(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: cafepress.com)
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.