Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"No Citizen Has The Right..."

The below quote...

"No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training... what a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable."

... makes the rounds on the internet about every 6 months. People say it's Socrates, and then they all agree how much the Greeks knew and the value of ancient wisdom, and how people should WANT to be virtuous and squat four plates like us, and make supportive noises towards each other.

Few problems with this, of course (apart from the standard glowing self-righteousness that leaks from people who talk about fitness to each other on the internet):

1) It's probably paraphrased. I can't find a source for the original text.

2) Socrates didn't write anything. His job was walking around annoying people - I have always been very jealous of it. His students are responsible for everything we know about him. So, for completeness sake, this is "Xenophon, attributed to Socrates". It ain't just quibbling. Xenophon's Socrates is not identical to Plato's Socrates. And they were pretty much the only two who wrote about him in any detail.

3) It isn't even the best bit of the passage. Depending on the translation, I have highlighted the bits that I think really read well.

Xenophon, Memorabilia. 371BC (?)
(Marchant translation) 

"“I tell you, because military training is not publicly recognised by the state, you must not make that an excuse for being a whit less careful in attending to it yourself. For you may rest assured that there is no kind of struggle, apart from war, and no undertaking in which you will be worse off by keeping your body in better fettle.

"For in everything that men do the body is useful; and in all uses of the body it is of great importance to be in as high a state of physical efficiency as possible. Why, even in the process of thinking, in which the use of the body seems to be reduced to a minimum, it is matter of common knowledge that grave mistakes may often be traced to bad health.

"And because the body is in a bad condition, loss of memory, depression, discontent, insanity often assail the mind so violently as to drive whatever knowledge it contains clean out of it. But a sound and healthy body is a strong protection to a man, and at least there is no danger then of such a calamity happening to him through physical weakness: on the contrary, it is likely that his sound condition will serve to produce effects the opposite of those that arise from bad condition. And surely a man of sense would submit to anything to obtain the effects that are the opposite of those mentioned in my list.

"Besides, it is a disgrace to grow old through sheer carelessness before seeing what manner of man you may become by developing your bodily strength and beauty to their highest limit. But you cannot see that, if you are careless; for it will not come of its own accord.”

(Dakyns translation)

"Because our city does not practise military training in public, that is no reason for neglecting it in private, but rather a reason for making it a foremost care. For be you assured that there is no contest of any sort, nor any transaction, in which you will be the worse off for being well prepared in body; and in fact there is nothing which men do for which the body is not a help.

In every demand, therefore, which can be laid upon the body it is much better that it should be in the best condition; since, even where you might imagine the claims upon the body to be slightest—in the act of reasoning—who does not know the terrible stumbles which are made through being out of health?

It suffices to say that forgetfulness, and despondency, and moroseness, and madness take occasion often of ill-health to visit the intellectual faculties so severely as to expel all knowledge from the brain. But he who is in good bodily plight has large security. He runs no risk of incurring any such catastrophe through ill-health at any rate; he has the expectation rather that a good habit must procure consequences the opposite to those of an evil habit; and surely to this end there is nothing a man in his senses would not undergo....

It is a base thing for a man to wax old in careless self-neglect before he has lifted up his eyes and seen what manner of man he was made to be, in the full perfection of bodily strength and beauty. But these glories are withheld from him who is guilty of self-neglect, for they are not wont to blaze forth unbidden."

I like Socrates. I think we would have gotten on.


  1. 10/10 post.
    What's just as funny is that the accompanying picture is that of Socrates drinking the Hemlock.

  2. I prefer the Marchant translation, thank you for this post!