Saturday, May 31, 2014

Civic Duties: Paying Taxes, Serving on Juries—and Exercising? (Exercise and the Hellenistic Philosophies: Part IV)

(Author’s note: The introduction to this series of posts provides helpful context.)

Since March, I had been thinking that for the final essay in this series, the one focused on Stoicism, I would write about this Stoic view: that our real problems are our inappropriate emotional responses to “problems” we perceive, such as difficult tasks, annoying people, and illness. While this view is a helpful one to apply to exercise, my previous posts on Skepticism and Epicureanism have already discussed some philosophies-turned-tools of the “adjust your attitude” type. So I’ve decided instead to discuss exercise and being fit as a civic duty. 

Civic duty is not a subject I consider much, or at all, on a typical day. I think most people are like me in this way. It’s not that I don’t feel any sense of responsibility as a citizen of my city, state, and country—or as a citizen of the world. I vote and pay taxes. I stay informed about local events. I try to care for the environment by recycling, walking or biking instead of driving at times, and avoiding consumer products I don’t really need. But failing in my duties as a citizen, and pondering what those duties might actually be, are not concerns that keep me up at night or topics I bring up in conversation, for the most part.

Whether the average citizen was more concerned with performing her civic duty during the time of the ancient Stoics (starting around 300 BCE), I can’t say, but it was certainly the Stoic view—perhaps especially for the ancient Roman adopters of Stoicism—that it mattered a great deal. Marcus Aurelius touches on civic duty several times in his Meditations. For example:

“How to act: […] Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen, a Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a soldier and patiently awaiting his recall from life. Needing no oath or witness.” (Book 3, No. 5)

“If it does not harm the community, it does not harm its members. When you think you’ve been injured, apply this rule: If the community isn’t injured by it, neither am I.” (Book 5, No. 22)

“Revere the gods; watch over human beings. Our lives are short. The only rewards of our existence here are an unstained character and unselfish acts.” (Book 6, No. 30)1

A question worth asking, for citizens anywhere in any time period, is “Do I have a civic duty to exercise and be fit?” Put another way, if we have any responsibilities towards our fellow citizens—any obligation to serve them and serve with them—is being physically fit a part of that?

It seems to me that it is, that we do have this duty. When we exercise in order to be physically healthy (it’s also beneficial for mental health), we gain abilities and avoid becoming a certain type of liability. Strong and energetic people can better assist each other in natural disasters and other emergencies. People who exercise regularly are less likely to develop illnesses like heart disease and depression that cost our health care system and economy billions of dollars.

I’m definitely not saying that everyone with a chronic illness and those who are truly unable to exercise are bad citizens. I also believe there are systemic, difficult-to-eradicate reasons that so many people don’t exercise as much as they should. But I argue that we ought to regard enhanced citizenship as one of the host of compelling reasons to exercise. Humanity is vulnerable to numerous threats from the environment, technology, other species, and each other. It has always been this way and may always be this way. Let’s better protect each other, especially the most vulnerable among us, by taking fitness seriously.

1. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Gregory Hays (New York: Modern Library, 2004). 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Don’t Sweat the “Terrible” Stuff—Or the Details of Epicureanism (Exercise and the Hellenistic Philosophies: Part III)

(Author’s note: The introduction to this series of posts provides helpful context.)

I’ve been thinking about how Epicureanism relates to exercise for several weeks now, and what I return to again and again is the fourth maxim in the Tetrapharmakos: What is terrible is easy to endure. This is the opposite of what most people believe, it seems to me, and the opposite of what I sometimes find myself feeling when confronted with terrible situations. But as an exercise mantra, it is incredibly helpful. When I’m hurting, struggling, sweating buckets, or running out of breath—when I’m hating how a workout is making me feel—I say it to myself: “What is terrible is easy to endure.” 

Epicurus (Source:
Two things tend to happen next. I remember that I have endured hundreds of uncomfortable workouts in the past, and this gives me greater confidence that I will be able to endure the current workout. I also realize that though my current situation is unpleasant, it really isn’t all that “terrible,” and that is partly why I should think of it as easy to endure. Terrible might be having to haul a bag of rocks up a mountain, and I am just doing a few push-ups. Terrible might be having to swim the English Channel, and I am just doing some laps at the pool. And the most terrible events people endure, it is generally agreed upon, involve emotional devastation, like the death of a spouse or child. My most intense workouts, while they do entail physical discomfort and pain, don’t even come close to this kind of agony.   

The other component of the Epicurean school I had planned to connect to exercise was katastematic pleasure, but in studying this concept I find I have somewhat misunderstood it. Katastematic pleasure has been described as simply being, with a sense of joy at being alive. I had taken this to mean that when I am exercising and feeling joy at being alive—that is, joy at being able to move because I am alive—I was experiencing katastematic pleasure, the highest form pleasure from an Epicurean point of view. But Epicurus contrasted this type of pleasure with kinetic pleasure, which comes from doing activities. Exercising necessarily involves activity, so it would seem that it can only produce a lesser form of pleasure—again, according to the Epicurean philosophy. 

Higher pleasure, lesser pleasure, activity-based, tranquility-based, katastematic, kinetic—I’m tempted to say “whatever” to it all, at least as it relates to fitness. Maybe I can’t experience the joy of simply being when I’m hiking, lifting weights, biking, or doing calisthenics, but I can appreciate being alive and being able to move when I’m doing those activities. And when I’m exercising, I remember that I don’t need luxuries or “stuff” in order to be happy. That’s certainly compatible with what Epicurus taught.   

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Why Being Skeptical Can Be Good for Working Out (Exercise and the Hellenistic Philosophies: Part II)

When I first started thinking about it, I didn’t see how I would be able to apply Skepticism—as practiced by the ancient Greeks—to exercise. So I started this part of my project without much direction. I read over my few notes about Skepticism before a weightlifting workout one day, and thought about them as I moved through the workout. This first attempt didn’t go all that well because I was distracted by other thoughts, but I did jot this down in my workout journal:

Perception: I’m fatigued.
Antithesis: I’m not fatigued.
Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. 

A few days later during a DVD routine, I worked with this idea again and found it to be more fruitful. The routine includes a two-minute interval of cardio in the plank position, which I invariably find extremely challenging. I always think things like “I can’t go on” or “I’m probably not going to make it through without resting.” This time, with Skepticism in mind, I countered that pessimism by suspending judgment. “I may be able to do this or I may not,” I told myself. “I’ll just keep going as long as I can.” 

A search result for “plank exercise suffering.” They don’t seem to me to be suffering all that much… (Source: Pinterest.)

While I did end up having to pause for a couple seconds, I enjoyed the tranquility this philosophical attitude brought to the exercise. How does it help me to fret over whether I have enough stamina? It doesn’t. And it doesn’t always help to tell yourself you can do it, when you know that many times in the past you haven’t been able to do it. I’m not sure that skeptical thoughts are always more helpful than self-affirmation, but my experience has encouraged me to try them more when I’m doing difficult exercise.

It also occurred to me that day that the Skeptic school’s avoidance of dogma is a good thing for the fitness world to embrace.1 To be convinced that one way of doing a certain exercise is the only correct way—to not entertain even for a moment that you could be mistaken—seems wrongheaded. The same goes for dogmas about the best types of exercise. “Cycling is the best workout there is.” “Heavier weights with fewer repetitions is the fastest way to build muscle—no doubt about it.” “Never, ever stretch like that.” These types of beliefs don’t belong in a thoughtful approach to fitness. There may be what seems like strong evidence to support certain ways of exercising, but it’s always worth asking questions like “What makes you so sure?” and “Isn’t it possible that you’re wrong?”

I do want to acknowledge that Skepticism taken to its extreme complicates exercise. When I shared my ideas for this post with a friend, he asked me, “Why do you even exercise at all?” “Because it makes me feel good,” I played along, sensing where this was heading. “What’s your foundation for that belief?” he asked. And so on. If we can’t be certain that exercise has any benefits, why do it? Then, of course, the question is, why do anything?

One thing I wrote down about Skepticism at Richard Gilmore’s talk was “Stop trying to get the thing you want.” It’s pretty hard to exercise without trying to get the thing you want, whether that thing is a better mood, weight loss, the envy of your friends, the attentions of your crush, or something else. And in the short term, the thing you want is to get through the workout in one piece. So again, Skepticism can complicate exercise. But as I have learned, it also provides a tool, the suspension of judgment, that can make exercising a better experience. 

1. Regarding the avoidance of dogma, Bertrand Russell does note in The History of Western Philosophy, “Scepticism as a philosophy is not merely doubt, but what may be called dogmatic doubt. The man of science says ‘I think it is so-and-so, but I am not sure.’ The man of intellectual curiosity says ‘I don’t know how it is, but I hope to find out.’ The philosophical Sceptic says ‘nobody knows, and nobody ever can know.’ It is this element of dogmatism that makes the system vulnerable. Sceptics, of course, deny that they assert the impossibility of knowledge dogmatically, but their denials are not very convincing.” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972, p. 234)