Running and Social Hope

To exercise an art one must begin by procuring for oneself the instruments for it; and, to be able to employ these instruments usefully one has to make them strong enough to resist wear. To learn to think, therefore, it is necessary to exercise our limbs, our senses, our organs, which are the instruments of our intelligence. And, to get the greatest possible advantage from these instruments, the body which provides them must be strong and healthy. Thus, far from man's true reason being formed independently of body, it is the body's good constitution which makes the mind's operation easy and sure.
J.J. Rousseau

These words were written two and a half centuries ago. They are taken from Rousseau's great treatise on education, Emile. Rousseau wrote the book as an attempt to imagine a free education; it was a thought experiment on what it would take in order to educate a human being to flourish in all of its capacities.

Rousseau was thinking about these things because he was concerned with a social scene that he thought was essentially miseducative. Everywhere he looked, he saw stunted human beings: people whose minds were divorced from their bodies, whose emotions were unhinged from a capacity to reason, whose fears were unconnected with the capacity for courage, whose imaginations had no relation to the realities in which they lived. He saw society as essentially sick, the human attempt to build a world within the world having produced an environment that was hostile to human happiness.

Rousseau's radical and utopian thought was that we could build a world that was amenable to human life, a civilization that did not depend on the sacrifice of human capacities for its maintenance, but was constructed in accord with the development of those capacities.

This utopia was based in Rousseau's faith; he begins Emile with the idea that the world is the product of a divine creation and thus has at least the potential to be perfect. So we therefore have a divine duty to carry this perfection out. This faith comes off as hollow--or even dangerous--to contemporary ears. We have been chastened by the utopian projects of the 20th century. 

Rousseau's Emile or 'On Education'

Communism, fascism, and American democracy have been stained by totalitarianism, racism, and imperialism. Religious faith has turned out in many instances to be hostile to intelligence, tolerance, and peace. Technology has led to consumerism, environmental degradation, and hollow entertainment as much as it has enriched human life and enhanced our powers. We are as likely to be moved to cynicism by the idea that the world could be made more amenable to human life as we are to hope and melioristic action.

Now, when we look around and we see human beings who have been stunted by their miseducations, or when we peer into the stunted forms of our own selves, it is hard to know what to do.  It's hard to summon the attitude that we could be better, that things might be different. And when we do summon it, we have to do it critically--make sure it is not simply the totalitarian or the fascist or the imperialist within us who is excited about that idea. 

Well, by the time we've gone through all these processes of reflection, whatever duty or drive to improve the self or improve society is a pale image of itself. So it goes--we can add one more way in which contemporary life stunts us; it stunts our faith in the human capacity to make the world a better place.

What does any of this have to do with running? Well, I guess the idea is that running (or practices like it) can renew our hope and faith in ourselves, help us become a little less stunted. It shows us how to do this. We don't get better at running by clinging on to a dogmatic idea about our potential. We don't get faster by proclaiming the truth of a particular training philosophy. We do it by heading out the door, every day, with a small purpose in mind. We want to get a little better at something. Or at least not fall back. We don't have to know ahead of time where it's all headed. But along the way, if we stay at it, if we trust that small efforts over time add up, we find ourselves a little stronger at the end of the day. A little more capable of heading out the door the next day. More capable of putting effort towards good things.

That's the mystery of this activity: it appears that we are working on the body, on making this machine of sinew, veins, bone and heart faster. We appear to be engaged in merely polishing our bodies. But we stay at it because making the instrument better actually ends up making the soul a little better. We make the body a little more amenable to the life that lives in it. 

Buoyed by small victories we end up capable, perhaps, of seeing things differently. It is possible to see the two centuries or so since Rousseau wrote as a relatively short time in the grand scheme of human history. Perhaps the 20th century didn't exhaust the experiment into better forms of social organization. Maybe we can allow ourselves to be a little more utopian, a little more positive about the possibility of human progress. After all, running shows one point that Rousseau made to be as true today as it was then: "it is the body's good constitution which makes the mind's operation easy and sure."

Maybe hope is a kind of endurance sport; maybe it, too, operates according to the logic of long distance.


  1. Wow! This was amazing! I was wondering where and how it was going to link up with running…super post. Found you through Danny…I should have known it would be a real thinking blog. Awesome. Love it.

  2. Thank you, XLMIC! Happy running!

  3. Jeff, this was really enjoyable. But if we were to broaden the idea of dogma a bit, what if "[my] dogmatic belief about [my] potential" is, for example "my potential is a dynamic and ever-expanding horizon?"

    Back to J.J., what if my dogma is that human beings are the image of God and that each person is of limited value?"

    Would you accept that dogma, in this sense can be good, or - in the language of pragmatism -useful?

  4. Dear Nader,

    First off, thanks for the question! Being a pragmatist, I wouldn't say that dogma is bad in itself, only that its value has to be worked out in practice.

    To take your examples:
    1) You believe that your potential is an ever-expanding horizon. Okay, what's the value of this belief? Such a belief might get you out the door and training by inspiring you. Good! But such a belief might lead to frustration and resentment when it turns out that you actually are not expanding, but your horizons are retracting. And then, what's so good about dynamic and ever-expanding horizons to begin with? Sounds vague to me.... Perhaps you get the point.

    We need beliefs; we have to have dogma. and these are important in life (and in running), but beliefs (on my way of seeing) are neither good nor bad in themselves, but like all habits must be evaluated in terms of their consequences for life.

    2) Okay, let's look at the dogma that human are made in the image of God. Sounds pretty good. But the devil (as they say) is in the details. What do we take to be the image of God? And are we now going to judge people (or parts of ourselves) that do not reflect that image as inhuman? How does this belief work when we begin to reflect on the animal world? Now, it's value seems to be somewhat different. Historically, I guess I'd say that this belief, this way of thinking, has been mixed with respect to its consequences.

    Now, your final question. Pragmatism sees belief or dogma as a habit of action, a way of thinking that is necessarily rooted in a way of life. Are habits good? Is dogma good? I think most pragmatists would say this is like asking whether human beings are good. Some are good in some circumstances and then turn out to be really bad in others. Some have a tendency to be pretty bad in a lot of circumstances. Others tend to be really good practically all the time. So it goes with belief.

    Pragmatism advocates for intelligence in the face of dogma. Intelligence is neither blind faith nor is it absolute skepticism. It is a measuring of the actual consequences of taking up a way of life or a way of thinking for yourself and for the multiplicities of things, animals, people, institutions, communities, societies, and indeed the world in general.

    This intelligence is difficult and hard won. Certainty is out of the picture when it comes to measuring the value of dogma. But this is part of what I was trying to say in the post. We need to work towards more intelligently choosing our beliefs. And daily, with some effort, perhaps, we may become better people. This is the dogma pragmatism affirms; it is its practice, its habit of action.

  5. I sense in myself the temptation to redefine my terms (or make them nebulous) in order give my original points weight.

    With that in mind

    1) As to an ever-expanding horizon, I meant this in the sense of an inner horizon, a drive, not necessarily in measurable results. I can hold this belief, yet have serious doubts that, e.g., my 43-minute PR will be a 34-minute PR (But I even hold some hope in that!).

    2) Yes, history is riddled with examples of man's inhumanity to man, including inhumanity perpetrated by those who purportedly held the belief/dogma* that humans are the image of God. But I don't think that this should be held against the dogma per se. And, we seem to agree that dogma has some value.

    I agree with your points on pragmatism and intelligence.
    *I feel like part of the communication problem is that my use of "dogma" is close to your use of "belief" and also far from your understanding of "dogma."

  6. Some rambling thoughts:

    Yeah, one habit of pragmatists like me is to naturalize belief, to think of it as just a certain way of thinking that may or may not be useful.

    A habit of religious thinkers is to do something else with belief that always confuses me because I am not a particularly religious thinker. It looks to me like you make a belief almost into something like a symbol or totem that gives you great pleasure to contemplate. So, you carry these sort of beliefs around in your head and you pull them out when times are hard for moments of inspiration. So, the value of belief gets divorced (seems to me) from the actual meaning of the belief, just as a religious image is no longer a piece of wood, but a symbol that points to the divine.

    So, you pull out the idea of the self as an inner horizon, say, and it has all of this glowing resonance for you. But to me, it is so many dead words, unless I tend to see the idea as sacred in the same way.

    I think one thing that is peculiar about philosophers is that we are very indifferent and technical-minded when it comes to ideas. We don't treat them as precious objects, but roughly and with something else in mind, like an artist treats paint.

    This is sort of shocking for people because they treat their most precious thoughts kind of like family; they become precious and threadworn, like a favorite piece of clothing, an old pair of jeans.

    A philosopher will come along and ask you critically: what's the use of those jeans? And you'll say "Use?" What a strange thing to ask. All you can say is something like: "I love them; they're just me." This is how it is with belief.

  7. And I will say that my informal education in religion and my formal education in science has left a hole in my ability to speak the language of philosophy. I try to fake it when corresponding with you, but the problems are obvious.

    I think you've uncovered points that make me uncomfortable, perhaps in a good way.

    But I ask this, based on something that has always confused me about pragmatists (Are they the same as utilitarians? close?):

    To what end? When the pragmatist takes an idea and says it only has value to the extent that it is useful, I ask useful for what? For helping humanity towards the good life? Ok, then, you must have some idea of what the good life is, no? If so, how do you define it? How did you arrive at this definition? How did you decide which values to use in determining whether an idea is useful?

    (in my original comment, I meant to say "*infinite value," by the way).

  8. You ask:

    "To what end? When the pragmatist takes an idea and says it only has value to the extent that it is useful, I ask useful for what? For helping humanity towards the good life? Ok, then, you must have some idea of what the good life is, no? If so, how do you define it? How did you arrive at this definition? How did you decide which values to use in determining whether an idea is useful?"

    How did I decide on these "pragmatic values?" By reading, thinking, trying them on, finding them to be consistent with other beliefs. I lived in them for a while and found out that once the edges wore off, they suited me and my temperament. You might say they fit me like an old pair of jeans.

  9. it feels like y'all are talking in circles.

  10. Most of my running goes in circles, too.


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