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Of Athletes and Idiots
One Valentine’s Day afternoon in 2019 in Michigan, Ryan Belcher was driving home from work to pick his up children when he heard a loud crash. Two cars collided, one was a sedan, and the other was a Jeep Cherokee that had flipped over unto its roof. Resisting the temptation to pass by, Belcher pulled over and rushed to the middle of the road to check on the victims. After calling for emergency services, Belcher then heard the cry of a man trapped in his overturned SUV. “He was talking about his legs, how he couldn’t feel his legs,” Belcher told Michigan Live, a local news station. He then hurried over to help a man who was lying halfway out of the driver’s side, his body pinned by a speed limit sign on his torso. The man was 36-year-old Montrell Tinsley.
By all accounts Ryan Belcher is a big man. Weighing around 350 pounds, a sizable heft put on from years of powerlifting, Belcher has squatted 950 pounds in competition, bench pressed 530, and deadlifted 800. By comparison, a Jeep Cherokee weighs around four tons. Mathematical odds be damned, Belcher enlisted his strength and courage: “I had no other choice” Belcher said, “It was either save a man or not believe in myself. So I just reached in and did what I had to do.” Belcher lifted and managed to push the vehicle several feet until medics were able to arrive at the scene and rescue Tinsley. He later reflected on the incident, saying that “This [was] where I need to be. This is all the power I’ve used, all the training I’ve been through, this is time where it’s really going to pay off in a good way to help somebody.”
The very pedestrian impulse to rubberneck and drive on by is an instinct as utterly human as any other. Ryan Belcher’s act of service immediately conjures up one of the finest examples of Judeo-Christian charity and citizenship: the Good Samaritan. For Montrell Tinsley, precariously trapped underneath a roadway sign, Belcher’s arrival must have appeared as predestined, a miracle that kept the man alive. But for the powerlifter, there was more than just struggling with the weightiness of moral responsibility to help a car crash victim. Factored into Belcher’s decision to be helpful was also the readiness of his body to accomplish what is considered by all measures of average as nothing short of a super-human feat. For years, he had been physically preparing himself, call it a skillset or talent, one that could tailor itself to fit any task, be it win a powerlifting competition, carry in groceries in one trip from the car—or heft part of a four-ton vehicle to free another man. The distillation of these so-called talents comes down to Belcher understanding his own strength training as an ethical imperative, of seeing the development of his body as more than a personal matter with consequences limited to himself.
One need not be at Belcher’s level of strength, however, to understand that caring for our bodies far exceeds just being helpful for our own health, but potentially for that of others. Helpfulness can be understood as an active expression of kindness and love, but on condition that one is appropriately outfitted to perform the task. To be physically fit lays the foundation for being helpful whether as a brother, husband, citizen or son. It is hard to imagine how being fit is somehow a material disadvantage to society.
Improving the body, even when it cannot provide any real usefulness for others, is still a worthy pursuit in refining one’s sense of meaning. Physical fitness is not the sole provenance of the able-bodied. Socrates, arguably the greatest of philosophers, was a man who suffered from sickness throughout his entire life. Yet he still valued fitness in himself as well as in others, understanding that exercise is an activity of self-discovery, as we will touch upon shortly.
Of the many linguistic treasures the ancient Greeks have bestowed us moderns, the word idiot ἰδιώτης (idiōtēs) is among the more colorful, if not misunderstood. The term is no doubt a harsh one to be on the receiving end of; most of its Greek subtleties are lost on the English ear. “Idiocy” in ancient Greek denotes a sphere of excessive individuality. An idiot is a person who shows no interest in civil affairs, and often someone not skilled in any particular craft. The Hellenistic quality of the term comes out in a line from The Communist Manifesto, where Karl Marx writes of how the spread of urban capitalism had “rescued” countryside inhabitants from the “idiocy of rural life”; in other words, from their isolation apart from the city.
For the Greeks, an idiot lacks the qualities not only desired, but demanded in order to meaningfully participate in civil society. This amounted to a sense of responsibility in the affairs of the city state, the chief urban configuration of power and culture across the ancient Hellenic world. So important was the city-state that Plato used it to project an ideal political realm in the Republic. It is there in the imaginary city of Kallipolis, in which every individual, by dint of their talent and occupation, establishes a kind of urban metabolism that allows for civilization to take root. For whether they liked it or not, the inhabitants of the city would have to collaborate, taking up a distinct or adjacent trade in order to produce one sort of good or service, and exchange it for another. The Brazilian philosopher, Carolina Araújo, underscores the creative and necessarily collaborative aspect of the Republic in her term, “Cooperative Flourishing.”
Thus, to be called an idiot is not simply a swipe at one’s geographical preference. It harbors a much deeper ethical indictment of one who strictly regards himself as the sole subject of concern. In Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Socrates sets the term in sharper relief when he contrasts the “idiocy” of the body against its opposite: the body of an athlete.
By way of getting at its Socratic usage, I will briefly contrast how two translations contend for the meaning of the label, idiot. In Book 3, Section 12 of Memorabilia as translated by Amy L. Bonnette, Socrates notices that one of his students, Epigenes, appears to be out of shape. “How like a private individual (i.e., an idiot) you maintain your body, Epigenes” states the philosopher. To which a Epigenes responds, “I am a private individual, Socrates.” In the Dover Thrift Edition of the text translated by Henry Graham Dakyns, the dialogue is somewhat less inflammatory, although no less scandalous: “You look as if you need some exercise, Epigenes” to which the pupil responds, “Well, I’m not an athlete, Socrates.” The contrast between these two translations is telling. In the first instance, Socrates’ choice of words in English is rendered literally “like an idiot” whereas the second demonstrates a free translation: “You look out of shape.” One could reasonably assume that in the Dakyns translation, the use of “not an athlete” provides a safer, more straight-forward connotation for the modern English reader. But when the etymology of the word is sacrificed, so is the potency of Socrates’ point: that in his student’s very outward appearance, Epigenes’ body communicates a slovenly disinterest in responsibility, civic or otherwise.
Continuing with Bonnette’s translation, Socrates responds to Epigenes’ provincial retort, stating: “Not anymore in fact than those who are about to compete in the Olympics. Or in your opinion, is the contest for one’s life (“soul”) against the enemy—a contest the Athenians may at any time chance to establish—a small one?” Unlike the Socrates we find in Plato, Xenophon’s Socrates appears somewhat more agitated and blunt. It is perhaps due to the motivation of the author who has taken it upon himself to provide a rigorous and clear apology or defense of Socrates after the philosopher is charged with spreading impiety amongst the youth of Athens. The terms of the discussion have been set. Thus, throughout each book of the Memorabilia Socrates appears to take on a paternalistic tone in his explanations. He is less willing, perhaps, to put up with the youthful intransigence of his students; more willing, perhaps, to get to the point.
In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates works patiently at the olive-press of ideas, where seemingly patent ideas become grist to the point of losing their conceptual firmness. In the Memorabilia, Socrates casts away his characteristic veneer of faux ignorance and lectures directly to the youth of Athens on what they ought to understand, and moreover, what they ought to do.
In lecturing Epigenes, Socrates lays bare the importance of having a body in good condition, buttressing his argument by way of presenting all the ill consequences of when it is not. Socrates does this by placing the body into a series of hypothetical situations such as war to the demands of manhood, and even as an object of beauty. In doing so, Socrates is not so much body-shaming Epigenes to belittle him, but in his own turgid way, to help enlighten his acolyte of the dire social and personal consequences of not being fit. By Epigenes’ refusal to elevate his own physical condition, Epigenes suffers to remain civically useless. That is, to suffer as an idiot. Beginning with the most basic fight for survival, warfare, Socrates, himself a veteran, states that a healthy body is one that dies less on the battlefield, as well as less prone to “shamefully” be captured by the enemy. The fruit of such a capture is that which belongs solely to the victor—the acquisition of a future slave. To be a slave is to be subjected to the harshest realities of life. Socrates then inverts his example, rhetorically asking Epigenes whether he himself would be able to withstand such trials, and moreover, with ease.
For Socrates, physical fitness is not only preventative in nature (such as being captured in battle due to poor conditioning) but also generative of qualities and characteristics many recognize as desirable and useful. Socrates states:
For those who maintain their bodies well are both healthy and strong. And many due to this are saved in a seemly manner in the contests of war and escape all the terrible things; many bring aid to their friends and do good deeds for their fatherland and due to this are deemed worthy of gratitude, acquire a great reputation, and obtain most noble honors and due to these things live the rest of their life in a more pleasant and more noble manner and leave their children with more noble resources for life.
Socrates also draws reference to the idea of ἀγών (agōn) which bears a more negative connotation in English as it is our root word for agony. But in Greek, agōn meant struggle or contest, to endure a rigorous challenge to come out the wiser, or better. In his discussion of Athen’s lack of mandated physical training for their military, Socrates puts a premium on training on one’s own accord. “For, know well that you will not be worse off in any other contest or in any action from having your body better equipped.”
Beyond ascertaining social and moral accolades, Socrates shifts from the social role being physically fit plays to the more personal benefits, including improved mental acuity and health benefits:
Since, even where, in your opinion, there is least use of the body—in thinking—who does not know that, even here, many greatly falter because their body is not healthy? And forgetfulness, dispiritedness, peevishness, and madness frequently attack the thought of many due to the bad condition of their body, so as to drive out even the sciences.
So far, we have considered Socrates’ understanding of “idiocy” of the body along the lines in the context of what we could otherwise call unathletic or in poor physical shape. By thinking through the social and moral impact that a healthy or unhealthy body would have because of training (or lack thereof), Socrates dismisses the relatively unbothered decision to be out of shape. In doing so, he elevates the importance of one man’s health, the young Epigenes, to a civic rallying cry.
But all of this begs the question: why did the Greeks, so concerned with personal fitness, not spend more time writing more on the importance of the body? In vast corpus of ancient Greek philosophy, care of the body seems to be a relatively muted affair in comparison to its well-known headier ponderings. It is as if these philosophers have relegated the status of the body far below the rich intellectual requirements of Socrates’ famous charge, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
In spite of this dearth, what is evident is that these philosophers did not make fitness a footnote in their everyday lives. Pythagoras was a trained boxer. Socrates was known to have exercised daily. Plato himself was an athlete. In fact, Plato established a school, the Academy, which incorporated physical fitness as part of its curriculum. But physical fitness and sports were not limited to the ancient classroom, to then be later carried into Hellenic adulthood as a sign of a cultivated life. As Heather Reid notes in her book Athletics and Philosophy in the Ancient World, athleticism became embedded as an idea of virtue, one whose impact underpinned very notion of a Greek aristocracy “as something to be trained.”
And indeed, the Greeks stood out among all other civilizations at the time for their high esteem of training and athletics. Writing on the importance of play and the Olympic games, the American classicist and mythologist, Edith Hamilton states that they “were so important, when one was held, a truce of God was proclaimed so that all Greece might come in safety and without fear.” Further along, she writes,
There ‘glorious-limbed youth’—the phrase is Pindar’s, the athlete’s poet—strove for an honor so coveted as hardly anything else in Greece. An Olympic victor—triumphing generals would give place to him.
The Romans, whose own cultural lineage was closely tied to that of the Greeks, placed less emphasis on the “play” aspect of training, viewing fitness as falling under the strict purview of war preparation. In the Hellenic understanding of athleticism, however, it was the competitive spirit intermingled with the bodily reflection of virtue, that elevated the body as a site worthy of maintaining to the highest levels.
A no better example of the Greek connection between physical fitness, athleticism, and civic duty is bound up in a man simply called Andreas. He is mentioned but once amid the storytelling of late Roman conquests by the historian Procopius in his multivolume work The History of Wars, and reintroduced by the British Classicist, H.A. Harris in Sport in Greece and Rome. Andreas was in the entourage of the great Byzantine general Belisarius during his campaign against the Persians. Known as the Iberian War, the conflict emerged when a small Georgian kingdom decided to leave Persia and join Byzantium. The Persians, feeling their hand forced, invaded the Iberians to bring them back into their fold. In 530 CE, just two years before the end of the war, the Byzantines were defending the city of Dara against a Persian attack with little progress being made on either side. Both armies remained firmly entrenched behind their own lines. Frustrated by the lack of movement, a Persian soldier mounted on horseback and rode up to the Byzantine line, daring the enemy to get up and fight him in battle. None but Andreas answered the call to fight. According to Procopius, Andreas was neither a soldier nor did he have any military experience. He was an athletics trainer who ran a wrestling school in the capital city of Byzantium, who was serving as a bath attendant to the Byzantine calvary commander, Bouzes. Procopius describes Andreas as having struck the brash Persian horseman on the chest with his spear, causing him to fall from his horse, and then killed him with his dagger. The Byzantines cheered him on, while the Persians sent again another one of their men to fight Andreas. The men clashed on horseback, which caused them to be thrown from their horses. By using his skill as a wrestler, Andreas was able to spring up from his fallen position and once more, slew yet another challenger.
One could imagine Socrates smiling from the grave at news of a sixth-century wrestling coach defeating battle-hardened enemy soldiers. For while Andreas may have thrown himself into a fight without any military training, he was certainly no idiot.