Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Vices Circling Virtues

At a recent Philosophy for All meeting at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, the speaker mentioned the Aristotelian idea that any virtue matches up with two vices. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, “...every virtue is a state that lies between two vices, one of excess and the other of deficiency.”1 According to this concept, the virtue of friendliness, for example, lies between the vices of overfamiliarity and hostility.

There is great potential for virtue in the realm of fitness, but by Aristotle’s way of thinking, this means there is also great potential for vice. Sitting there during the meeting, I came up with several vice pairs of fitness excess and deficiency. Here are five that seem especially important to consider:

Sloth and Mania
It’s dangerous to be a couch potato, and it’s also dangerous to exercise compulsively and excessively. Which is more dangerous? Who cares—let’s all try to avoid both extremes. These vices relate to the “all or nothing” problem many health articles warn against, the mindset that if you aren’t exercising something like an hour a day every day, you shouldn’t bother. But of course you should.

Flighty and Monomaniacal
Some people love to flit from exercise to exercise, never sticking with anything long enough to gauge progress. Others only ever do one thing, which I questioned in a post a few months ago.

Being flighty may be the more common problem today. On the Netflix show House of Cards, which I’ve been enjoying, a young go-getter boss asks her young go-getter employee, “Do you ever want to have any job for more than two years?”—her tone and expression suggesting that no young go-getter would. On to the next, on to the new. Monomania can affect the young and the old, in this century as it has in times past, but I’ll be focusing on avoiding the opposite extreme.

This is what can happen when you’re monomaniacal.

Timidity and Recklessness
These vices often contribute to the previous ones—timidity can lead to sticking to a single, safe exercise routine, while a reckless personality can cause people to try every intriguing exercise they come across. I tend to be timid, at least with adventure/extreme sports like climbing and snowboarding. That I consider snowboarding an extreme sport, when some would only apply the term to something like volcano surfing, may be proof enough of that. But I do work on this weakness. I tried waterskiing about a year ago, pulling my hamstring on my first (only) attempt up, with no regrets.

Timidity and Arrogance
I refer to a different meaning of “timidity” here, the lack of pride. This is another topic I have addressed in a previous post, specifically the idea of being proud of your body when you exercise. Just as a moderate amount of pride in your body is appropriate, so is a moderate amount of pride as an exerciser in general. I probably err on the arrogant side of this vice spectrum, but I get taken down a peg often enough not to be a total exercise snot. There are plenty of people who work out harder, better, and more often than me.

Indulgent and Punishing
Whether you exercise alone or use a trainer or partner, there is a fine line to walk between being indulgent and being punishing. You have to push yourself or you won’t get the results you could. It’s hard, it hurts, it sucks—sometimes it really sucks—but it’s essential. On the other hand, pushing yourself too hard can cause physical injury, and being constantly down on yourself can hurt you psychologically. Practice compassion and practice grit, balancing the two the best you can.
And this is what indulgence can reap.

But grit can lead to this.

1. Kraut, Richard, “Aristotle's Ethics,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),