If you poke around my blog, my Facebook page, or my Instagram feed you are bound to find out that I am really into two things, philosophy and fitness. I admit that they don’t seem like the most likely of bedfellows. Because of that, I spend a lot of time trying to find the intersection of these two seemingly divergent passions. Philosophy typically dismisses the importance of the body and the effect it can have on the mind, but I am of the belief that there is a very important connection there. The condition of our bodies has great impact on our minds and the state of our minds can have a very real impact on our bodies. Not just from a biological or neuroscience perspective, but from a deeply psychological and philosophical perspective. The ideas we believe and the beliefs that we hold shape our minds and our bodies. There is a deeper connection there than philosophy has long given it credit for.
So, I attempt to remedy that perceived deficiency in philosophy by doing a bit o’ my own philosophizing on the subject. What follows in this articles in a brief presentation of Plato’s Theory of Forms and how I believe it relates to fitness. Take it for what it is. An amateur philosopher having some fun with ideas. So to all of you philosophy nerds, of which I definitely consider myself, Don’t get your monads all separated. This is not meant to be academically rigorous or comprehensive. It’s meant to be thought-provoking – like all of philosophy should endeavor to be. (That monads joke was my peace-offering to the serious philosophy geeks. Can we be friends now?)
The Theory of Forms
In Plato’s Republic there is a presentation of, arguably, one of the most famous philosophical theories ever presented by an old, white man. Plato’s Theory of Forms. This theory, put egregiously simple, is presented as such; there are two perceptive realities. The sense-perceived reality that we now occupy and the conceptually idealized reality where there exists a perfect representation of every object and idea that exists in our sense-perceived reality.
That’s a fucking obscure definition, right? Ok. Let’s borrow from Plato for an example, but update it for modernity. I think that will make it clear. Let’s say we are swiping through Tinder. Each swipe we decide if that person is beautiful or not. We are picking specific beautiful people to swipe right on and specific non-beautiful people to swipe left on. Yes, those decisions are subjective and personal but there exists somewhere out there the very general concept of Beauty- that abstract idea that is forever unchanging that we apply to our decisions. Beauty, in and of itself, exists. The very general essence of it exists in its Ideal Form and here in our sense-perceived reality we make it specific. We apply the general concept of Beauty to things. The same can be said for all objects and ideas and that is the general shadow of Plato’s theory.
Now, I know that this theory doesn’t hold all that much weight anymore. It has been picked to pieces by the philosophical vultures that tear through all dead philosopher’s ideas, but I always liked this theory and found merit in it.
I think it reveals us as the subjective perceivers of everyday objects and ideas that we are. We don’t often consider the underlying, general concept that those objects or ideas are based upon and what that says about the Ideal Form of them. And that prevents us from exploring how we can try to perceive and exist in those Ideal Forms.
With that being said, I want to explore the concept of fitness in the context of Plato’s Theory of Forms and look at the Ideal Form of Fitness, as I have come to understand it.
I think Plato would appreciate a presentation of the Ideal Forms of Fitness. He was an accomplished wrestler after all, competing at the Olympic games. And the name Plato, which means “broad-shouldered”, was actually given him by his wrestling coach. What’s more, he often spoke of the need for fitness as an important aspect of overall mental well-being and health.
If that doesn’t sell you on Plato’s compliance in my presentation of his theory in regards to fitness then maybe this will; I am pretty sure he lifted, bro.
The Sense-Perceived Reality of Fitness
What most people see in fitness is the everyday, visible, sense-perceived form of it. That shadow dance of it on the wall, to pull from Plato’s, Allegory of the Cave. It’s a slough. A grind. A dirty, painful, messy thing that we need to do to keep some semblance of health and functionality in this slowly decaying shit machine we call a body. That is the form that most people see of fitness.
I can sympathize with that. It’s what I saw when I viewed fitness from afar, before I began with it. This is the representation that fitness can take if we approach it with the typical judgments and subjective understandings of it.
The Ideal Form of Fitness
But there is an Ideal Form of Fitness out there. I am not saying there is an ideal workout or style or methodology. There isn’t. Everybody is a bit different in what their body needs. But I am saying there is an Ideal Form of what Fitness is. There is the very concept of it that lives out there, just like beauty, and if we can see that ideal we can come to truly appreciate the meaning of fitness in our lives.
With that in mind, I present the Ideal Form of Fitness split into 3 qualities of its being.
Fitness as struggle
I have spoken about the Stoic philosophical idea of intentional hardships before. The Stoics inherited much of their ethical doctrines from Plato, so it is should be no surprise that I might color the first quality of Fitness with those two brushes.
Fitness is about consistently welcoming a certain, controlled amount of struggle and strain into your life in order to condition your body and mind to be able to handle the physical and mental toil of everyday living.
When we enforce discipline, and we consistently get our asses to the gym or out for a run, we are building more than our bodies. We are building those intangible things that serve you during the dire straits of life. You are conditioning your mind and body to understand that you are the master of them. They abide your commands to push through pain or to stand strong against great burdens. Because that’s what life is sometimes.
It’s getting weighted down by burdens; work, family obligations, financial issues, mental stresses, whatever, and lifting them up again and again. And every time we get used to the weight we have pushed around, something comes along and adds another few pounds to the burdens we already carry and we struggle and we groan and we swear and we fucking lift that up as well, being made stronger for having done it.
Fitness as Therapy
But fitness is not just about constantly struggling with heavy weight or long stretches of cardio. There is a Form of it that is about softness and physical familiarity – of getting to know your body in a therapeutic way that can help you to better manage the physical manifestations of mental stress.
As such, you need to recognize that there are some days where you need to go easy on yourself. Those are days when you listen to your body. You get in touch with all those aching muscles and sore joints and tendons. You stretch and prod and roll away all the aches and pains that you have accumulated.
This is where fitness because a sort of respite for the body and for the mind. This is the opportunity for you to get intimate with the messages of your body and with the things it tells you about your lifestyle and your mental habits. This is your opportunity to find a certain wonder, peace, and tranquility in the very physical form of you. It is an amazing machine, this body that carries our hearts and souls and minds, and it is something we should appreciate and be tender with on occasion. If only so we can beat the shit out of it again later.
One of the most obvious methods of fitness as therapy manifests in Yoga.
Yoga integrates the mind and the body into a synergistic workout that helps you to understand your body and the connections it has with your mind. It reveals how the mind can send signals to the body to loosen or tighten and it exposes the importance of your body’s activities
Yoga connects the calming presence that your breath can have on your mind and shows how fitness can be a calming curative expression in your life.
Fitness as transcendence
Perhaps the most ethereal, but powerful, Form of Fitness is that of transcendence. This is the final Form of Fitness and when you can see it, experience it, and live it, fitness is transformed into something spiritual and divine. It stops becoming anything but a way to remove yourself temporarily from this world and attain a higher state of being.
I think of it this way. The gym is my sanctuary. My workouts are my rituals. In between those reps are my prayers. And you can find me baptized in sweat after that last rep is wrung out of me. It is a devoted and faithful activity that brings me to communion with my body and the possibilities of it. It shows me my limits and at the edges of those limits I find Nietzsche’s abyss and I laugh at it because I know that the abyss skips leg day and looks fucking ridiculous and I am beyond it.
There is a fantastic audio clip from the accomplished athlete Elliot Hulse who presents this idea of fitness as transcendence perfectly.
In this clip he talks about a threshold – a line drawn in the mind that can be crossed towards transcendence if we can find the mental fortitude and faith to move to it. He calls it the transcendent rep. That last excruciating rep that is the culmination of all of your mental and physical strength. In that rep is the consecration of everything you have done up to that point. In that transcendent rep is the opportunity to approach a divinity of yourself. To reveal yourself as something beyond an earthly thing.
In that rep is your opportunity to move into the sublime understanding of what it is that you are truly capable of when you can harness the power of your mind and your body in concert and to their full potential. And that is some powerful shit that translates into every aspect of your life.
Now it may sound silly to see this Form in Fitness, but if you have ever been on the edge of that possibility, if you have ever had heavy weights above your head threatening to come crashing down and you have no choice but to push it back up again, then you understand that miracle of the body and mind connection and the true, unchanging, and divine beauty of fitness. You understand the way that fitness can become a holy pursuit.
Obviously, I am a being a bit tongue and cheek with the intent of Plato’s ideas regarding Forms. I took some philosophical license. So sue me.
But maybe I didn’t stray so far. Fitness is a concept. What does Plato describe in his Utopia, but the Ideal Form of a concept, in the case of the Republic the concept is justice, so why can’t we consider the concept of fitness in the same way?
We can. And I propose that the Ideal Form of fitness incorporates all 3 of the qualities I described above. Maybe many more I haven’t found yet. I am always finding something new in fitness that I haven’t seen before.
But then again, maybe this is all bullshit and fitness is just what it is. Lifting, running, swimming, sweating, grunting, fat and protein and calories and whatever.
All I know is, my understanding of the Form of Fitness is what makes it easy for me to go into the gym every day and put myself through workout after workout with a steadfast consistency and a reckless abandon. No matter how I feel and no matter how much it hurts.
Because I think that if you can eke out that one last rep in the gym or that one last step of cardio – when your body is burning and sweat is stinging your eyes and everything inside your head is telling you to stop – then you can do the same thing in life when your heart is breaking and tears are streaming from your eyes and everything inside your head is telling you to stop.
Because there is something that everyone should remember, a body transformation is a life transformation. When you take on the task of fitness you are making a decision to change your foundation and in those changes of the body you will change more than how you look, you will change the very core of who you are. You will embody the qualities of the Ideal From of Fitness and find in it so much more than you ever thought possible about yourself.
And that is what fitness is truly about.