The Athlete and the Good Life

A passage from the runner-philosopher George Sheehan:

...[we] should be educated in the good life and how to attain it.

In that, the athlete provides a much better model than the scholar. The athlete restores our common sense about the common man. He revitalizes old truths and instructs us in new virtues. However modest his intellectual attainments, he is a whole person, integrated and fully functioning. And in his highly visible pursuit of a highly visible perfection, he illustrates the age-old advice to become the person you are. Simply by being totally himself, the athlete makes a statement that has profound philosophical, psychological, physiological, and spiritual implications.

Philosophically, the athlete gives us back our bodies. No matter what the Cartesians say in the classrooms, the playing fields tell us that we do not have bodies, we are our bodies. "I run, therefore I am," says the distance runner. Man is a totality, says the athlete, and forces us to deal with that truth.

Psychologically, the athlete affirms the necessity of play. I should say reaffirms. We already knew the necessity of play. We knew it from the Scriptures and Plato and the Renaissance educators who gave athletes an equal share of the curriculum. with the classics and ethics.

But somehow we forgot about play and sacrificed it and sport to the demands of our overgrown material civilization. We made play an means, not an end. Athletes show us that sport and play are essential to the the good life. To consider their function as simply the cultivation of bodily vigor with a view to longevity is, as Santayana said, "to be a barbarian."

Physiologically, however, the athlete's vigor and longevity are immediately apparent. The athlete provides us with a new normal man. He shows us that those we previously considered normal were spectators headed for premature old age. Normal man is man at the top of his powers, man reaching his maximal metabolic and cardiopulmonary steady state.

From the athlete we learn that health is not merely the absence of disease, any more than sanctity is the absence of sin. Health, the athlete tells us, is a positive quality, a life force, a vital characteristic clearly recognizable in those who have it.

The athletes then can be a tremendous force for good. We may not be able to teach virtue, but it is no small thing to demonstrate it. Nor is it inconsequential to have excellence in any form in clear view. Education, said William James, is a process by which we are able to distinguish what is first rate from what is not. Sport, more often than not, shows us the elements of what is first rate.

It does this because it is the long sought moral equivalent of war, not as an outlet of aggression and violence,. but as an arena where man finds the best that is in him, a theater that reveals courage and endurance and dedication to a purpose, our love for our fellows and levels of energies we never knew we possessed. And where we see, if only for moments, man as he is supposed to be.

In these moments, the athlete makes a contribution to the community. Because then, in these great spectator events, he provides celebration and adds to the myths that help us survive.

And the greatest of these is that man is born to be a success. We believe that only when we see him at play.


  1. "We made play an means, not an end." -- i know, right? i mean, there is too much training and not enough runnin'.

    "... as an arena where man finds the best that is in him, a theater that reveals courage and endurance and dedication to a purpose, our love for our fellows and levels of energies we never knew we possessed. And where we see, if only for moments, man as he is supposed to be." -- the conundrum of play as means versus play as play. if i play for the sake of play, i don't push enough to reveal the courage, endurance, and dedication that it are so rewarding to find. yet, if i play as a means, i become bitter and distrustful of joy.

  2. I get the conundrum, but I think there are a few moments--and they are rare--when it all comes together at the very highest level. When the courage, endurance, and dedication are a part of the play.

    I've felt that as a member of some special teams. And I've felt it as an individual in that rare race when you've got this surfeit of energy and you just have to smile, even though you are at the limit of effort.

    There is a deep joy available in athletic competition that goes beyond glory or pride in the accomplishment. I feel like I am writing towards the ineffable here, but yes there is a space where play and effort come together. I think the Greeks had a word for it: arete. It's translated as "excellence," but it also means happiness and being at one with your best self.

    Maybe happily married couples know something about that space. Or people who like their job. Or artists as they create. In none of these activities can we set out to just play. But we set out to do the activity, and if we can manage to mix a certain lightness of heart with a steadiness of will, well then every now and again: joy, arete. As Sheehan writes, we begin to believe once more in the myth that we are born to be a success.


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