or some time and effort. Further, if our age, genetic constitution, or some physical injury or defect prevents us from attaining the heights of physical perfection should we not still train to improve our bodies as best we can, if we are physically able? As for Epictetus’s answer, I’ll let him respond to both of these last two questions in his own words:

Epictetus will not be better than Socrates; but if only I am not worse, that suffices me. For I shall not be a Milo, either, and yet I do not neglect my body; nor a Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property; nor, in a word, is there any other field in which we give up the appropriate discipline merely from despair of attaining the highest. [13]


Please note the caveat that any suggestions for exercise in this article are intended for healthy men and women. Even people without known health problems are advised to consult with their physician before starting a new exercise program.


[1] Epictetus, Discourses, Books I-II, trans. W. A. Oldfather (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 31. (First published 1925).

[2] Seneca, Epistles 1-65, trans. R. Gummere (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 97-98. (First published 1917).

[3] Oldfather, 347.

[4] Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings, trans. Cynthia King (CreateSpace.com, 2011), 63, Lecture 6.

[5] Oldfather, Epictetus Discourses, Books III-IV, 169. (Book 3, chapter 23).

[6] Cited in Richard Mott Gummere, Seneca the Philosopher and His Modern Message (Bibliobazaar, 2008), 54. (Originally published in 1922.)

[7] While strength training was pooh-poohed by most coaches and trainers in those days and even in the 1970s when I began training, due to the myth of becoming “muscle-bound,” Jones argued most vociferously that muscles are the body’s engines and that if all other factors are equal, “the stronger athletes will always win.” Today we see everyone from baseball players to golfers lifting weights to acquire the kind of strength they need to complement their skills and maximize their performance.

[8] The ancient Greek Olympic wrestler Milo of Croton (6th C BC) is credited in legend as the Father of Progressive Resistance Strength Training. The story went that when Milo was a young boy he lifted a young calf every day, and as they calf gradually grew into a bull, so too did Milo grow into a bull of a man! Other legends tie him to philosophy as the husband of Pythagorus’ daughter, and Milo is mentioned in the writings of Aristotle, Cicero, and even Epictetus, as we’ll see later in this article. A man of many legends, one holds that near at the end of his life Milo tested his remaining strength by prying open the halves of a split tree trunk. When his strength gave out his hands were trapped and he was eaten by wolves!

[9] A measure of maximum oxygen update measured in milliliters by kilogram of bodyweight per minute.

[10] From the Latin cardine for “hinge” since the other virtues hang form and swing form them, so to speak.

[11] Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 55, art. 2.

[12] C. I. Litzinger, OP. trans. St. Thomas Aquinas Commentary on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (Notre Dame, Indiana: Dumb Ox Books, 1993), p. 89. (Commenting on Aristotle’s Book 2, chapter 2).

[13] Oldfather, 25. (Discourse 1.2).

Kevin Vost, Psy.D., a former competitive powerlifter and Highland Games heavy events competitor, is the author of over a dozen books including The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2016) and Fit for Eternal Life: A Christian Approach to Working Out, Eating Right, and Building the Virtues of Fitness in Your Soul (Sophia Institute Press, 2007).



Stoicism and the Art of Archery by John Sellars

Stoicism and the Art of Archery

by John Sellars


The Stoic philosopher Antipater is reported to have drawn an analogy with archery when trying to explain the goal of Stoic ethics. The good Stoic, Antipater suggested, is like an archer: he does everything he can to hit the target, but his happiness does not depend on whether he hits the target or not (Stobaeus 2,76,11-15). What matters is shooting well, for whether the arrow hits the target or not depends on other factors outside of the archer’s control.

In the ancient literature this led some to characterize the Stoic’s art – the art of living – as a stochastic art, like navigation or medicine, meaning that the outcome depends in part on factors other than the practitioner’s skill (Alexander, Quaest. 61,1-28). It also led to concerns about whether Stoicism in fact had two slightly different goals: to live a good life and to do everything one can to live a good life (Cicero, Fin. 3.22). In his discussion of this point Cicero wrote:

“Take the case of one whose task it is to shoot a spear or arrow straight at some target. One’s ultimate aim is to do all in one’s power to shoot straight, and the same applies with our ultimate goal. In this kind of example, it is to shoot straight that one must do all one can; none the less, it is to do all one can to accomplish the task that is really the ultimate aim. It is just the same with what we call the supreme good in life. To actually hit the target is, as we say, to be selected but not sought.” (ibid.)

For the Stoic, then, what matters is not always hitting the target but rather becoming an expert archer, with archery understood as a special kind of art in which expertise does not always guarantee success.

This Stoic idea shares something in common with the account of learning the Japanese art of archery in Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery (London, 1953). Herrigel’s book is a personal memoir recounting his own experience of trying to learn the art of archery from a Japanese master, something he tried to do in order to deepen his own understanding of Zen. Along the way Herrigel makes a number of remarks about Zen and archery that resonate with Antipater’s image of the Stoic archer and may offer a fresh perspective on it.

Herrigel begins by reflecting on the artificiality of learning a medieval military art taken out of its original context and turned into a hobby for people who have no need to learn how to shoot arrows. Archery is no longer a matter of life and death. Yet, he comments, “archery is still a matter of life and death to the extent that it is a contest of the archer with himself” (p. 15). It has become a “spiritual exercise” in which “the marksman aims at himself” (p. 14). The modern Zen art of archery “can in no circumstance mean accomplishing anything outwardly with bow and arrow, but only inwardly, with oneself” (p. 18). The goal, then, is ultimately one of self-transformation.

One of the greatest challenges Herrigel faced was to relax. His master made the art look effortless, and for him it was. The more Herrigel tried to achieve the desired result (hitting the target) the more he failed. It was a classic case of making a strenuous effort to keep relaxed. The key, his master told him, was to stop caring about the arrow: “what happened to the arrow was even more a matter of indifference” (p. 40). The less one cares about hitting the target, the more smooth and relaxed one’s shot will be, which paradoxically will increase one’s likelihood of hitting the target. So not caring about reaching the goal will in fact improve one’s chances of reaching it.

Far more important, though, is a shift in the very goal itself. The real goal should not be hitting the target at all; the real goal is something internal, not external. This “the right art [of archery] … is purposeless, aimless” (p. 46). One must become purposeless, on purpose. One must aimlessly aim the arrow. This will enable one to reach both goals, internal and external: to perfect the art of archery and to hit the target, but wanting to hit the target now looks like part of the problem rather than contributing to either goal.

How to do this? The answer is simple: stop thinking and simply let oneself be led by the moment (pp. 49-50), or led by Nature we might say. The master archer will have “no ulterior motive” and will be “released from all attachment” (p. 55). This involves an internal transformation that is central to making progress in the art. Thus, “more important than all outward works, however attractive, is the inward work which he has to accomplish if he is to fulfil his vocation as an artist” (p. 65). The archer performs “as a good dancer dances” (p. 77), which was another analogy also drawn by the Stoics (cf. Cicero, Fin. 3.24).

What matters, then, is the performance of the art itself rather than any further outcome, such as hitting the target. Herrigel’s master insists that “if you hit the target with nearly every shot you are nothing more than a trick archer who likes to show off … Put the thought of hitting right out of your mind! You can be a Master even if every shot does not hit” (pp. 78-9). If one does hit the target this is not significant in itself: “hits are only outward confirmations of inner events” (p. 80). Thus all attention ought to be focused on the internal practice of the art rather than the external result. One ought neither to grieve over bad shots nor rejoice over good ones. “You must free yourself from the buffetings of pleasure and pain, and learn to rise above them in easy equanimity” (p. 85).

Herrigel did make some progress in the art of archery. At the end of his training his master said to him “You have become a different person in the course of these years. For this is what the art of archery means: a profound and far-reaching contest of the archer with himself” (p. 90).

Does this help us to understand Stoicism? I think it might in the following way. The ancient charge that Stoicism becomes confused by proposing two goals – effectively trying to hit the target but also trying not to care if one misses – has not completely gone away. ‘Surely it is disingenuous to try to do something but then say you don’t care when it doesn’t work out.’ ‘If the Stoic is indifferent to the outcome of events, then why even try to do anything?’ What Herrigel’s account does is dismiss the first goal altogether: just forget about hitting the target. The real goal is not external at all; it is internal. It involves an internal transformation that, as it happens, will also improve one’s external successes, although that is now almost beside the point.

What matters is how one acts, not the outcome of those acts. According to Herrigel this involves a process of letting go, just acting rather than over thinking. At first glance this might sound very Zen but not very Stoic and perhaps the point at which any parallel breaks down. But we might translate it into a broadly Stoic framework by saying that the advice is simply to follow Nature, to act spontaneously, to embrace one’s natural instincts, rather than to over think about what the right thing to do is. The Stoics do encourage people to follow ‘reason’ but this is the reason or order within Nature, which is not necessarily the same thing as deliberative, instrumental rationality.

What the Zen art of archery and the Stoic art of living share is a seemingly paradoxical indifference to whether one is successful or not. What matters is mastering the art and practising it. In the case of Stoicism this means acting virtuously, with the right intentions, at all times and for its own sake. It is about cultivating the appropriate frame of mind that, as Herrigel’s master put it, enables one to enjoy an easy equanimity whether one hits one’s targets or not.

John Sellars is currently a Research Fellow at King’s College London. His principal area of research is Ancient philosophy, but he is equally interested in its later influence and have wide interests in Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern philosophy. He has written two books on Stoic philosophy: Stoicism and The Art of Living.  This article appeared originally in his blog, Miscellanea Stoica.  Read more about John’s work on his website.

Stoicism for Sport

Stoicism and Sport

by Catriona Brickel

Stoicism, like so many aspects of life including other branches of philosophy and ethics, is faced with the perpetual problem of how to ensure it remains relevant, not only for academics who ponder the subject but within the general population. Whilst the influence that Stoicism has had within psychotherapy and the modern military is well documented and persuasive, I feel that to achieve a popularised version of Stoicism there needs to be more emphasis on how Stoicism can subliminally permeate the lives of the common person, i.e. without them even noticing it.

One such example of how Stoicism might be considered to already have achieved this can be found within sport. Whilst there are programmes utilising Stoic psychotherapy techniques that focus on personal development (at Saracens RFC for example, as Jules Evans’ piece from earlier today showed), Stoic virtues are present throughout the history of sport in a considerably more obvious way. This is made evident by drawing on passages from Epictetus:

            “…reflect on what’s entailed both now and later on before committing to it. You have to submit to discipline, maintain a strict diet, abstain from rich foods, exercise under compulsion at set times in weather hot and cold, refrain from drinking water or wine whenever you want – in short, you have to hand yourself over to your trainer as if he were your doctor”
Enchiridion 29

Modern day athletes, although they might never have read Epictetus, often embody such a Stoic attitude. They train for years, often away from their families and at altitude; this involves early mornings, late nights and training in all weathers; they commit to fiercely regimented diets; they place their faith in their trainer to bring them the success they hope for. As British athletics star Mo Farah said “don’t dream of winning – train for it”. The life of an athlete is one of control, discipline and preparation as they consistently exert their will over the frailties of the body.

Continue reading “Stoicism for Sport”

Socrates Among the Saracens

Jules Evans writes about Saracens Rugby Club, on its ethos of putting character before external success….

‘Socrates among the Saracens’

It can still feel weird discussing having had depression and anxiety to strangers in public talks. Although I’m fairly used to exposing myself these days (as it were), there are still occasions when I think ‘is this really a good idea?’ I had that feeling this week, standing in front of a gym full of colossal rugby players at Saracens rugby club, staring at me stony-faced as I discussed how philosophy helped me through panic attacks.

I was invited to Saracens’ training ground in St Albans to give a talk about ancient philosophy, virtue ethics, and the Greeks’ ideas on the good life. I believe, and Saracens also believe, that ethics are right at the heart of sport. Sportspeople, on a daily basis, are faced with the questions that Socrates first raised: is it worth being an ethical person?  What is the appropriate trade-off between external and internal goods? What does it mean to succeed at life? How do we cope with external pressures and still maintain a good character?

We, the spectator-public, like to think that professional sportspeople are shining knights, that sports coaches are founts of moral wisdom like Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights. While a lot of our society has become instrumentalized by the language of technocratic management, we still use moral discourse when it comes to sport – we talk about a team’s ‘values’, ‘character’ and ‘philosophy’. The word ‘stoic’ may have more or less disappeared from academic philosophy, but it’s still ubiquitous in the sports pages (stony-faced Ivan Lendl is the latest to be awarded the ‘stoic’ accolade).

Perhaps we have tried to fill the ‘god-shaped hole’ with sports, to use sportspeople for ethical role-models and matches as an outlet for collective ecstasy.

Continue reading “Socrates Among the Saracens”