It’s the New Year and many people have resolved to recommit to their fitness goals. As I made my way to the gym, I wondered what Epictetus would have thought about about physical fitness and the place we ought to accord it in our daily habits. In this short article, I’ll explore answers to the preceding question and, along the way, offer some stoic-friendly fitness advice.
(For interested readers, here is How to be Aristotle in the Gym)
Epictetus and the (Non)Value of Physical Health
Why do you do something rather than nothing? The aim of all action is happiness. People find happiness in a variety of things and this explains why people pursue different things: wealth, fame, reputation, power, pleasure, etc.… But isn’t the part of life that gives us the greatest happiness when we flourish in the face of adversity?
No life is free from misfortune, chance, and adversity. But in facing such occasions we encounter opportunities to exercise and develop the genuine foundations for a stable happiness: Strength, dignity, equanimity, composure, stability, fortitude, persistence, and courage. None of these virtues are meaningfully developed without facing some adversity. And no person can live a happy life without these traits. So, if it’s a stable enduring happiness you’re after—the Stoics council—develop your virtues.
So, what about physical health? Ought I to pursue it? It seems like it’s also part of a happy life.
No my friend: enjoying health in the right way is good; making bad use of your health is bad.Discourses 3. 20. 4
The Stoic view on physical health, like anything outside of your will, is that it is neither good nor bad. What matters is whether you make (virtuous) use of it and/or pursue it virtuously. A sound body enables a criminal to commit his crimes just as it enables a good person to do good deeds.
You should not pursue fitness merely for the sake of fitness. This is why the whole bodybuilding/fitness industry would be such a travesty for Epictetus. What do such lives amount to? They devoted 10s of thousands of hours to making their muscles puffy. What kind of life is that?
So, does this mean I should be indifferent about my health? No. A happy life is one in which we develop a beautiful soul. The body is the vessel of the soul and so it’s important to care for the vessel that contains it. Notice, however, that the reasons to pursue health and fitness are purely instrumental, they are not ends in themselves.
There are a few other stoic reasons for caring about your health, most of which are inherited from Socrates/Plato.
First, whatever burdens you must bear, they are more bearable to the healthy person.
And yet what has to be borne by anyone who takes care to keep his body in good condition is far lighter and far pleasanter than those things subjected to the out of shape person.Plato, The Republic
Why even in the process of thinking and not using our body, it is a matter of common knowledge that grave mistakes may often be traced to bad health. And because the body is in a bad condition loss of memory, depression and discontent often attack the mind so violently as to drive out whatever knowledge it contains.Xenophon quoting Socrates
In short, in poor health we are more prone to bad decisions and a weakened will in the face of challenges. We are less likely to do the kinds of virtuous actions that beautify our soul. As the saying goes, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” (Quote is attributed to both George Patton and Vince Lombardi). And the unfit are easily fatigued.
Second, physical development is practice for the much more difficult task of intellectual and moral development. It also cultivates our affinity for Beauty. For that ancients, Truth, the Good, and Beauty are inextricably connected and all are required to develop a beautiful soul. People aren’t always immediately interested in the Good or Truth; but if the three are tied together, an affinity for Beauty can draw them to the other two.
Physical beauty, however, is inferior to beauty of a soul. Having a beautiful soul requires knowing (and acting on) the True and the Good. It follows that cultivating a beautiful soul is much more difficult than developing a beautiful body. That is, is easier to get puffy muscles than it is to discover and act on moral and intellectual truth. Hence, especially for youth, it’s important that they at least have some aspiration for beauty-even if it’s initially of the inferior kind. This is a starting point to “show him the way to more appropriate objects of devotion”Sherman, Stoic Warriors. p. 31
In Epictetus’s own words (concerning leading a youth to care for having a beautiful soul):
But if he should come to me befouled, dirty, with whiskers down to his knees, what can I say to him, what sort of comparison can I use to draw him on? For what has he ever concerned himself with that bears any resemblance to beauty, such that I can redirect his attention, and say, “Beauty is not there, but here”? Would you have me say to him, “Beauty lies not in being befouled, but in reason”? For does he in fact aspire to beauty? Does he show any sign of it? Go and argue with a pig, that he should not roll in the mud.”Discourses 3. 23. 27.
Some Simple Advice that Would Improve Most People’s Health and Save them Money
Recall the earlier lesson that the unfit are easily fatigued, that fatigue undermines our will and judgment, which in turn interferes with developing a beautiful soul. In short, a developing a beautiful soul requires we avoid fatigue to the extent that we can.
Think of health and fitness as a three-legged table. Each leg represents one of
- exercise, and
If you remove one leg, the table collapses. Also, if the legs aren’t in the correct proportion, the table is unstable.
Different people struggle with different “legs,” however, I think sleep is the most often overlooked. You can do all the right exercises at the right intensity and eat all the right foods in the right amounts but if you aren’t getting enough sleep, your efforts are soon undermined. During deep prolonged sleep, your body releases hormones necessary for recovery and growth. You simply cannot recover physically (or mentally) if these hormones aren’t regularly released into your body. And, without quality sleep, these hormones will not be released into your body.
The fitness industrial complex offers no end of new supplements, magic pills, special diets, exercise plans, and exercise innovation. Some of them are useful, some of them not, most are only moderately so. But rarely do you hear about sleep, and if you do, it’s often as an afterthought.
If sleep’s as important as I claim it is, why don’t we hear about it as much as the other two legs? The answer is simple, Big Fit doesn’t make a profit off of you sleeping. They can’t sell it to you (yet!).
But now I’ve told you what they don’t want you to know. Figure out how much sleep you need and restructure your life such that you get it. You’ll be surprised at what a difference it makes. It blows my mind how much money people are willing to pay for supplements of questionable efficacy yet unwilling to find a way to get one more hour of sleep a night. I’d be willing to bet anything that an extra hour of sleep will do you more good for your health than all your expensive supplements combined.
“Why are you willing to pay so much for supplements?”
“Because I want to be healthy.”
“I just told you that getting an extra hour of sleep will help you much more than your supplements ever will. So, why don’t you get an extra hour of sleep instead of staying up online or watching Netflix?”
“I know but I don’t want to have to change my life.”
“Fine. Then don’t complain about your health when I’ve just told you how to improve it.” (Epictetus, The Imaginary Discourse)
Injuries and Setbacks
My first genuine interaction with Stoicism was Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. My first reaction to Stoicism was to throw the book across the room.
Why? Well, you know all those annoying self-help-y aphorisms like “Everything happens for a reason” and “Every challenge presents an opportunity”? Well, the Stoics were the OG’s (original gurus) of self-help. They viewed their philosophy as being first and foremost a practical guide to living well and a means of dealing with the inevitable difficulties and misfortunes of life. There is deep wisdom in their teachings. The problem is that, after 2, 000 years of being repeated ad nauseam and out of context, they can seem like just one more vacuous platitude to scroll past in our newsfeed.
How does all this fit with the theme of this article: fitness and injuries? Let me illustrate.
Four years ago, I suffered perhaps the worst injury of my grappling career. I rolled my right ankle and tore a bunch of soft tissue. I was on crutches for 2 months, limping for a year and a half, and only recently completely pain free. I still tape my ankle every judo practice as a preventative measure.
After about 6 months of no judo, I started doing some light technique practice. Because I’d injured my dominant foot, I couldn’t practice throws to my dominant (i.e., strong) side. The only way I was going to be able to train at all is if I practiced to my weak side.
It took a full 2 years before I was able to begin training to my strong side again. By that time, my weak-side throws were better than my strong side throws. After a few months, my strong side caught up. The net result is that now I can do some throws just as well to either side.
Without getting too far into judo technique, I’ll explain why that’s such a huge advantage. To avoid a throw in judo or wrestling, you circle away from the direction of the throw. If you walk into the direction of the throw, you make your opponent’s job very easy since you are walking in the exact direction required for the throw to be successful.
So, what happens when you can throw equally well on both sides? If I attack one direction, you circle away from the throw. But circling away from a throw in one direction is also walking into the throw from the other direction. If I can throw in both directions, your defense to my initial attack actually literally walks you into my attack from the other direction.
What’s the moral of the story? The simple one is that every challenge presents an opportunity. The challenge presented to me was what very easily could have been a career-ending injury. Instead, I chose to use it as an opportunity to develop a part of my game I otherwise wouldn’t have spent as much time on. The net result was to move me another step closer to the ideal martial artist.
Think of your own injuries in the same way (And I promise, you will have injuries, whether you train or not!). Maybe you injure your shoulder or your back. Give your body a chance to heal from the initial injury, but now figure out how to train around your injury and eventually restrengthen it. This forces you to learn new exercises and improve your technique on ones you already know. Doing it imperfectly now has real consequences. The long run effect is to make you improve in ways you otherwise wouldn’t have if circumstance hadn’t forced you to.
Now, he’s where part of me wants to throw the Discourses across the room. Surely, some injuries are so bad and permanent that we will forever be impaired. An extreme example might be paralysis. What kind of asshole tells someone newly paraplegic, “hey, man, you should see this as an opportunity.” Now, just because what the stoics say isn’t true in every case, doesn’t mean it isn’t true in some cases. In my case it was true.
My own view is that, psychologically, we ought to err on the side of stoicism when we are confronted by setbacks. I think there’s much more harm in despair and giving up than there is in a mentality that seeks opportunity and growth in misfortune.
To summarize, here’s the first lesson: Learn What You Would not Have Otherwise Learned
You’re going to have setback in your fitness journey. This is the nature of life. So whachugonna do abouddit? Give up and cry like a little baby or find a way to learn and improve from it?
The more subtle message has to do with value. Initially–well, let’s be honest–not just initially, but for a long time, I was genuinely heart-broken by my injury. I wasn’t hopeful at all. Right before the injury, I was the best I’d ever been. I was on track to test for my black belt. I was looking forward to doing well in tournaments. I was upset because the injury interfered with realizing what I valued: belt promotion, tournaments, winning.
But the stoic is concerned with internal goods: wisdom, perseverance, composure, courage, and so on. These are the goods that make us a complete person and that most reliably contribute to living a good life. These are the fruits we ought to pursue. And I ultimately gain the sweetest fruits of all by refusing to quit and continuing to persevere in the face of misfortune:
What will you make of illness?
I will expose its true nature by outdoing myself in calmness and serenity; I will neither beg the doctor’s help, nor pray for death. What more could you ask? Everything, you see, that you throw at me I will transform into a blessing, a boon–something dignified, even enviable.Discourse III. 21. 14-15
[Y]ou have inner strengths that enable you to bear up with difficulties of every kind. You have been given fortitude, courage, and patience. Why should I worry what happens if I am armed with the virtue of fortitude? Nothing can trouble or upset me, or even seem annoying. Instead of meeting misfortune with groans and tears, I will call upon the faculty especially provided to deal with it.
‘But my nose is running!’ What do you have hands for, idiot, if not to wipe it? ‘But how is it right that there be running noses in the first place? Instead of thinking up protests, wouldn’t it be easier just to wipe your nose?Discourses 1. 6. 28-32.
In other words, it is through the various challenges life inevitably sends our way that we most develop our virtues – the true and reliable foundations for a happy life. And who are you to think of yourself as so weak as not to be able to face such challenges?
Suck it up buttercup. You kan dou eet!
All that energy you spend complaining about your ankle, your back, your neck, etc… isn’t going to heal it. You might as well redirect your efforts toward addressing it. Wipe your nose!
Here’s the second lesson: Focus on What Really Matters
In the long run, in facing injuries and misfortune, you develop the traits that have genuine value: Fortitude, courage, perseverance, wisdom, etc…
Brace yourself: It’s not puffy muscles or being able to lift a certain amount of weight that matters for a good life. It’s the character traits you develop that allow you to manage and overcome, not only your current injuries and health problems, but future ones too.
This is another way of expressing the earlier Socratic point: Physical fitness and sports are a controlled environment for character development. In fitness/sports, more than in any other endeavor, there’s a strong correlation between effort and results. The lessons learned and traits you develop are meant to prepare you for the more difficult domains of intellectual and moral development. Intellectual and moral challenges are infinitely more demanding than any physical ones.
Too many people think puffy muscles or round booties are the final goal and despair when they’re thwarted. Such people never surpass the most basic level of development as human beings. They are incomplete human beings and they never fully achieve complete lasting and reliable foundations for a good life.
I know. It’s all so easy to say. Personal development is extremely difficult and takes time. However,
Nothing important comes into being overnight: even grapes and figs need time to ripen. If you say you want a fig now, I will tell you to be patient. First, you must allow the tree to flower, then put forth fruit; then you have to wait until the fruit is ripe.”Discourses 1. 17. 7.
Fact: In pursuing your fitness goals you will get injured. You will also get sick. You will get overwhelmed with work and social obligations. These will set you back. Crying about it won’t change anything. Neither will anger, sadness, nor quitting. So, whatchugonna do?
Adopt that OG (Original Guru) self-help mindset: See an opportunity to learn to train differently and improve your technique. Better yet, see this as an opportunity to develop the virtues. When you face the next inevitable setback, you’ll be better equipped to handle it.
Epictetus often compares the quest for happiness (through the exercise and development of virtuous character) to athletic competition. There are important disanalogies. First, in the contest of life we compete against ourselves, not against others. Second, we compete over and over, through repeated opportunities for achievement. We are defeated only until we decide to get back in the race. Life gives us new opportunities in which happiness may flower:
Even if we fail here and now, no one stops us from competing again, we don’t have to wait another four years for the next Olympics, but as soon as a man picked himself up and renewed his grip on himself and shown the same enthusiasm he is allowed to compete. And if you give in again, you can compete again, and if once you win, you are like someone who never gave in. Only, don’t let sheer habit make you give in readily and end up like a bad athlete going around being beaten in the whole circuit like quails that run away.(Discourses 3. 1-5)
Jigoro Kano (founder of judo) echos something similar in this wonderful quote:
The man who is at the peak of his success and the man who has just failed are in exactly the same position: Each must decide what to do next.
Now, go work out for the right reasons!
Ami Palmer is a PhD candidate in applied philosophy at Bowling Green State University. His research focuses on political epistemology and civic virtue in an environment of widespread misinformation and political polarization. He blogs at Wrestling with Philosophy and offers a free online critical thinking course at Reasoning for the Digital Age.