BMCR 2012.10.30

Athletics and Philosophy in the Ancient World: Contests of Virtue. Ethics and sport

, Athletics and Philosophy in the Ancient World: Contests of Virtue. Ethics and sport. London; New York: Routledge, 2011. xii, 124. ISBN 9780415669504. $125.00.


The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.

Reid’s work is the latest in a lengthy series entitled Ethics and Sports, which seeks, in general, to promote a closer examination of the practice of sport in contemporary society. Athletics and philosophy is the only volume in this series which focuses specifically upon sport in antiquity. Reid justifies this focus, in part, by stressing the similarity between many of the sports-related issues and concerns of antiquity and those of the present day: “Sport philosophy…strives to understand what sport is, and what it may become. And in order to do that, it must also understand what sport has been.” (p. 1). Throughout her work, the author also stresses the relationship between ancient athletics and philosophy, as well as the important contributions both made to contemporary society: in the introduction to her book, for example, Reid notes that both fields of endeavor were preoccupied with the pursuit of arête, and both showed that such excellence, be it in athletic performance or character, was not the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy (p. 2-3).

The book is divided into three main sections: “Athleticism and Arete: From Aristocracy to Democracy”(p. 11-42); “Sport as Training for Virtue in Classical Greek Philosophy” (p. 43-80); and “Learning from Watching Ancient Roman Spectacles” (p. 81-106). In the first section of her work, Reid attempts to show how the development of ancient Greek athletics not only refuted the preexisting notion that excellence, be it in the field of athletics or elsewhere, was the exclusive preserve of the elite, but also made important contributions to the emergence of Greek philosophy and democracy. The beginning of this development is apparent in the Homeric epics: whereas rulers in early Egypt and Mesopotamia demonstrated their worthiness to rule through staged athletic performances (such as the Sumerian king Shulgi’s alleged run from Ur to Nippur in one day), Greek leaders such as Odysseus proved their athletic excellence, as well as their right to rule, through open competition (p. 11-20). Reid suggests that it was the militaristic Mycenaeans who first introduced this element of competition to sporting events (p. 16), although the argument that competitiveness on the battlefield led to open sporting competition is not especially persuasive. After all, the armies possessed by earlier Near Eastern states, for example, do not appear to have affected their athletic competitions in such a fashion.

In her discussion of the evolution of Greek athletics, the author next turns her attention to the ancient Olympics, with the following provocative statement: “…the Olympic blend of athletics and religion initiated a new attitude towards knowledge and community service that presaged the birth of philosophy” (p. 23). In Reid’s view, the same thirst for knowledge “…through rational testing and evidence…” (p. 26) which motivated impartial foot races and other events at Olympia ultimately inspired the development of Greek philosophy as well. The author also argues a similar line of progression from sport to democracy. Although competitors from an elite background predominated at ancient Greek athletic festivals, the inclusion of poorer athletes through subsidies, and their success in various events like boxing, showed once and for all that arête, whether in the athletic or political sphere, was not the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy (p. 32-42). Reid’s suggestion that Greek athletics played a pivotal role in the development of philosophy and democracy, however, may be somewhat overstated. The Archaic period saw a general questioning of previous norms and traditions in various facets of Greek society, and in the reviewer’s opinion, it is preferable to view the emergence of philosophy, athletics and democracy all as aspects of this trend, rather than one development having a direct causal relationship with the other two.1

In the second, and lengthiest section of her work, Reid discusses the place of athletics in Greek society as reflected in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Certainly, the prevalence of athletics in a more general sense is reflected by the number of Socratic dialogues set at gymnasia, as well as the number of athletic metaphors found in such works: for example, Socrates claims on more than on occasion that, like wrestling, true philosophical discourse depends upon ‘fair play’ and the use of proper techniques (p. 43-55). Plato expands upon the importance of athletics elsewhere in his writings, arguing that although arête depends upon wisdom rather than athletic excellence, the latter nonetheless can be beneficial. Since Plato follows the common Greek conception that the soul is the seat of movement in the body, he states, in particular, that graceful exercise could both cultivate and display the general virtue of the psyche. In addition, the ideal of athletic chastity valued in elite athletes contributed to the general self-control essential to one’s arête (p. 58-64). Like Plato, Aristotle also saw value in athletics: the rules of competition, for example, habituated the athletes involved to the laws of society (p. 69-80). Reid argues, in particular, that the figure of the pentathlete, complimented by Aristotle in his Rhetoric (1361b11), perfectly embodied such values as the balance and training which he considered essential to the cultivation of virtue.

In the final section of her work, Reid turns her attention to the spectator events of ancient Rome as viewed through the lens of Epicureanism and Stoicism, the two Greek philosophies most popular in Rome. As the author notes, the often violent Roman spectacles, at least at first glance, would seem to have little attraction for Epicureans seeking peace of mind ( ataraxia) above all else. Nevertheless, in Reid’s view, the relatively secular nature of Roman spectacles (in comparison to Greek athletic contests), and the inevitability of death as symbolized by gladiatorial bouts, for example, were two aspects of such events which would have broadly conformed to Epicurean tenets (p. 81-89). Similarly, although a Stoic like Seneca might find fault with the behavior of Roman spectators, philosophical value could nonetheless be found in the combats of lowly gladiators: because they had mastered their passions (or, in other words, resigned themselves to their fate in the arena), for example, they were freer in a Stoic sense than most of the audience watching their exploits. The fact that performers of such low status could achieve virtue in such a manner, as Reid notes, would also have appealed to the Stoic disregard for conventional social hierarchies (p. 90- 98). Similarly, the multiethnic and multilingual crowd of spectators at a venue like the Circus Maximus reflected the Stoic cosmopolitan ideal, and the enforcement of rules at chariot races in Rome, in the presence of the emperor, symbolized his enforcement of justice in the wider community (p. 99-106).

In her conclusion (p. 107-14), Reid stresses the legacy of both Greek and Roman sports to modern-day athletics, as well as the parallels between the ancient and modern era. In her mind, the most important contributions of ancient Greek athletics to modern sport are the discovery that arête is not a function of wealth or high status, in addition to the concept that the virtues behind athletic excellence are more important than athletic excellence in and of itself: athletes who cheat to win, for example, are of no benefit to society. The opportunity for athletes to display virtues like self-sacrifice to a large audience, in turn, as well as their role in unifying a community or fan base behind them, are two of the common features shared by the spectator events of both ancient Rome and the modern world. Reid concludes her study with the wish that the interplay between philosophy and sport might be taken more seriously in the present-day, so that both fields of endeavor might ultimately benefit.

In general, the work under review, although relatively short, has much to commend it. The effective inclusion of modern sports references, such as the victory of the U.S. men’s hockey team at Lake Placid in 1980 (seen by some contemporaries as symbolizing the supremacy of democracy) (p. 32), as well as quotes by modern sports figures like Charles Barkley (p. 11) on such topics as the celebrity status of athletes, certainly supports Reid’s contention that many of the issues she addresses in her study are still relevant today. In addition, any typos in the book are few and far between.2 The main criticism of the book which the reviewer has involves the sweeping statements and generalizations which Reid sometimes makes in the course of her study. One example of this phenomenon has already been noted, in the author’s suggestion that Greek athletics “…helped to lay the foundations upon which democracy was eventually built” (p. 41). Reid does state in her preface that: “As a philosopher, I am comfortable making arguments and conjectures that might be anathema for historians and classicists.”(p. xi). Nonetheless, in the reviewer’s opinion at least, important claims like the one above merit a fuller discussion of the relevant evidence than presented in the book.3


1. Cf. D.G. Kyle, Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World (Malden, MA 2007), p. 85.

2. The only blatant factual error noticed by the reviewer was the statement on p. 16 that “Helen, queen of the Argives” was abducted from Argos rather than Sparta.

3. Another example of the largely unsubstantiated statements which periodically appear in Reid’s work occurs on p. 86, when she briefly mentions the Roman use of elephants to execute criminals. According to the author, elephants were used for this purpose “…because they were regarded as the most morally judicious of beasts.” This is an explanation for elephant executions which the reviewer has certainly never encountered in his own work, and it would be useful to know whether this statement is simply Reid’s opinion on the matter, or is based upon historical evidence and previous scholarship pertaining to the topic.