We send our kids to schools where we study the classical world. Much of what our kids learn is lost today, almost alien to them. In some ways, their experience is not unlike that of junior archeologists, patiently unearthing fragments of a long-dead organism, the thing C. S. Lewis called “Old Western Culture.” But of all the faint vestiges left over from ancient times (seen today even in public schools), it is the domain of sports and games that still remains with us.
In the world of antiquity, games were a means to achieve glory (kleos) without actually going to war and losing fathers and sons. Glory was the substance of things said after one’s death and was primarily won through the agonies of war and the heroics of battle. A society always at war, however, will not last. The story Aeshylus tells of young Orestes growing up without a father is partly a warning of this. Men are built to win glory. But if the only means is on the battlefield, then civilization will descend into barbarism. A solution to this was the arena of competition and sports in sports. The Olympic games, for instance, were ways to prevent those small and restless Greek city-states from killing each other in battles. It also kept the men physically fit. We see beautiful examples of this in Homer and Virgil (as well as in other cultures). Death would eventually come to all, but the games afforded a place where the victor could achieve glory without cutting his life short. This is where winning matters. Cue now the “We Are the Champions” anthem, and can I get an “Amen!” from our coaches?
It’s true that just as the hero could achieve glory on the field of battle, so too the athlete could win the great glory in games. But how is this possible? Because there is some standard of what we used to call “excellence.” The Greeks understood this. Anthony Esolen writes,
How can you celebrate a lad’s victory at the games, if you do not contemplate the beauty and vigor of the immortal gods, from whom such blessings flow? So Pindar, praising the strength of a boy named Aristomenes, who defeated his fellows at wrestling in the Pythian games—games in honor of the god of music and medicine, of poetry and archery, Apollo—rises to praise the gods: Man’s life is a day. What is he? What is he not? A shadow in a dream Is man: but when God sheds a brightness, Shining life is on earth And life is sweet as honey.
*Esolen, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books).
Pindar wrote his Pythian Odes, not because he was celebrating the corporate sponsorship, athletic scholarship, or the prize money that the victor might receive. He wrote them in praise of how man was made.
Thus, the athlete and the warrior both achieve glory through their excellence (areté, aristeia) in competition. This is what it means to be human. It’s also why Paul readily employs both metaphors, the soldier and the athlete, to explain what life in Christ looks like. Unlike the ancient Greeks, however, a Christian is not simply out for his own glory. This would be vain and prideful. Rather, the Christian is not to do things “through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (Phil. 2: 2-3). The Christian is to “look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (v. 4).
On the one hand, we’re supposed to compete in games and be excellent. We want to win glory for ourselves and for those we represent. But on the other hand, we’re supposed to be humble and not ambitious. We’re supposed to think of others. This seems like a contradiction. Does this mean Christians should be happy to lose? Should we seek out ways to be conquered with dignity? Perhaps ambition should be made of softer stuff.
STORIES ARE THE SOLUTION
A possible solution to this problem could be in how a story works. The one ingredient that makes every story great is conflict. Consider the following exchange:
“How was your picnic?”
“It was perfect. The sun was shining with a refreshing breeze. After a salty charcuterie, we picked and ate wild strawberries, sipping a rosé that was refreshing with a light acidic tang to balance out the watermelon notes and the jammy sweet of a hibiscus reduction. Then simply talked, lounged on a bed of fresh spring grass. It was just…perfect.”
While this may have been a great experience, it is a good story. Consider a different turn of events:
“Our picnic was awful. We forgot the drinks, and while we were eating, it started to rain. After taking cover, we came back to our food to find the wasps and ants making a meal of it. Then I got a tick on my neck. And while we tried to pull that out, the wolves came, chasing us into the river where we washed up in the part of the forest they say is haunted by an ancient norse demon…”
This latter version likely has your attention better. Trouble makes a good story. Is it shameless schadenfreude that makes conflict so interesting? Or is there something wonderful about conflict, as if it were the composted soil in which the seeds of glory grow? Adversity can sometimes make us better, because it can afford us the opportunity for greatness and excellence. The Greeks and the Romans understood the opportunity athletics offers, that the “agonies” of a boxing match or a wrestling bout or a good ole fashion footrace can make one great and glorious.
In great stories and imaginative literature, there are four basic types of conflict: Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Beast, Man vs. Man, Man vs. Self. Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire” is a dark example of the conflict between man and nature. The novel Moby Dick is a cosmic version of that same conflict. Beowulf’s battle with Grendel is an example of man’s contest against a monster-beast. We could go on, but the domain of sports is also where these four types of conflict exist. The wrestling match between Odysseus and Ajax in Book 23 of Homer’s Iliad is an example of man’s struggle against another man.
Hunting, surfing, pickleball, archery—each has its unique set of challenges that fall into one or all of those categories. But one type of conflict is present in all the others and always exists in any form of struggle. That is the conflict of man versus his own self. Survivor shows are interesting to us because the struggle is happening on two levels: the external struggle against nature’s unsympathetic force and the internal struggle with a man’s own frailty in body and soul.
Many of our schools host team sports, which adds a further social, political dimension. To win means we must be faster, stronger, and more hardworking. We need to be more fit. We need to play smarter. This is where conditioning matters. “Suicides” on the basketball court matter. Paul himself might agree. After all, he of often explains things in similar terms:
But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:27)
Paul is talking about his desire for holiness here, but notice that he uses the analogy of a competitor. This brings us to a primary virtue of athletics: self-mastery. In addition to being an effective competitor, “self-mastery” (enkrateia, Greek ἐγκράτεια) was one way to show that someone was free. “He is not free,” wrote Epictetus, “who is not master of himself.” The Greeks believed that for a great warrior or athlete to achieve excellence and gain glory, he must be completely “in power” and in control of his limbs and movements, graceful under pressure. Any MMA fighter knows that if he loses control, he loses the fight. So self-control matters. We see this word “enkrateia” in the New Testament as well:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23, italics mine)
But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. (1 Peter 1:6, italics mine)
From a classical perspective, one might say this is the main point of all sports competitions, to produce and perfect the athlete unto “self-mastery.” So to answer our original question, we compete not simply to win the game, or to win glory and fame. We compete to gain mastery over ourselves.
HOW TO WIN IN 3 EASY STEPS
Does this mean we need to run more lines? Does this mean we need to start lifting and get shredded? Maybe. For starters, though, it simply means we remember that self-mastery includes the whole person, body and soul. We are not materialists. The body matters, and sometimes even when the spirit is willing, the body is still weak. But we don’t believe that winning is everything. Thus, winning the game is not merely defined by the score at the end of it. One can gain the whole world yet lose one’s soul. To be in God’s image means that we attend as much to the fitness of the soul as we often do to the body.
So what does this look like in classical Christian education?
In every student athlete, the internal conflict is always present. The struggle may come most when we score, and immediately are presented with the opportunity to gloat, to “spike the ball” and shout like Achilles. The challenge may come when the ref makes a bad call, and we are tempted to complain and shift all the blame to that one moment in the game where things went sideways. The struggle may come when we are fouled and have a chance to retaliate against the opponent. The struggle may come when we have opportunity to win by playing dirty. At each of these moments, the competition of “self-mastery” can be really measured.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ gives us the Beatitudes, which do not lower the expectation of virtuous living but raise it. If we are to be a blessing to others, we must first live in a “blessed” way. This means the conflict on the field or on the court is not simply between us and our external opponents; it is between us and ourselves. We subdue and rule our flesh, while at the same time summoning the strength of that flesh and bridling it into graceful submission.
Perhaps this is a clearer picture of what Christ means when he says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.” The word “meek” doesn’t translate well into English but actually means “temperate,” showing the right blend of force and reserve. It is the mark of a civilized and virtuous man to be able to bring two extremes of our nature, gentleness and ferocity, into the harmony of “meekness.” Such self-mastery has the promise of an inheritance more concrete and lasting than fame.
Thus, the seeming contradiction between competing for glory and humbly regarding the benefit of others is resolved in the virtue of self-mastery, in the conditioning of both body and soul. To be glorious in this sense is to bear the fruit of the Spirit: gentleness, self-control, self-mastery. That is our excellence in competition, that is our glory, and that is the game we are really trying to win.
DEVIN O’DONNELL is the director of parent education at The Oaks Classical Christian Academy in Spokane, WA, and is the General Editor of Classis. He is the author of The Age of Martha (Classical Academic Press, 2019), a book that explains how leisure is the root of education.