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discus throwerOne of the political sentiments at the root of socialist democracy is resentment masquerading as justice. Nietzsche, more than any philosopher, made perhaps the best possible observations on this subject. What Nietzsche did not make, however, was an ouvre on the subject of horsemanship or gymnastics. Why? It appears to me, following many years of rumination and but a few years of practical application, that the ingredient missing from the modern critique of socialist sentiments is the one which allowed the ancients to avoid them: physical culture. The character of the ancients, when combining love of wisdom with physical culture, culminated in Kalos Kagathos, a being of such virtue as to have resisted the base appeal of a politics of envy.

In our times, particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century, there has come to pass what may be called a recovery of the art of physical culture. To what extent some of its aspects are not driven by the very envy the ancients blamed? Case in point: behold the vast array of diets and gimmicks, not to mention surgical means, available to mankind for the purpose of attaining some ideal form. Regardless of whether or not these unnatural means are physically effective or not, their scientific nature bypasses the necessity to engage the soul in the process of building the body. In so doing, the soul is not exercised, and we thus end up with some men and women who have artificially beautiful bodies, but ugly souls. Worst still, in cases where science fails, not only is the soul not made better, the body is made worse. In any case, there is little doubt that a perverse envy, nurtured by marketing, makes up the principle cause of the market demand for fast and easy avenues to good looks.

These modern marketing and mass media images tend to portray the female ideal as a kind of rubber band. Year in and year out, I note that otherwise attractive young ladies who grace fashion posters and billboards in the modern city continue to pose as if someone broke their necks, and then cracked their spines for good measure. Rather than having curves, they are curved. Upon seeing them, one recalls to mind the words of the poetic C.S. Lewis, in his Epigrams & Epitaphs:

Lady, a better sculptor far

Chiselled those curves you smudge and mar,

And God did more than lipstick can

To justify your mouth to man.

We may add photoshop to the list of artifices. The problem is even worse when we glance at some of the fashion images of men. It cannot escape our notice that rarely are they manly; too often they are boyish and, like their female counterparts, twisted round like pretzels. It does not take a very imaginative mind to surmise that the fashion industry is playing its part in the current cultural transformation. By putting male and female aesthetic ideals on such an equal, masculine footing, hoping to influence how we dress, the industry is blurring the very differences between the sexes that once fueled erotic fantasy between men and women. In so doing, the industry is also blurring gender roles and differences. They are homogenizing sexuality, crafting a literally homo-sexual world. This assault on the uniquely feminine and manly aesthetics is a subtle level of the more direct philosophical and political assault in the form of “gender” politics.

The subtlety of this assault makes it extremely difficult to counteract. To critique modern aesthetics is often to invite ridicule. Who, after all, would like to argue for such “medieval” notions as not washing one’s hair and body, or against modern plumbing? Isn’t the present age, with its thrust towards making us all fashionable via the scalpel, the drug, and the androgynous eros merely an extension of the basic aesthetic teachings that commenced with modern hygiene? Shall we all return to rags and dirt? Shall we abolish toothpaste? Shall we dress like Puritans? These may be some of the the reactions that critics of modern physical beauty encounter. More often than not, such reactions result from an ignorance of ancient virtues. Nowhere is this ignorance more pronounced than in the fact of mass obesity, gluttony and tastelessness that is omnipresent in the democratic world. Our fashion idols tend to be skinny, boyish, and dressed, like the Court Fool of old, to attract superficial kind of attention. Meanwhile, our gluttonous fellow citizens become ever more plump and disheveled.

To my mind, the proper criticism of modern notions of physical beauty is not focused on the end, but the means. The ends are largely a matter of taste and thus difficult to deliberate upon in an objective manner. To the extent that we can generally agree on ends, we speak of them in generalities. We would like women to be beautiful, men refined. To the extent that the politics of gender seeks to revolutionize gender roles, it mixes and matches these concepts. Fashion marketing often resorts to unnatural poses and photoshop if for no other reason than to catch the eye. Cosmetic surgery and the like feeds our vanity, but if well done, few would be bold enough to blame their physical results.

Everything is different when we focus on means. The means to physical beauty in the ancient view was physical culture. Physical culture, more commonly referred to by the ancient writers as gymnastics, was an art which, much like horsemanship or war, required men and women to engage their souls in full. The rational element of the soul was necessary in order to understand the body and how to cultivate it. The thymotic and erotic elements of the soul were necessary in order to motivate and persist in the task of physical culture. Because the achievement of physical culture was only available to the ancients by virtue of engaging their souls, it was practically impossible to build the body without building a greater soul with it.

We moderns need not engage the soul in body building–or so our modern marketing tells us. According to the market, we are too busy with important things to afford the luxury of taking time to take care of our bodies. Only film stars, fashion models, and the politicians who resemble and envy them have the wealth to nurse their egos with personal trainers, masseuses, dietitians, and the like. For Everyman, there remains only the quick fix: the surgeons’ scalpel or the next wonder drug. All too often the practical effect is quiet resignation to obesity and bad taste.

It should not surprise us that modern business would like to convince us that we are too busy for reflection–after all, the busier we are, the more money we make to spend, and the less time and energy we have to really think about what we are spending on. But if we do stop to think, we soon realize that our ancient forefathers, having none of the science we now possess, managed to chisel their bodies with such refinement as to encourage the pagan imagination to construct idols of manly gods. How did they manage it? There is some truth in the idea that less science assisted them (no clocks meant they did not live by them), but on the whole, what really made their physical greatness possible was more art. That all activities had their techne, that one could progress in excellence through learning, was indeed an important aspect of ancient character. The ancients, it seems to me, did not expect to achieve physical culture through either great funds or great technological intervention. Rather, they relied on a wise application of knowledge.

sandowThis wise application of knowledge effectually meant rigorous physical exercise combined with the study of the human body and proper fasting or diet (not “a diet”). The ancient system of body building was for quite some time thought to be inapplicable to the modern industrial world, until care for its recovery was taken by the founding father of modern body building, Eugene Sandow. This great Prussian forerunner to our contemporary body builders taught, practiced, and refined the ancient art of physical culture. The great virtue of physical culture in the classical sense was precisely that it taught virtue. To achieve results, one required a religious observation of general principles of good diet, combined with systematic training in accordance with proper techniques.

Many believe that the great mass of gyms that have sprung up in the West over the latter half of the twentieth century are signs of a renaissance in physical culture in the ancient sense. To a large extent, they are. However, a cursory examination of the interior of such gyms reveals that the envy-driven modern vice of seeking a shortcut to a more desirable physique still persists. In the modern gym, one can behold a series of machines, purportedly designed to train the muscles in a more targeted manner than free weights. These machines also have the added pseudo-benefit of making training easier on the ego, because with the aid of physics and pulleys, it is easier to lift more than if the gymnast were working with free weights. Finally, the machines can only operate according to their design, so there is no need for the modern gymnast, who is so very busy, to learn proper technique with free weights. The machines impose form upon the gymnast without requiring much of his brain.

Anyone who takes the time to familiarize themselves with the relevant literature will know that the pseudo-benefits of the gym machines are slim, while the risks high. First, while human anatomy and physiology are universal, no two humans are ever perfectly the same in their proportions. The most basic rule of physical culture is to train the muscle, not the joint. This is because muscles regenerate, joints do not. It is important then, that all pressure from the weights we use falls on the muscle, not the joint. Gym machines, like mass produced clothing, are not tailored to our unique proportions. Thus, gymnasts are slaves to the machines’ range and scope of positions. In the long run, this means gymnasts will not be putting weight on their muscles only, but their joints as well. In doing so, they wear away the joints and bones of their bodies and ensure themselves dangers in the future.

The truth of this proposition was well known in the Soviet Union, and is still acknowledged by esteemed Russian body builders today. The Soviets, contrary to stereotypical images in films like Rocky IV and official propaganda regarding the triumph of scientific materialism, were too poor to afford gym machines. Russians had to innovate and use their bodies, inanimate objects, and free weights. This necessity compelled Russian bodybuilders to train themselves in precision and technique. Rather than relying on a machine to determine range of motion and position, they did so themselves with free weights, thus ensuring accuracy of movement, maximizing resistance on muscles, minimizing resistance on joints, and training the brain-muscle networks that people sadly cease training when, at the age of two, we learn how to operate our legs. The Russians even went so far as to build “natural muscle belts” throughout their abdominals, lacking the safety belts used in western gyms, so as to minimize risk to the spine during dead weight training. In short, the Russians really trained like Americans imagined Rocky training in Rocky IV. Reliance on machines, steroids, and artifice rather than art was an American invention. Russians resorted to methods worthy of the ancients.

To perfect these methods, it is necessary to read, to think and to discuss–in short, to philosophize. The application of proper technique in the practice of physical culture thus cultivates the virtues of the soul, as one becomes more pensive, alert, and deliberative. As in all sports disciplines, one also learns teamwork, as helping one another in the gym is routine. However, unlike competitive, contact sports, bodybuilding has an added advantage. While there is much to praise about the various disciplines of competitive sports, body building is the only sports discipline that can and should be undertaken over ones’ whole life. Competitive sports, particularly professional sports, effectively burn out the human organism due to extreme physical duress. True, the same accusation can be flung at professional body building, particularly towards steroid-driven body building. However, natural, systematic physical culture is such that the human organism can benefit from it at all stages of life.

Competitive, contact sports also carry with them the risk of concussion and injury. Bodybuilding, aside from freak accidents, does not. Some imprudent men attempt to lift such excessive weight that they risk injury, but their imprudence is also a violation of a cardinal principle of the methodology of physical culture. Since the beneficial transformation of our bodies through gymnastics is a process which happens over time, there is nothing to be had from overburdening our muscles at any one point. Exceeding limits during resistance training is important, but not to absurd levels. A rule of thumb is that if you finish the training more energetic than when you began, you have trained well. If you finish more tired, you have trained badly. The seasoned practitioner of physical culture is also patient. He has, if he is determined, seen his body change for the better over the years and recognizes the virtue of economy in systematic training. The most important thing is not to push yourself today, but to have the health and will to come back in two days, and to do so your whole life. In this sense, body building is the highest form of competition: the competition of a man against his own pride, ego, and all of his vices.

Finally, the practitioner of physical culture will doubtless come to a better understanding of the utility, both spiritual and physical, of religious practice. The great bane of the philosopher is that he sits idle and philosophizes. Being idle, consuming food and drink during symposiums, and leading the life of the spirit, the philosopher develops an unhealthy and therefore ugly body. This body will eventually make the soul inside of it weary and ugly as well. If the soul is particularly beautiful, and retains its greatness despite the physical negligence of the philosopher, it will still be a great pity and great loss. This is because such noble souls should especially care for their physical vessels precisely in order to shine all the brighter, to touch more people on Earth over a longer life. Herein lies the hidden virtue of the religious man over the philosopher: fasting, prayer, material poverty–these are the ritual habits of religious men. They are usually praised for spiritual greatness, but can anyone doubt their physical utility? Fancy diets become unnecessary if one restricts himself to fasting according to the liturgical calender and applies the Commandments to his diet. Finding time for extra exercise becomes unnecessary if our poverty means we must walk, not drive. Good bodybuilders know these principles well, which is why they do not use elevators and prefer the stairs, nor do they drive when they can walk. They maintain a rigorous and self-conscious diet–just like the religious man. The habits of religion and physical culture are, in fact, so similar as to truly amaze. Only our ignorance nurtures the false notion that the one neglects the body for the soul, while the other neglects the soul for the body. As the ancient ideal of Kalos Kagathos demonstrates–the two cannot flourish in isolation.

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4 replies to this post
  1. Fantastic. I had not expected to see a reference to Sandow on this website. Now that it has happened, however, it makes sense! Traditional martial arts (especially the more comprehensive ones) are also repositories of wisdom, virtue, tradition…

  2. Peter,

    While it is certainly a mass marketing phenomenon – it might be worthwhile for you to compare and contrast the current approach of Crossfit (which my wife and I both enthusiastically use for training) with the modern gym. The approach appropriates much of classical gymnastics and free weights (including the use of the Russian marvel of simplicity and function – the kettle bell) and is remarkably effective when supervised properly. It also seeks to engage the individual trainee in a sense of community and fosters a great deal of entrepreneurial spirit. It absolutely has all of the downsides of mass marketing and superficial advertising image making – but underneath it’s facade there is much there worthy of consideration.

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