So I recently signed up for kickboxing. I did it as part of my evolving training in Stoicism. Which probably requires a little bit of an explanation. Growing up in Rome I was exposed early on to the stock phrase, mens sana in corpore sano, which is found in Satire X by the Roman poet Juvenal, written in the late I and early II century (i.e., the time of Epictetus).
Interestingly, Juvenal’s original intention was to teach his fellow Romans about the importance of virtue:
You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.
Ask for a stout heart that has no fear of death,
and deems length of days the least of Nature’s gifts
that can endure any kind of toil,
that knows neither wrath nor desire and thinks
the woes and hard labors of Hercules better than
the loves and banquets and downy cushions of Sardanapalus.
What I commend to you, you can give to yourself;
For assuredly, the only road to a life of peace is virtue.
If that doesn’t sound Stoic, I don’t know what does! A similar sentiment can actually be traced back to Thales of Miletus, one of the first pre-Socratic philosophers: “What man is happy? He who has a healthy body, a resourceful mind and a docile nature.”
Of course the generally accepted meaning of Juvenal’s phrase has gotten detached from the original context about virtue, and has come to mean that the foundation of a good life lies in a combination of physical and mental health, with the implication — confirmed by modern science — that the two are actually related.
I internalized that message long before turning to Stoicism as a philosophy of life, and did what most people do, especially in the US: I signed up for a gym membership, and more or less religiously attended, two or three times a week, following a rotating series of aerobic and strength training exercises. Which was incredibly boring. Every time I was greeted by the nice woman at the gym’s desk with a broad smile and a peppy “enjoy your workout!” I wanted to retort: “who on earth enjoys a workout?!?”
Nonetheless, I stuck with it, and later came to use my trips to the gym as exercises in Stoic endurance and perseverance, coming to think of the health benefits as side effects (preferred indifferents), rather than the main point of the thing.
But then I remembered about Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoa after Zeno and before Chrysippus. He has a mixed reputation even among Stoics, in part because his tenure at the school was sandwiched between that of two giants — one the one hand, the founder of Stoicism, on the other hand, the guy of whom Diogenes Laertius said that “there would be no Stoa without.” But in part also because Cleanthes was apparently responsible for a temporary decline in the fortunes of the Stoic school, since he wasn’t exactly an inspiring teacher.
Still, he was a remarkable character. Early in life he was a boxer, thus embodying the tradition of philosophers who were also athletes (think of Plato: we don’t actually know his real name, “Plato” just means broad shouldered, a reference to the fact that he was a wrestler). Cleanthes was poor when he arrived in Athens to study philosophy, first under Crates the Cynic — Zeno’s own teacher — and then under Zeno. He was forced to work night shifts as a water carrier for a gardener in order to keep himself in school, and his apparent lack of income (he was seen only studying philosophy during the day) got him summoned in court to account for his income. When he explained his predicament, the judges voted to give him a payment of ten minae, which Zeno did not allow him to accept (it was only a bit later on that Stoics agreed to be paid for their teachings, breaking with the Socratic tradition).
Cleanthes was such a hard and methodical worker that he was nicknamed “the ass,” a label he apparently enjoyed and appropriated. His moral rectitude was such that Zeno designated him as his successor, and he taught Chrysippus in turn. Cleanthes died at the very ripe age of 99, about 230 BCE. He had suffered of a terrible ulcer and he started fasting. He then continued his abstinence from food, thus choosing to die. He said that he found himself already half-way to death, and he wouldn’t bother retracing his steps.
What is most relevant to this story, of course, is that Cleanthes was a boxer. That inspired me to look for some kind of physical activity that was more reminiscent of what the ancient Greco-Romans were doing than just going to a standard gym. I don’t care much for boxing itself, though, and pancratium instructors are hard to find in New York. Then again, pancratium was an all-out type of wrestling, which included kicking and punching (though no biting was allowed!). That, and a number of early bouts in my youth with martial arts (Judo, Shaolin Kung Fu, and Karate), made the choice obvious: kickboxing it would be. (The fact that there is a gym only a couple of blocks from my apartment in Chelsea, Manhattan, was a nice preferred indifferent.)
So about three times a week I get up at 6:15, get my gear, and walk to the gym, where the first session begins at 6:30. The routine consists of fifteen minutes or so of a very (very) intense aerobic and strength workout, followed by a few minutes of stretching, and then 35-40 minutes of kicking and punching a bag suspended from the ceiling, practicing jab, cross, hook, uppercut, front kicks, side kicks, and my favorite, roundhouse kicks.
The health benefits are significant and pretty obvious to most of the regular participants. Because the workout is closely supervised by a number of trainers, you really do work out, sweating and grunting all the way. And the punching and kicking isn’t leisurely either, since it is done pretty much non-stop and at a fairly high intensity. It feels good on your body, and it also help reduce your stress level (just imagine a suitable opponent’s face at the top of the punching bag and go at it!).
But of course for me a major point is to see kickboxing within the framework of Stoicism, which means that the whole experience is mostly not about losing weight or learning how to kick the shit out of imaginary adversaries.
Rather, the exercise is first and foremost a metaphor for life itself, as Marcus put it: “The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.” (Meditations, VII.61)
Or consider Epictetus: “‘Get up’, says the trainer, ‘and wrestle again, until you are made strong.’ Let this be your attitude; for know that nothing is more amenable than the mind of man. You have but to will a thing and it is done, and all is right; on the other hand you have but to relax your effort and all is lost. For destruction and deliverance lie within you.” (Discourses IV, 9)
Indeed, one of the things our trainers constantly tell us is not to let go, to keep pushing, even by a little, to get more out of our bodies and efforts. That’s also how the Stoics make progress toward wisdom (without necessarily ever reaching it): you push yourself a bit more every day, and when you fail you simply get up again and resume from where you left.
Another similarity between kickboxing and Stoic practices is the focus on the here and now. Having to punch or kick a bag over and over requires effort (you are punching and kicking, not gently nudging!) and concentration. You don’t want to get distracted by other thoughts, like what you need to do at work after you leave the gym, because otherwise you will not do your job as a kickboxer properly (which can result in injuries, among other things). As Don Robertson puts it while explaining the similarities between Stoicism and modern psychotherapy, “The ‘here and now’ philosophy of Gestalt therapy is a figure of speech translating the Latin hic et nunc, one of the key themes of Stoic psychotherapy: returning awareness to the present moment.”
Larry Becker, in A New Stoicism, interprets the eudaimonic life the Stoics were striving towards as characterized by maximization of agency, within the constrains imposed by an ethical compass (i.e., a maximally agentic psychopath would not be a good Stoic). This means that eudaimonia is a state of being, not an outcome, similar to the modern concept of “flow” in psychology, introduced by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, as illustrated in this diagram:
In order to be in the “flow zone,” one needs to be doing whatever she is doing at a combination of high skill and high challenge levels. This is precisely what a good kickboxing session is like: you literally feel the empowering sensation of your body and mind being coordinated to accomplish the task at hand, which makes the hour in the gym go fast and provides you with an afterglow deriving from the intimate, first person knowledge that you have done well. Likewise in Stoic practice: the prokopton challenges himself at the highest level possible because that’s the way to improve his skills at living life; and vice versa, his improving skills make it possible for him to push the challenge one or two levels higher.
Regardless of whether it is kickboxing, Judo, Kung Fu, or any other martial art or type of wrestling, it looks like Juvenal had a point: a healthy body goes hand in hand with a healthy mind, and the two favor the practice of virtue. Moreover, I think the much under appreciated Cleanthes should be reevaluated as a role model for the Stoic in training.