The idea that athletics and philosophy are connected may sound strange at first. But if we see philosophy as a way of life rather than a set of beliefs, it’s not a stretch to imagine that athletic training can cultivate skills we need for the whole of our lives, both on and off the playing field.
What Is It
For the ancient Greeks, sport was an integral part of education. Athletic programs remain in schools today, but there is a growing gap between the modern sports experience and enduring educational values such as self-discovery, responsibility, respect, and citizenship. Is there a way to bridge this gap? Can sports be a means to teach values such as these? Josh and Ken try out with Heather Reid from Morningside College, author of The Philosophical Athlete.
Can sports make us better thinkers? Ken thinks so; Josh doesn’t buy it. But despite the health concerns and damage that sports can do to one’s body that Josh brings up, Ken holds that sports teach us about our own limits and force us to confront ourselves. He adds that athletic training instills important habits like focus and determination and, as the ancient Greeks saw it, help us engage in a philosophical life. Still, Josh calls Ken to admit that sports are not all good; the permanent physical and mental damage that players can get from participating in them cannot be underestimated.
Heather Reid, professor of philosophy at Morningside College and author of The Philosophical Athlete, joins Josh and Ken. Josh and Ken challenge Heather to consider whether the commercialization of sports has corrupted its practice, to which Heather responds that we cannot see sports as simply giving players and managers financial gain. She adds that while the possibility of becoming a professional and lucrative athlete are unlikely, the benefits of engaging in sports, including finding one’s place on a team, learning about oneself, and cultivating one’s own abilities, are plenty. She relates these ideas to those of the ancient Greeks who established the Olympic Games and the idea of arete, the Greek virtue of excellence.
In the next segment Heather, Josh, and Ken explore sports and its relations to society. Heather emphasizes that competition in sport can in fact promote excellence and, not just that, encourage players to recognize their opponents as fellow human beings. She notes that the Greek virtue of arete was always understood in the context of community and that the Olympic Games, a religious ritual, was meant to please the Gods and, in turn, help everyone. The philosophers conclude the discussion by discussing the unjust aspects of society that sports might help reinforce, including toxic masculinity in the locker room, social class and racial divides, and how these unjust tendencies can be mediated.
- Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 6:36) → Roving Philosophical Reporter Liza Veale canvasses various sports and football/martial arts films, finding sports to be seen as teaching players to master themselves, teaching them about redemption and transcendence, and teaching them about the importance of maintaining excellence for one’s comrades. She concludes with an interview of Philippe Petit, the daring high-wire artist who famously crossed a tightrope that he ledged between the Twin Towers in 1974.
- Sixty-Second Philosopher (seek to 47:38) → Ian Shoales muses the whimsical idea of a sports team of philosophers, among other things.
Do sports cultivate virtues like discipline, self-knowledge, and wisdom?
Or do they just cultivate vices like aggression, greed, and brutality?