Running as Aesthetic Rebellion
|Schiller was the only handsome philosopher.|
--Schiller, "Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man"
"As in Puritan New England, grace was not blithely attained. A believer--a runner--earned it by losing toenails and training down to bone and muscle, just as the Puritans formed calluses on their knees from praying. No one made a cent from their strenuous efforts. The running life, like the spiritual life, was its own reward."
--John Brandt, The Duel in the Sun
Runners know matter: body, flesh, sweat, gristle, blood, muscle, and bone.
Runners know spirit: will, desire, pain, hope, fear, and joy.
Experience comes, shot at us, a muddled blend of both matter and spirit. Though it is mixed thoroughly in its primary apprehension, if we turn our attention to it, we can trace it back to these two origins, neatly categorize it. Schiller had an idea that the task of education was to keep these two types of experience in play. He called this harmonizing play beauty, and he thought that it was the highest end of human affairs, the fundamental way of evaluating experience.
Positive experiences allow us to harmonize matter and spirit; they are beautiful and educative. Negative experiences create discord and antagonism between matter and spirit; they are ugly and miseducative.
This, for Schiller, is what life is all about: spirit, matter, play, harmony, beauty, education.
At the present moment, 2012, with the economy as it is, politicians and their acolytes yapping at each other, the news stations and the advertisers stirring up our jangled nerves, social media reminding us just how little we have in common with our "friends," thinking of life in terms of harmony and play seems totally out of place. The idea of beauty itself is almost impossible to square with our present condition.
"The purpose of mankind is beauty?" "The harmony of spirit and matter in play?" Please. To paraphrase one of the great philosophers of our day: "How's that spiritey-mattery stuff workin' out for ya?"
It's an ugly moment, socially.
The fact that Schiller's thoughts are so out of whack with our current ways of thinking is why it is important to read him and other philosophers. These untimely and out of place thinkers give us the courage to think against the grain of our current moment, to create something new.
If we follow Schiller's lead, we turn away from the things that we are told are most important. Apart from politics, taxes, money, and power, we find small moments of beauty scattered about. A sparrow in the wind. The smell of a home-cooked meal. An unexpected kiss or glance.
Brandt writes that "the running life, like the spiritual life, is its own reward." He gives us imagery of the harmonious unity that the runner creates out of the material and spiritual selves. The body, trained down to essentials, mirrors and reflects the soul, trained down to essentials.
It sounds odd, at first, to say such things about this constant scampering down the road. But runners know matter and runners know spirit. They know them together: body, will, flesh, desire, sweat, pain, gristle, hope, blood, fear, muscle, joy, and bone.
If that's the case, then in these times you might think of running as a type of civil disobedience, a rebellious practice of education against the dominant forces of mis-education. Running is energy dissipated not for money or power or privilege, but for beauty. Like reading Schiller, it's hard to explain the practical value of running in a world that seems deadset on winners and losers, discord, chaos, and strife. Its practical value is play--the impractical grace of beauty.
Stride by stride, effort by effort, we stitch the two sides of experience together, matter and spirit. We ride, we flow -- that's play; that's grace; that's beauty. Despite the politicians, the economy, the wild and alienated swirl of contemporary life, despite the fact that everyone tells us we ought to be doing something more productive with our lives, we end up making time to play.
We can't help it. It's called being a human.