Scott and I did a podcast on the Rule of St. Benedict. This is a governing document for monasteries, and might seem an odd choice for a "Great Books" podcast. I think it’s important historically, if not for its literary merits, because monasteries civilized and educated Europe. But it’s also important because of the notion that you need a rule.
Think of a typical gig-worker’s day. Wake up, stumble downstairs, feed your caffeine addiction, screw around on the internet, learn what the daily outrage is, decide to do some work for one of your jobs, eat lunch, have more coffee, do some more gig work, check out instagram, gig work, eat, netflix, work until 2am, fall asleep, and repeat. Unstructured and ad-hoc. This is no way to live. Mishima complains in Sun and Steel about how he was a creature of the night before he discovered the rule of weightlifting. Perhaps you are similar? Living an unstructured bug life?
Try adopting a rule. You could borrow from Benedict if you like. The monks would pray seven times a day and in the middle of the night. The texts are mostly from the biblical prayers called psalms. This gives an immediate structure to the whole day. You know what you’re going to be doing at dawn and at midday and at evening, no matter what else is going on. You sleep at appointed hours, eat at appointed hours. Maybe you could do twice a day instead of seven times a day, but pick a structure and stick to it. You will thrive like a well-tended sheep or chicken.
You need structure! Go to bed, wake up, have specific things that you do at specific times. If you are secular, perhaps you wouldn’t read the psalms. On the other hand, so many of them are complaint psalms that I think they could be usefully prayed by atheists. If you don’t want to adopt a religious rule, fine, but adopt some rule. You’ll be happier.
(Consider what would happen to animals if we made them live on the random schedule many of us adopt!)
I am a "content creator". I co-host two podcasts, write this blog, and contribute occasional pieces elsewhere. I produce an unending content stream. I am producing product for you to consume, right?
I also produce content every morning, but I flush it.
Calling it ‘content’, or sometimes ‘information’ (and thus ‘misinformation’) is to get wrong what it is that I do. I think, and then I communicate my thoughts to you. I am not a content-creator. I am a thinker.
Thinking is not easy. It’s harder than wrestling. One tries to see the patterns in the chaos, or tries to bring patterns into the chaos. Thinking as combat! I’m exhausted after I do it. To have such work reduced to ‘content’ is offensive to me, but more than that, it’s false. Thinking is the highest activity of the highest part of a human, as Aristotle says. It’s the best of our best! Thinking is much too glorious to be reduced to a content-stream.
Consider replacing the word ‘content’ or ‘information’ with ‘thought’ or ‘thinking’ whenever you see it. You’ll notice that streams of something can be rightfully restricted, as my morning content stream is directed into the sewer. But what about thoughts? "Misinformation" becomes "mis-thinking". Does it make you think twice about restricting it?
To paraphrase Nietzsche: I don’t want you to consume content, I want you to think!
My friend Scott has a blog. It’s worth reading. I read this post, and it was quite productive of thought. I’ll wait while you go read it.
Ok, you’re back. I’ve been thinking about long-term planning. I have eleven trees on order that I will plant in the spring, and it is possible that I never eat the fruit. Trees take a while to be productive, and tomorrow is promised to none of us. The tree catalog claims that if I buy their trees, I may be planting fruit trees for my grandchildren’s grandchildren. I like that thought.
We’re used to short term planning. Most of us only think a few months ahead. Try stretching out your timeline. If you have a little property, plant things that you can eat. Maybe you won’t eat from it, but someone will, someday.
Do this in other areas of your life as well. I coach people for a living at Barbell Logic, and clients sometimes get impatient or frustrated. Change doesn’t happen as quickly as we would like. I say, "Imagine what you’ll be like if you train consistently for the next five years!" Think even further. If you’re forty years old now, what will you be like at fifty? Sixty? If you make it that far, wouldn’t you like to have trained? Wouldn’t you like to have planted the trees?
I also work for Online Great Books. We help our members read through Adler’s list of the Great Books, with a few additions. The whole program takes years to finish. We’re not really sure exactly how long. Again, imagine what you’ll be like in five, ten, or twenty years if you read with us, and how different you’d be if you didn’t. Plant some trees in your mind!
I got to watch a crew dig a well recently. I had never seen it done before, and I stood off to the side and watched them work. Four men acted as one, with very few words. They all knew what to do without having to communicate.
There were little techniques, too. The man running the drill wouldn’t look you in the eye when he spoke to you, because he only had eyes for the drill when it was running. He would listen, too, and would know what was deep beneath the earth by the sound that the drill made. Another man would use his shovel to catch the debris thrown up out of the shaft and would inspect them. Occasionally he would smell them. I myself noticed that when they got close to water, the odor changed to the scent of caverns. When the water came, they would taste it. The boss would stand estimating the flow rate. Would this be the a productive well or not?
There was beauty in the activity. Scott and I, along with Thomas Mirus read a book by Jacques Maritain about art. Every productive human activity counts as an art, although it’s not all fine art. As an art, it has a habitus, a way of being that makes the artist/crafstman "connatural" with the activity. You start to know what’s to be done without really thinking about it. Rather, the thinking is so much a part of you that you might not even be sure you’re doing it.
"Why did you do that thing?" "What thing? Um, I’m not really sure. Let me think about it." After a little while the craftsman will like give you a good, rational reason for the ‘thing’ that he did. It’s rational but has become so accustomed that it’s more like an intuition or gift from the gods.
St. Thomas Aquinas says somewhere that the higher levels of the lower levels of being approach the lower levels of the higher levels of being. In other words, the best of animals approach the lower levels of human activity. A good dog can almost seem human. This holds true for us as well. The best and highest of human activity approaches the activity of those above us. We used to call them angels. If that’s a bridge too far for you, just imagine aliens or demigods, or suppose "what if there were such things?" You can approach the angelic.
The way to do this is to get really good at something. The better you get at it, the more your reason becomes intellect. By that, I mean that you go from having to think slowly and discursively through premises and conclusions to the stage of grasping the whole truth in one simple intellectual act. If there is a God, this is how He knows, in one eternal intellectual act.
This is why I watch people who are good at their crafts. It’s like spying on higher beings.
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.