The Greeks carved all of those school statues of ripped guys, so they must have known their way around a gym, right? The ancient Greek philosophy of health is more like modern philosophies of wellness but it may still inspire you. Particularly if your current fitness routine lacks … balance.
The Greek philosophy of health promoted the body as a vessel for the mind. While sculpting your body could serve your mind and your community, it had to be done for the right reasons – never for vanity, and never at the expense of the other pursuits of a good life.
Health and Occupations in Ancient Greece
To really understand the ancient Greek philosophy of health, we have to break society into three classes: athletes, tradespeople, and philosophers.
The Ancient Greek Athlete
In ancient Greece, the athlete was really the only one expected to “work out” in the sense that we tend to think about it today. One of the “Golden Sayings of Epictetus” tells us:
“(To be a victor at the olympics) you must live by rule, submit to diet, abstain from dainty meats, exercise your body perforce at stated hours in heat or in cold … in a word, you must surrender yourself wholly to your trainer as though to a physician.”
The olympic athlete in ancient Greece represented the city state that they hailed from. As a result, training the best athletes possible was not only a matter of civic pride but, potentially, civic security and defense. As a result, as we see in this line by Epictetus, being an athlete was a full-time job.
The Golden Sayings aren’t the only ancient Greek text to put the personal trainer on the same level as a physician, either. The relationship between athlete and trainer was that of “disciple” and “master,” according to Socrates in Plato’s Crito:
“(The disciple of gymnastics) ought to live and train and eat and drink in the way which seems good to his single master who has understanding, rather than according to the opinions of all other men put together.”
The Ancient Greek Tradesperson
Most of ancient Greek society fell into this class, which included the military. People who weren’t full time professional athletes weren’t expected to “work out” as we think of it today. Children did, as Socrates and Aristotle both recommended that gymnastics should “begin in the early years … and continue through life.”
Tradespeople, however, were expected to remain healthy through maintaining a healthy diet and being physically active as a part of or in activities related to their occupation:
“(My father) took a reasonable care of his body’s health, not as one who was greatly attached to life, nor out of a great regard for personal appearance, nor yet in a careless way, but so that through his own attention he very seldom stood in need of the physicians’ art or of medicine, or external applications.” – Marcus Aurelius in Meditations.
In fact, both Socrates and Aristotle tell us in various writings that it was widely believed that working out muscles that you didn’t use in your job would make you worse at your job and so was largely discouraged. This is because, rather like being an athlete, no matter what trade you had was seen not as “your trade” but as a trade that you did for and on behalf of the city.
As noble as that is, we of course now understand that always using some muscles and never working out other muscles can make overuse injuries more likely. So, even if you want to live (almost) entirely by the Greek philosophy of health and wellness, you might want to take this particular sentiment with a grain of salt.
The Ancient Greek Philosophers
The final group that the Greek philosophy of health touched on were the philosophers themselves. Similar to tradespeople, philosophers weren’t expected to work out more than their jobs required. Of course, in the case of the philosophers, their jobs didn’t require them to work out at all and some of them didn’t. Many described exercise as a waste of time.
“The body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of mere requirements of food … We make the nearest approach to knowledge when we have the least possible concern or interest in the body.” – Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo.
Of course, Socrates is unusually bitter in Phaedo because the whole work is him convincing his friends to let him die. Typically, the philosopher, like the tradesman, was expected to be healthy, which entailed some physical exertion. When Socrates makes the argument above, his companion, Simmias, counters by comparing the mind to music and the body to an instrument:
“When the strings of the body are unduly loosened or overstrained through disorder or other injury then the soul … of course, perishes at once.”
That’s not to say that Socrates didn’t believe what he was saying. In addition to the same sentiments being found in the writing of other philosophers, Socrates says in Apology (before he is sentenced to death) that:
“A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of his living or dieing; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong.”
What Can You Learn?
Sure, some of the nuggets of wisdom from the Greek philosophy of health have gotten a little outdated. However, there are still a few things that we can learn.
Listen to Your Doctor
We say it in just about every HTBM article, but the greats were saying it thousands of years ago: listen to your doctor. Avoiding needing a doctor in the first place is listed with comical frequency as a reason to work out in the Greek philosophy of health:
“Things which are at their best are also least liable to be altered or discomposed. For example, when healthiest and strongest, the human frame is least liable to be affected by (sickness).” – Socrates in Plato’s Republic.
However, everyone gets sick or injured sometimes and, when that happens, you can turn to your doctor. Not only that, you should turn to your doctor first:
“If acting under the advice of men who have no understanding we destroy that which is improvable by health and deteriorated by disease, would life be worth having?” – Socrates in Plato’s Crito.
It’s Possible to Overdo it
We might not have been entirely fair to the philosophers above. They didn’t think that exercise was a bad thing, but they are aware of the potential to overdo it. And you should be too. You can get too much exercise just like you can get too much of any good thing.
“It is a mark of a small intellect to spend (too) much time in things relating to the body; as to be immoderate in exercise, in eating and drinking, and in the discharge of other animal functions.” – Epictetus in The Enchiridion.
Work Out for the Right Reasons
The philosophers were also concerned that people were working out for the right reasons. There’s an idea in ethics that for a thing to be “good” it has to be done out of the right intention. As Epictetus is quoted in the “Golden Sayings” cited above:
“Any methods of discipline applied to the body to modify its desires and passions are good – for ascetic ends. But, if done for display, they betray at once a man who keeps an eye on outward show.”
So too, Socrates (who kept a tight diet, walked everywhere, and was a literal war veteran) had his own philosophy of health and wellness:
“One man finds pleasure in improving his land, another his horses. My pleasure lies in seeing myself grow better day by day.”
You want to work out to be healthy, but you also want to enjoy being healthy. As Epictetus said above, part of the great thing about working out is pushing yourself. However, if you aren’t using your health to live a healthy life, what are you doing?
So far, we’ve been looking at the Greek philosophy of health, but they also had a philosophy of wellness. This philosophy, instead of pitting the body against the mind as we’ve seen above, used physical health to promote spiritual sensation. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, again in his Meditations:
“No longer let thy breathing only act in concert with the air which surrounds thee, but let thy intelligence also now be in harmony with the intelligence that embraces all things.”
Hit the Gymnasium
The ancient Greek philosophers may have been the fathers of the tragic but common misconception that you can’t have brains and brawn. While you don’t have to like that part of the story, we can all learn a thing or two from the focus that their philosophy of health placed on living a balanced life in tune with nature and our fellow humans.