Beyond the Modern Fitness Cult

Anyone who has caught a glimpse of the hall of mirrors that is today’s gym has seen some truly appalling images of self-obsession. In one north country gym at the end of the workday, a 40-something woman sporting a string bikini and head-to-toe artificial bronzing could be found camped out in the sauna for hours nearly every day. She lay prone on a towel, taking up the full floor space of the small room, slathering her body with—and filling the room with fulsome fumes of—layer after layer of baby oil. Sweat drenched her—and the floor—so much that she periodically had to get up to wring out her sodden towel, which she did in the communal water fountain, bragging loudly of her partying exploits of the night before. Needless to say, to this observer of the scene, virtue was not the first word that came to mind.

Behaving in public as though one is alone at home in private, with only one’s mirror-image as companion, has become so common that there is a growing danger that the entire nation will become like this gym scene writ large. It’s less the understated elegance and dignity of Greek statuary and more Hieronymous Bosch.

Virtuous Exercise

Are you now or have you ever sported a less-than-perfect BMI or less-than-perfectly toned muscles? Or have you ever associated with anyone who has? In his “Exercising the Virtues,” Allen Porter argues that the ancient phrase “mens sana, corpore sano”—sound mind, sound body—captures everything one needs to know to turn things around. The phrase contains such “perennial wisdom” and “common sense” that even “a sneaker manufacturer turned it into a brand slogan” (he doesn’t cite his source but must mean ASICS, which was titled for Anima Sana in Corpore Sano). But his own advice sounds a lot like another sneaker manufacturer’s slogan: Nike’s Just Do It.

If Porter merely wanted us to forswear the usual excuses and get moving, few today, it might seem, would take issue. In part thanks to all-too-obliging reminders from the diet, specialty cookbook, sporting-goods, and self-help industries, Americans say something like this to themselves every day in every way. Everyone has got the memo. People easily part with their money for fad diets, the latest exercise equipment (Peloton, anyone?), and gym memberships. Nike’s meaning of “do it” clearly entails stopping at Dick’s Sporting Goods first.

But Porter attempts to mount a more thorough-going defense of modern fitness practices, with a particular emphasis on working out in a gym, by evoking the ancient Greeks and Romans in broad brush strokes. In simplest terms, he asserts that one’s physique manifests not only whether one has exercised, but whether one has exercised virtue. He claims that this association of virtue with being in top form, both physically and mentally, stems from a tradition dating to antiquity. Besides enlisting the Roman mens sana line for this purpose, he singles out another source of “perennial wisdom” with even earlier roots in Greek philosophy, the field of virtue ethics. This tradition, as he tells it, held sway until recent activists sought to elevate being out of shape to a protected and celebrated identity.

Porter’s main takeaway from Aristotle is: Habit matters. Because the human being is “formable,” individuals can be “formed” or “deformed” through good or bad habits, and it is these habits that determine whether one is virtuous or not. The only virtuous life is one of both physical and mental fitness.

There is a philosophical case to be made that this is not virtue ethics at all. A historical case could be made that this line of thinking is neither Greco-Roman, nor Western more broadly.

As our opening cameo suggests, many gym-type scenes owe less to the world of virtue ethics than to the modern therapeutic culture and the positive psychology—Just do it!—that infuses it. Fitness aficionados are hardly the sole culprit, but some seem to share the I, me, mine doctrine of naval-gazing self-celebration encouraged by much of the self-help industry, consumerism, advertising, social media, and the cult of celebrity. 

The body positivity movement is an overdue corrective to generations-long pedaling of air-brushed images of skeletal models with dire, and even deadly, consequences for girls and women.

One could more easily dismiss today’s manifest expressions of self-centeredness as just a bit of chuckle-worthy excess self-esteem if they took place in a more benign context. But today, the very fabric of our communities is fraying. We witness excesses of wealth not seen since the Gilded Age, a resurgence of bullying, online shaming of complete strangers, road rage, and many other signs of selfishness taken to the extreme: even resentment, hate, and violence. We need to be careful in the way that we invoke the concept of virtue.

It is hard to improve upon the inheritance of the Judeo-Christian tradition when it comes to celebrating the inherent beauty and dignity of the human person. It is also hard to improve upon my mother’s gentle refrain to me and my siblings, “beauty is as beauty does.” These gems of perennial wisdom and common sense can give us some of the guard rails we need to prevent virtue ethics from being hijacked by consumerism and narcissism. We should recognize, too, that we are not the ultimate judge of other people’s inner moral state.

Porter is concerned about a class of academics who criticize gym culture for promoting a kind of toxic masculinity, among other things. No doubt much here is worthy of critique. In the era of identity politics, there’s a slippery slope leading from equal rights and protections of those oppressed by religion, race, and sex, for example—necessary and vital and enshrined in law—to an identity mill churning out cookie-cutter notions of what comprises persons and groups. That kind of thinking reduces the rich diversity and uniqueness of human experience to just another limiting category, complete with academic specializations, programs, and journals. But the body positivity movement is something quite different: a development of historical, aesthetic, and philosophical gravity, and an overdue corrective to generations-long pedaling of air-brushed images of skeletal models with dire, and even deadly, consequences for girls and women.

Porter points out that exercise does not pertain only to a life of luxury and should not be misleadingly cast as a prerogative of an elite few. He calls attention to the potential health threats of lack of exercise. These are good points. But it is true that time and energy for this form of add-on activity beyond the work day is, when not out of reach, very difficult to manage. More exercise of virtue in our collective pursuits could allow us to aim higher for everyone’s better chance for good health and success.

Fitness in Community Planning

For most people (barring a prohibitive challenge or disability), staying healthy does not require all the bells and whistles of commercialized exercise. Companies merely make the classic maneuver of selling back to consumers what is there for the taking. Fitness can be, and used to be, free. Witness the way daily life is structured in many European countries, with bike lanes, mass transit, and walking paths protected from vehicular traffic. But the U.S. has seen the collapse of a social world conducive to many sources of basic thriving. Walkable towns, suburbs, and cities, where all or most daily needs can be met on foot, have largely vanished. Efforts to remedy this have begun in many places, and, where gyms are free or low-cost, they certainly play a vital role too.

For most Americans, the mode of transportation and design of the physical environment directly affects how much exercise can occur in the course of our day. The ascendancy of the automobile, while exciting and freeing, came at a cost we have not fully reckoned with, causing overreliance on cars at the expense of our limbs. Children used to get exercise simply by walking to and from school. Over the last generation, many neighborhoods have stifled these practices, usually in the interests of safety. Rather than design a built environment that is safe for children in public, we have a nation made safe for (but not by) cars. 

Work has changed too, of course. Much drudgery has fortunately fallen away for many, but it often remains in a different guise, whereby the physical benefits of certain jobs have been displaced by exhausting but sedentary tasks. An animosity toward manual labor, and a cult of comfort and push-button conveniences, have taken an added toll.

Instead of focusing relentlessly on private virtue, it might be better to consider what changes could make neighborhoods livable again. Exercise could occur unselfconsciously in attractive public settings, in the course of everyday existence. Architects, town planners, small entrepreneurs, public artists, parks and recreation departments, and many others stand at the ready to build something better.

Virtue in the Agoge

Returning to the question of virtue, it should be said that the philosophers’ attitudes towards exercise are more complex than Porter’s essay would lead one to believe. Ancient writers hardly spoke with one voice. They discussed among themselves just the kinds of questions the article raises about how to live. Yet they disagreed over the answers—sometimes so vehemently they decided to erect an entirely new school of thought. 

The standard interpretation of the article’s opening salvo—“Mens sana, corpore sano”—is usually taken out of context as the old chestnut associating fitness of mind with fitness of body. But this misinterpretation steers us down the wrong path. Juvenal was a satirist. The line in question began with “orandum est ut,” so the saying actually counsels that “you should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body”—rather than fearing death, for instance, and praying for a long life.

What if Shakespeare was a “couch potato”?

The Stoics, too, are often invoked these days to support contemporary projects of self-making, with their counsel to focus only on the things within one’s control. But they drew razor fine distinctions between the different elements of life, making clear that the only things that really mattered were those bearing on the quality of one’s moral character. Health and wealth were among the many human concerns that they classed as moral “indifferents.”

Though bodily and mental fitness are related in certain ways, we should guard against drawing too tight a causal connection between them. The relationship is complicated. Beethoven’s body gave out on precisely that capacity most closely associated with his aspirations for his mental work. His ninth symphony, composed when he had gone entirely deaf, is one of the greatest masterworks of all time.

Classicist David C. Young, who has written extensively on the Olympics and ancient views of sport, casts into question whether it was ever the Greek ideal to combine physical and intellectual excellence, arguing that ancient Greeks generally held both in high esteem but saw them as separate ideals to which different people could aspire, with significant daily time commitments. Ancient writers debated the relative importance of different endeavors, and took different stances.

Philosophers famously took up the problem of the relation between our physical existence and our mental life—later dubbed the mind-body problem—but their ideas have often been oversimplified and misunderstood. While we can only gesture here to the rich complexity of the wisdom traditions we have inherited, it seems clear that they would, taken together, urge caution about judging other people based on externals alone. A rousing defense of physical activity might be more welcome if it were rooted in the awe and joy of living in this beautiful world, a world of which we are a part, body, mind, and soul.

While Porter’s article is entitled “Exercising the Virtues,” it is really about one virtue in particular—a kind of virtue of going to the gym. To him, the “gym rat” is automatically more virtuous than the “couch potato.” But Aristotle had a much more capacious sense of virtue as rooted in the telos of a human life. There are many virtuous people who do not have the ideal weight, and many fit people who are far from virtuous. Porter’s emphasis on habit for its own sake seems more behaviorist or consequentialist than Aristotelian, as it makes no mention of higher ends that make the virtuous habits meaningful. Nor does it restore the individual to his or her place among other people. What if Shakespeare was a “couch potato”?

The point of virtue in Aristotle’s philosophy is to live a good life, as in a life of moral goodness, which entails a world of other people. Our therapeutic consumer ethos is inherently anti-social. Taking hold of our own problems and addressing them with vim and vigor is a superb plan. If we really want people to thrive, let’s also begin with the virtuous habit of assuming virtue, not the opposite, and exercising not only our bodily physique but other muscles we desperately need to build in our time: charity, understanding, and love.

Porter rightly warns that if we do not reform ourselves according to our own will, we will conform to someone else’s will—a vital and valid concern. Bob Dylan’s 1979 song “Gotta Serve Somebody” lays this problem out well. But Dylan says that everyone—ambassador, gambler, dancer, heavyweight champion, socialite—serves either “the devil or the Lord.” Porter suggests conforming to our own will is the path of virtue. Many would say, on the contrary, that conforming to our own will is the problem. What about the will of our loved ones? What about the will of our community? What about the will arising from a larger sense of goodness, secular and sacred?

What kind of virtue ethics has no room for the will of another? Is there nothing larger than our own choices that affects us? What about each other? What about chance, fate, God?