so says Aristotle. At the beginning of the Metaphysics, Aristotle makes this statement. It’s a universal claim about human nature. I usually perk up at such claims, and my immediate reaction is “Is this true? Do all men desire to know?”
Note: in this context, ‘men’ means men and women, just like “man-eating tiger” means a tiger that eats both men and women. It’s how Ross translates the Greek.
Think of the people you know. Do they desire knowledge? How is it evident? It’s true that if you go up to someone and say “I have a secret,” they will want to know it. It’s true that we generally want to find things out. Aristotle uses our delight in vision as evidence for his universal claim. When you enter a room, you look around you. If other people look up, you look up.
But real knowledge is to know the causes of things. You know not merely that the sun comes up in the east, but why it comes up in the east. You know not merely that penicillin is good to cure a bacterial infection, but why it is the case. Knowing the causes is what wise people really have accomplished, according to Aristotle. This takes observation, study, and work. It’s hard! Mostly what we do is kill time.
Augustine categorizes curiosity as a vice. It’s the false version of the virtue of seeking to know. The merely curious are seeking novelty. They want to fill their eyes and ears with newness. It’s less knowledge-seeking and more itch-scratching. Think about all the time you spend on your phone, scrolling through social media. You aren’t usually trying to learn anything.
Aristotle makes the point in the beginning of the Metaphysics that it takes leisure to advance in wisdom. It took the Egyptians having double harvests from the Nile floods to be able to make advances in math and geometry. They needed free time or leisure. But all leisure isn’t the same. Sitting on the couch binging on a TV show isn’t leisure. It’s a step above being asleep. It might be a step below.
We all desire to know, but we don’t all do a great job of it. Try harder!
The science of lifting is not that hard. Lift heavy things, put them down, rest, lift more heavy things, and get stronger. For healthy people, it works every time it is tried.
If this is the case, why aren’t we all swole and strong? The goal of strength is good, and the means are well-known. There are no mysteries. Everyone should be able to do it. Why don’t they?
The catch is in the second part of my statement “it works every time it is tried.” One needs to try, to take steps beyond the theoretical, beyond buy-in, past motivation to action. Effort is not a solitary action, either. Physical change is less like a metamorphosis—a process that, once started, runs its course naturally—and more like the shaping of iron with hammer and anvil. Change happens steadily but only with repeated, consistent, and sufficiently disruptive wallops to your current physical self. Therein lies the problem.
The actual lifting requires effort, with which many people have great difficulty. Effort is often interpreted as pain. Efforting is hard. Trying is hard. If only people would do it! But coaches and lifters know that most people won’t.
“What can I do to get my spouse/friend/parent to lift?” is a question coaches hear all the time. The answer is usually, “Not much.” Voluntary hardship is still hard, and therefore usually not voluntary. The activity, if chosen, will be very good, but it’s difficult, and so not often chosen.
Most people won’t voluntarily do hard things. As we say at Online Great Books, “the noble things are difficult,” which is an ancient Greek motto. Most won’t do difficult things. But there is a clue in the word “noble.” The Greek word for “noble” also means “beautiful.”
Lifting heavy things is beautiful. It’s glorious!
As I write this, I am in my garage getting ready to squat. It’s not going to be a PR, and I’m not going to post it on social media. Nevertheless, it is going to be noble/beautiful/glorious. I’m a 50-year-old man, and rather than give in to the cruel entropy of age, I’m going to get under the barbell, stand it up, walk out, bend my knees and hips, and stand up again. Whatever else I do today, this will be a great deed.
Many lifters are “medicinal” lifters. They know that they ought to lift for health benefits, but they love it about as much as they love colonoscopies, which are necessary but awful. The problem with the medicinal approach is that it requires willpower to do it. Every workout is a chore, and you have to drag yourself out to do it. Should other things get in the way, you’ll skip.
On the other hand, if you are motivated by the greatness of the deed, by its nobility, its beauty, by the glory that lies hidden in the barbell, you can infuse your workouts with joy. It can be fun!
Voluntary hardship can be less hard.
Brett Mckay gave us an interesting talk at our BLOC conference this year. He argued that joy is more important than discipline. Olympic swimmers who get up early to log miles in the pool are not exercising willpower. They love swimming and are having fun because of that love. Can you learn to like weight training?
I suggest you try it.
The ancient Greeks used the word arete to refer to the excellence of a man or a horse, or indeed anything that could be wonderful. It’s often translated as “virtue,” but the English word limps. Odysseus shows his arete when he fights, but also when he schemes. Every time you lift, you are showing forth your excellence, even if you are not improving it.
I am an old lifter and am not setting PRs very often. Why, then, do I still lift? If I did it only as medicine, I think I would be very sad. I do it because every rep is an exercise of arete. It is also a noble and beautiful deed. This focus helps me to stay motivated even though the days of easy gains are long gone.
Proof of what I’m saying can be found in the instinct of many people to memorialize their lifts on social media. We know that we’ve done a great deed, and the instinct is to show other people. If it’s not on Instagram, did you even lift?
But even if others never see your lifts, you still see it. Take a moment to wonder at the great things your body is capable of. If it helps, think of what others can do. Would anyone else that you see today be able to handle the weights that you did? Probably not! Even if you are a rank beginner, you showed up at the gym. Most people don’t. I don’t mean for you to be arrogant or look down on others. I want you to look up to yourself.
Did you ever see a little grin on the face of an athlete after doing something remarkable? Jordan used to smile like a child. This should be you after every squat set.
One caution: we lifters like to talk about how horrible volume day is, about how we squatted 5×5, and it nearly killed us. This is fun, part of a game of “Top this,” but it’s not helpful to your friends and family who should also lift. Don’t talk about lifting as if it is painful. It’s not, really. There are occasional pains, but it’s not bone cancer. Stop talking about it as if it is. Instead, talk about how much fun you’re having. Tell your friends and family how neat it was to hit a PR. If you are past the days of PRs, say that it felt really good to put in your work today. It will help you, and it will help them.
Stop thinking of lifting as medicine. Start thinking of it as glorious fun.
I don’t post much on the current crisis. It’s not that I have nothing to say, it’s that saying it is usually not productive. See this podcast if you want to know why. So much preparatory work needs to be done before you can have a good conversation that it’s unlikely ever to happen. “You keep using the word ‘good’. What do you mean by it?”
In The Republic, the participants talk about what an ideal city would be like. Little noticed, however, is the end of the dialogue, when Socrates recounts a story of the afterlife. Souls are lined up to be reborn into new lives, and they choose according to the life they lived before. Agamemnon chooses to be an eagle and Ajax a lion. Thersites wants to come back as an ape. These are appropriate choices, but there is a better choice.
Odysseus, the man of twists and turns, gets his turn:
Now it chanced that Odysseus’ soul drew the last lot of all, and came to make its choice. Remembering its former sufferings, it rejected love of honor, and went around for a long time looking for the life of a private individual who did his own work, and with difficulty it found one lying off somewhere neglected by others. When it saw it, it said it would have done the same even if it had drawn the first-place lot, and chose it gladly.
He doesn’t choose a political life, but a quiet life of work, specifically as a cure for former sufferings. Maybe he’s right? Rather than getting more and more sad by things that I can’t control, I should do some work. I suspect that physical work is better for this purpose than mental or office work. If you have a fence to mend, you will care much less about what is happening in the capital city.
I like to think of the new incarnation of Odysseus. What would he be like? Silent, competent, and content, I think.
There is not a lot of money in powerlifting. The NFL, NBA, and MLB suck up most of the athletic interest in this country. Nobody really cares about the strength sports. This, however, is good news. It means that the sports maintains its purity as a display of strength. If you ever want to see pure joy, go to a meet and watch someone set a PR (personal record) in front of a crowd. We all cheer for each other.
My job was to make sure that the barbell was loaded correctly and that the lifters actually lifted according to the rules. If somebody beats me at the squat, I will cheer, but I want to be sure that he squatted to depth. Having the same rules for everyone ensures that the accomplishments are real, and that the joy is authentic. Joy is what happens when you attain some good. If the judging is sloppy, you aren’t sure that you’ve actually attained the good. When my friend Hari pressed 300+ lbs over his head, I want him to know that he actually did it.
It’s good for people to engage in athletic competition. It helps give shape to your training, gives you something to look forward to, and lets other people see the glory of which humans are capable. We are embodied creatures, and bodies shouldn’t be neglected. Train yours for a competition! It will be difficult for you to play football or find 17 friends to make baseball teams, but you can certainly lift heavy things and sign up for a meet. The USSF has online and in-person meets, so the bar for entry is low. Think about it. We’d love to have you join us.
Last weekend my family went hiking. I was given the task of picking the location. It took us about 90 minutes to drive there, and my competence was doubted. “Trust me,” I said. After a few minutes on the trail, we saw this:
My wife and children couldn’t get enough. I was a hero!
The trail abounded in similar vistas. Dramatic changes of elevation, lush vegetation, and waterfalls created a mood, a feeling of transcendence. Any concerns about the daily outrages in the news faded away. Timelessness beckoned.
The attraction of such scenes has to do with what humans are. We are not merely animals, purely material beings who spend our lives gathering food to eat and reproducing. Rather, we are spiritual beings who spend our lives gathering food to eat, reproducing, and delighting in beauty. Maybe you won’t go that far with me; what, after all, is spirit? Just go with me a little further.
Look at this church. What does it say about the people who worship there?
It appeals to the same spirit, I think. Humans are creatures capable of being elevated, and the architecture takes that into account. God makes an appearance as well. The atmosphere is prayerful, as the builders intended. It doesn’t take much effort to recollect oneself in a building like this.
Such places abound if you know where to look. I make a point to seek them out.
We don’t build like this anymore. Why? I think it has to do with belief. A congregation that believes in the greatness of God and the spiritual nature of human beings builds churches like that. What sort of belief does this building evince?
Do they believe the same things as the other church? Judging from the architecture, they have nothing in common.
A few years ago I was talking to Jonathon Sullivan, a former ER doctor who gave up his practice to start a gym. It was a daring and ultimately fulfilling move for him. I remember him saying to me, “It’s the most doctory thing I’ve ever done.” He had been frustrated for years that he could only see patients at the end of a long pattern of destructive behavior. If he could have gotten them into the gym, he could have kept them out of the hospital. The calling of a doctor is to heal, and he finds the gym to be a very good way to do what doctors are supposed to do.
I responded to his comment: “Coaching is the most teachery thing I’ve ever done.” I taught philosophy for more than twenty years in universities. There were times when it was very rewarding. I still remember one of my first classes, how excited the students were to talk about ideas. It was thrilling. But, for the most part, as the years went by the rewarding experiences became fewer. I don’t blame the students, but something happened to make them reticent, less likely to say what they really thought. Often they would spend the class on their phones.
I remember one incident during a metaphysics class. A student was thinking himself into the opinion that the universe actually did have structure and order, and that some things were better than others. He was discovering a hierarchy of being. I was not teaching him this; he was discovering it as a consequence of his own thinking. But just as he was about to reach a real conclusion, he stopped.
“Why did you stop?”
“I wouldn’t want to be incorrect.“
By “incorrect”, he meant that he didn’t want to say something that would offend others. Perhaps this is the reason why the students got so quiet over the twenty years. It’s either that or the cell phones.
Fortunately by that time I had stumbled on coaching as a profession. Standing in front of 30 non-responsive college students, I never knew if I was doing any good. I could teach you to squat, though. Give me a few hours and I can teach you the basic barbell lifts. If you let me coach you, I can take you from never having deadlifted to pulling 500 lbs. I’ve done it, and it’s great fun. I get to see concretely how much good I’ve done. Perhaps it’s better to say that I can see how much good the clients do for themselves with my help. As a teacher, towards the end I was never sure if I was doing any good. As a coach, I could measure it.
This is why coaching is the most teachery thing I’ve ever done.
For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses–either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us–and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
At Online Great Books, one of the highlights of our program is The History of the Peloponnesian War. It’s not a fun book, but it’s a great book. We had originally intended only to read part of the work, but our first seminar group insisted that we read the whole thing. They were right. It’s the best book of political science that there is. Thucydides also gives you necessary context to understand Socrates. He wasn’t just an annoying person hanging around Athens in her golden age, tormenting people in the town square. Rather, he was an annoying person tormenting people who were busily leading their city in a destructive war with Sparta. Socrates himself served in this war, as did Thucydides.
The above quote is from the Melian Dialogue, where the citizens of Melos attempt to argue that Athens should not conquer them. The quote in bold is what most people focus on. It’s a naked declaration of might makes right. You’ll find Thrasymachus repeating it in Plato’s Republic. The strong do what they want. In fact, says Thrasymachus, justice is only the will of the stronger. I believe Thrasymachus is wrong, but it takes a lot of argument to determine how he is wrong. If you’d like to know more, read Plato.
There is a more interesting part of the quote. Before the dialogue starts, Melos and Athens agree to meet privately, away from the people, so that they may tell the truth. The “specious pretenses” that the Athenian mentions are lies that they would have told each other in a conventional political encounter. Most of these would have been for the sake of the people, who are, presumably, dumb enough to believe them. The leaders speak plainly when the People are not around.
In this sample of political interaction from 2500 years ago, we see what may be the model for all such interaction. Speeches are largely false, intended for an audience that cannot determine the truth. The real motives for action are hidden, and are only uttered between equals in private.
I was recently banned from a popular image sharing website. I have no idea why. I kept myself purposely very inoffensive. All I did was share lifting videos, post pictures of food and drink, and publish quotes from great books.
When you use social media, you need to realize that you are not the customer. You are the product. I purchased karlschudt.com last year in case this happened. Now that it has, it’s time to use my website.
I plan to post pretty regularly. If you like what I do, stick around! Perhaps you can tell a friend.