Why philosophy and sports have more in common than you think

Why philosophy and sports have more in common than you think

With ESSEC Knowledge Editor-in-chief

Do ancient philosophers and professional athletes have more in common than we think? 

In his book Exercices spirituels, leçons de la philosophie contemporaine (Spiritual exercises - lessons from contemporary philosophy) ESSEC professor ofphilosophy Xavier Pavie explains that yes - much like ancient philosophy can be considered a spiritual exercise, sport can too.Let’s dive in and explore!

Ancient philosophy as a spiritual exercise 

What exactly does this mean? Professor Pavie explains that ancient philosophy is a discipline that changes one’s way of living and seeing the world, through changing how one speaks and acts. That tells us about the role of the mind in philosophy - but what about the body? It might not seem like your body plays a role in spiritual exercises, and indeed, ancient philosophers had an ambiguous position on the body. For example, Plato said in Phaedo that the body can distract us from reality and our search for the truth, because we can get carried away with passion. However, then in the Laws, he talks about physical training - while it’s mostly for preparing a soldier for war, he lists priorities as: 1) the gods, 2) the soul and 3) the body - our bodies can be strong, beautiful, and help us achieve balance and security. He places an emphasis on a strict gymnastics program - to be conducted alongside studying music and philosophy. He emphasizes this balance between body and soul in Timaeus. Taken together, Plato’s thinking was that gymnastics can build a strong body - which helps in turn build a strong soul. 

Plato wasn’t the only ancient philosopher emphasizing the role of the body: Plato was a wrestler, and Chrysippe and Seneca were long-distance runners. Socrates himself said, “No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” 

There’s a natural link between physical exercise and the desire for self-improvement, including spiritual exercises. The literature abounds with metaphors comparing spiritual exercises to sport - like Marcus Aurelius writing ““The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in so far as it stands ready against the accidental and the unforeseen, and is not apt to fall.”

This suggests that self-improvement requires training, like a sport. Ancient philosophers may have seen it this way - but how did the school of thought evolve over time?

As simple as taking your first steps 

In modern philosophy, there are fewer references, but you can find them if you know where to look. Nietzsche, for example, used long walks to reflect and meditate. Other philosophers, like Zarathoustra, also see walking as an ideal way to encourage new ways of thinking and getting a change of scenery. Physical exercise is also a way of developing self-control. It’s a way to encourage introspection and go back to basics, since walking only requires your legs. Walking can also be a way to reconnect and commune with nature, another mechanism for transforming oneself. Above all, it’s a way to connect with oneself - body and mind - that can be practiced by even those among us who aren’t pro athletes, since it’s a more gentle workout.

Intense workouts for the body and mind 

For other philosophers, both physical and spiritual exercises were meant to be intense. Walking is a step in the right direction - but intense sports are the way to feel fulfilled. Since they’re also not possible for everyone, with our individual physical and lifestyle limitations, it’s not a way to make fulfillment accessible to the masses.  Indeed, this kind of dedication to a sport is often only available to an elite few.

Transform your mind to transform your body 

Whether your activity of choice is a brisk walk or body-building, physical exercise can be a way to conduct spiritual exercises too. This was first pointed out by the ancient philosophers, and remains true in contemporary philosophy. Some philosophers even believe it’s essential to exercise your body to properly exercise your mind. Integrating physical and spiritual exercises allows us to know ourselves better, and thus engage in self-improvement. This allows for a more “holistic” transformation, integrating physical, aesthetic, and spiritual improvement. As Professor Pavie summarizes in his analysis of sport and philosophy, it’s important not to think of body and mind only as a dichotomy, but to think of our “spiritual body” and that transforming our body can be a way to transform ourselves.

Further reading 

Pavie, X. (2022). Exercices spirituels philosophiques – Une anthologie de l’Antiquité à nos jours. Presses universitaires de France.

Pavie, X. (2013). Exercices spirituels, leçons de la philosophie contemporaine. Les Belles Lettres.

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