If only I had read Plato.
That’s what I thought when I saw my MRI: 28 images, impossible to deny, of a torn rotator cuff muscle — a consequence of years of weightlifting. And that’s just my shoulder. May I present C4, C5 and C6 (my herniated discs), my plantar fasciitis, my patellar tendinitis — residual damage done to a body, now 51, in the name of exercise, in pursuit of being buff.
Plato could have warned me. In The Republic, he advises “temperance” in physical training, likening it to learning music and poetry. Keep it “simple and flexible,” as in all things, don’t overdo. Follow this course, and you will remain “independent of medicine in all but extreme cases.”
Plato was an athlete, particularly skilled as a wrestler. His given name was Aristocles, after his grandfather, but the coach under whom he trained is said to have called him “Plato” — from the Greek for broad, platon, on account of his broad-shouldered frame. It stuck.
So good a wrestler was Plato that he reportedly competed at the Isthmian Games (comparable to the Olympics), and continued wrestling into adulthood. Ensconced at the academy, he spoke strongly on behalf of the virtues of physical education. He felt that one should balance physical training with “cultivating the mind,” exercising “the intellect in study.” The goal “is to bring the two elements into tune with one another by adjusting the tension of each to the right pitch.” Equal parts thought and sweat, so to speak.
As one can see most obviously in gifted athletes and performers, the body itself can be a source of knowledge — coordination, grace, agility, stamina, skill — both intuitive and learned. Indeed, there are rare few whom I would call Einsteins of the body — geniuses at inventing, expressing and employing movement. Is that not what the dancer and choreographer Mark Morris is? Or the tennis great Roger Federer?
The contemporary philosopher (and self-admitted sports nut) Colin McGinn points out that physical education should be a lifelong pursuit. “We like our minds to be knowledgeable, well-stocked with information; we should also want our bodies to be similarly endowed,” he writes in his charming book Sport. “The erudite body is a good body to have.”
Of course there is the risk of taking things too far. Again, from The Republic: “Have you noticed how a lifelong devotion to physical exercise, to the exclusion of anything else, produces a certain type of mind? Just as neglect of it produces another?” Plato writes, recounting the words of Socrates. “Excessive emphasis on athletics produces an excessively uncivilized type, while a purely literary training leaves men indecently soft.”
Even if I’d been sitting at Plato’s feet as a young man, I would not have listened. Back then, looking good and getting bigger mattered most. I suppose it was all very Darwinian — puffing myself up and trying to make myself attractive in order to attract a mate. But I was not explicitly conscious of such aims. I liked working out in itself, the pure satisfaction of using full force against a resistance. I sought what Pavlov — a lover of biking, rowing and swimming — so beautifully called “muscular gladness.”
Alas, today I’m paying a price in frayed muscle tendons. But in my aches and pains I am choosing to see wisdom gained. If the human body is the best picture of the human soul, as Wittgenstein said, then mine is pumped. But I have pressed pause on the StairMaster and stepped away from the heavy weights for a time. Now it is Plato’s body to which I aspire.
This essay original appeared in The New York Times, Sunday Review, on April 22, 2012
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