Weight Education – The American Conservative
Lifting weights can be a kind of moral training in courage, an opportunity to surpass yourself, not only physically, but spiritually.
In The abolition of man, CS Lewis attacks the “men without breasts” that characterize modernity: men who are more cerebral than visceral and who treat all moral judgments as mere statements of opinion. These men miss thumos, the ardor that leads to the courage of conviction in matters of ethical obligation. As Lewis writes, the problem of our time is not that we lack moral sensibility, but that we lack the courage to justify our morality. But what if there is a way to recover the virtue of thumos?
Like The American Conservativeby Micah Meadowcroft writing, lifting weights is a way to build thumos facing a challenge that is not only physical, but spiritual. While mythological heroes may be born with innate virtues like courage, normal human beings must be deliberately shaped to embody traits worthy of admiration. But moral formation means more than learning to tell right from wrong; it’s also about acquiring the deep moral feelings that compel us to act according to our moral compasses, especially when it’s not easy.
Beyond courage, the other cardinal virtues are prudence, justice and temperance. Yet courage plays a very different role than the other three. While one who is prudent, fair and temperate can rationally determine the correct response to a situation, his virtues are worth nothing without the courage to act. Whatever his moral axioms, whether Aristotelian, Marxist or deontological, without thumos it is impossible to be a fully formed person.
How to move moral formation from theoretical reflections to the real world is perhaps the central question of philosophers of education. It is no accident that so much of Plato Republic is busy figuring out how to properly turn children into adults. To ensure their inculcation in virtue, Socrates concludes that young people should not be exposed to any tale, true or not, promoting immorality, lest their education be compromised. Besides being safe from immoral stories, future leaders must also be educated with a moral story, a myth about the precious metals in the soul.
Whether we examine the Greeks, Romans, or Medieval, it is evident that, with the apparent exception of the present, education has never been solely about imparting information and measuring technical skills. A Well education includes a type of knowledge beyond the cognitive, something that a textbook cannot capture.
But how does this type of learning take place? If contemporary education does not even claim to account for this essential form of knowledge, why do certificates from academic institutions enjoy such prestige? In this sense, we no longer expect educational institutions to provide comprehensive training education, which has all but disappeared from Western consciousness.
This is what Dostoyevsky expresses in Crime and Punishment, where its protagonist, Raskolnikov, learns from “a man who follows modern ideas…that compassion is today forbidden by science itself, and that is what is now done in England, where he there is a political economy. One could replace ‘compassion’ (the theological virtue of ‘charity’) with any of the premodern virtues, and ‘political economy’ with ‘competence’; we no longer think in terms of good and evil, virtue and vice, but rather competence and incompetence.
What do we do with the failure of moral education? It seems simplistic to prescribe athletics as a panacea; after all, we all know determined athletes with less than exemplary character. Yet there is a reason why the classical Greeks considered the gymnasium a key element in the education of young people. Exercise more simple is not necessarily morally formative, but the exercise contextualized by analogy between physical and moral struggle can be. This explains the fond memory many older men and women have of the coach who shaped them to be not just better athletes, but better human beings.
This brings us back to the original question: How can we thumos and that the virtue of courage be instilled in the absence of exposure to real physical or emotional threat? For me, lifting weights gives me the opportunity to push myself, not only physically, but mentally. Looking back on most of my life, I am painfully aware of a lack of thumos. I had opportunities to confront problems in all areas of my life, from family to peers to academics, which I missed because I was afraid. I’m not particularly coward – rather, we are all facing scary situations that we have to deal with.
It’s scary to try something new because you risk failing and shattering your self-confidence. But there will always be people who need confrontation, and a person unable to take on a totally alien challenge will never experience growth. Lifting weights helped me overcome my lack of courage by presenting me with a physical challenge that reflected spiritual struggles. Exercise doesn’t have to be spiritualized, but if you can’t handle the deep discomfort of something like weightlifting, you won’t have the strength to do what’s right when real life throws you. will hit.
James Diddam is a research associate in politics and theology at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He graduated cum laude from Wheaton College with a major in Philosophy, Economics, and Art History and a minor in Mathematics and Political Science. After Wheaton, he was a fellow of the John Jay Institute.