You begin a visit to the ancient stadium at Nemea at the ruins of the apodyterio, literally the “un-dressing room,” where athletes removed their clothes in preparation for their events—and a favorite setting for Socrates’s spiritual undressing of Athenian youth. Like the otherworldly Greek sanctuaries themselves, the apodyterio was a place to shed your attachment to the mundane world of the everyday, to prepare to reveal and celebrate the higher dimensions of your humanity.

Next, you walk down the long stone tunnel where you would have stood along with other ancient athletes in cool and quiet darkness, waiting for your names to be called. Eyeing the bright light and shimmering heat of the track outside, hearing the muffled rumblings of the crowd, you would likely have experienced a moment of deep uncertainty, a delicate spot of aloneness. Finally, your name would have been called, at which time you would burst out into the light, naked both literally and metaphorically, ready to face the challenge and be tested in front of everyone—your competitors, your family, your friends and enemies—ready to submit your soul, under the brilliant Mediterranean sun, ready to be inspected by the gods themselves.1

Observing a society where shame and failure were unmercifully disdained, where there were no consolations for losers or rewards for simply taking part, we might ask, what force drove a person to do this, to risk the humiliation of failure, to strive for unattainable heights? It was more than recreation, more than social custom, more than professional obligation. It was a burning drive for spiritual excellence that went beyond the practical considerations of everyday life in order to discover what was best in humanity. It was a philosophical and transcendent force, something fundamental to human character and, though less pervasive now than it was in ancient Greek culture, it is a force that I believe is still alive today.

Olympism and Aretē

The ancient Olympians were not athletes; they were gods. The philosophical ideal of aretē was envisioned as a god-like perfection of body, will, and mind, a holistic pursuit of human excellence. The modern Olympic movement preserves this ancient goal of holistic excellence in the first fundamental principle of Olympism listed in the Olympic Charter:

Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.2

And so, to an Olympian, sports are not merely linked to physical achievements; they are a way of life and a social responsibility, and this commitment harkens all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

Athletic competition is at the heart of Greek culture. It appears in Homer’s epics and claims its spiritual center in Olympia. It is intimately connected to some of Greek civilization’s best-known gifts: classical sculpture, democracy, and especially philosophy. The competitive struggle intrinsic to sport was emulated intellectually by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—all of whom plied their trade in gymnasia.

Plato, who was himself a competitive wrestler, makes extensive physical training part of his educational programs for aretē. In the Republic, gymnastics is claimed to be for the benefit of the soul (410c). Although his explanation as to how gymnastics develops the soul is limited, connections can be made between athletics and philosophy beyond their common goal of improving the soul.3 Indeed, through the voice of Socrates, Plato connects as “counterparts” proper engagement in philosophic argument with proper participation in physical training (Republic 539d). His point here is that those who use argument for the “sport” of defeating others rather than the higher goal of finding truth and leading a virtuous life are akin to those who practice athletics for philonikia, the love of victory, rather than the pursuit of personal excellence or aretē. Plato feels that the former are not worthy of the name “philosopher”—are the latter worthy of the name Olympian?

Seen as something distinct from philosophy, the goal of sports may appear to be winning a prize or philonikia. Indeed, it may seem that sports were structured for just that purpose, to declare one competitor superior to the others. Undoubtedly, sports are frequently practiced to that end. But in line with Plato’s claims about argumentation, I contend that the metaphysics of sporting contests suggests that their purpose is for something greater than mere competition, entertainment, or profit. A look at the basic structure of sports, a structure that hasn’t changed since ancient times, reveals that the fundamental goal of sports are to cultivate and celebrate human excellences (i.e., aretē).

What do I mean by the basic structure of sports? If we look all the way back to Homer’s Iliad, we find athletic contests that were sufficiently familiar to the practitioners to conclude that such games were already a longstanding tradition by the time of the Trojan war.4 The events include a footrace, a chariot race, a weight throw, and contests in wrestling and boxing. They all reflect a similar format: competitors are selected, rules are articulated, valuable prizes are offered, and outcomes are discussed. But what is most important about these and all sporting events is that the tasks they create serve no practical purpose.5 Even though the skills tested are sometimes useful in combat, the games are distinguished from combat precisely in that there is no useful purpose to them: the runners, for example, end up where they started, having carried no message or cargo from point to point. Golf and figure skating are even further removed from such practical concerns.

So if the contest activities themselves lack a practical purpose, we must ask where their obvious meaning comes from. I submit that this meaning comes from the spiritual excellences or aretai demanded by these tasks. Sporting contests set up challenges that act as a mechanism for cultivating and celebrating the same virtues that enable a person to excel in life’s (meaningful) challenges. Before the Iliad’s funeral games begin, Achilles and his friends make it clear that they are celebrating the fallen Patroclos’s excellences, excellences that had served them well on the very serious field of battle. At the same time, they are pushing each other to demand more of themselves, to test their aretai against that of their comrades as part of a community drive to achieve ever-higher levels of excellence. The prizes are rewards and incentives for the cultivation of such excellences, but they are not the reason for or goal of each contest. Nor is the goal simply to beat the other guy. If it were, then it wouldn’t matter who the other guy was, but Achilles insists that his most skilled men take part in each contest. The purpose is not simply to set one man above the rest, but to test and to celebrate the excellences that the contests elicit and so to honor Patroclos and the gods themselves.

Sports and the Parts of Aretē

Thus, sporting contests, from the ancient Hellenic perspective, derive their meaning not from the physical acts of putting balls into nets but from the spiritual excellences such acts demand. And those excellences are themselves valuable because aretē is understood as a dynamis, a power in the soul that can be applied to such meaningful tasks as being a good citizen or achieving eudaimonia (happiness).6 The list of specific virtues implied by the ancient concept of aretē varies, but generally it includes eusebeia (reverence), andreia (courage), sophrosynē (self-control), dikaiosynē (justice), and sophia (wisdom). Furthermore, there is a strain of thought in Hellenic philosophy that suggests these virtues are at least related, if not completely unified: to have one is to have them all.

Now this last claim is sure to elicit a myriad of counterexamples involving athletes who excel at sports but display few, if any, of the virtues on that list. Likewise, there are many thinkers skilled in debate and argument who nevertheless fail to pursue knowledge or live a virtuous life. Both cases demonstrate the limitations of the activities (athletics and philosophical debate) to reliably elicit the excellences they are designed to reward. It is a failure of sport, noted by many, including Plato, that it sometimes rewards skills in the absence of true aretē. But this doesn’t diminish sport’s potential to cultivate aretē, nor does it refute the observation that sporting contests are and should be intended to elicit those cardinal virtues. What follows is a brief account of these ancient Greek ideals accompanied by an explanation of how the practice of sports may help us to cultivate them.

Eusebeia, often translated as piety, may best be understood as reverence for and duty to some ideal beyond oneself.7 For the ancient Hellenes, the commitment to excellence, including the practice of sport, was religious. Their stadia were within religious sanctuaries, and their games were part of festivals to honor the gods. It has been argued that even the athletes’ sweat was seen to be an item of ritual sacrifice.8 Although modern sports need not be subsumed by any particular religion, the sense that athletic pursuits are aimed at ideals that transcend mundane existence remains. As symbolized by the sacred prize of kotinos (olive wreath) and the venerated Olympic tradition of ekecheiria (truce), sports look above simple commerce and our quarrels among ourselves. Sports push us to reach for a higher standard of excellence reflected in the divine realm, just as the Greek athletes were racing to honor their gods by displaying the best and most noble in themselves.

Along with this appreciation for the divine ideal, eusebeia requires an awareness of our imperfection with respect to the divine ideal and a wondering about our ability to live up to it. This combination then yields a desire to test oneself against the ideal, or at least against others who may approximate it. I take Socrates’s eusebeia to be a paradigm example. Famously, he appreciates the ideal of divine knowledge, acknowledges the fact that he doesn’t have it, and sets about testing his ideas against the wisest men of Athens in order to try and achieve it.

Likewise, to be an athlete, almost by definition, is to seek perfection while constantly facing up to one’s own imperfection. Even the world’s best athletes are often dissatisfied with their record-breaking performances, and all because they appreciate and are trying to approximate an even greater excellence. For many of us, sports provide our first experience with conceptualizing an ideal and measuring ourselves against it. Often the ideal begins as some champion athlete, but for most of us it evolves beyond a particular person to a more abstract idea such as the perfect race. In both cases it is that tension between where we are and where we want to be that motivates us to train, compete, and strive for otherwise meaningless goals. Although our victories may be accompanied by prizes and popularity, those spoils are not the true objects of our striving. We are trying to find something out about ourselves, about ideals, and about the capacities of humanity itself. Athletes can still cultivate eusebeia if they learn to link their competitive striving in sport with their personal striving toward ideals.

Andreia, translated as bravery or courage, is grounded in the view of life as agōn or struggle. Generally, andreia is that power that enables us to endure and even to excel in that struggle. Plato took pains to show in Laches that andreia is less an absence of fear than a kind of wisdom about what should and should not be feared. Socrates eventually describes it as wise endurance in the pursuit of noble goals.9 In the Republic, andreia is the quality of the spirited part of the soul that enables it to follow reason’s lead (430b and 442c). Plato’s point is that it’s not enough to be willing to take risks and face danger, because many risks and dangers are not worth taking. Nor is it andreia to fight one’s way toward victory at any cost. Socrates’s historic retreat in the battle of Delium saved many lives and so enabled the Athenians to fight another day.10 What we need is a willingness to follow through with what we discern to be right, a willingness that includes the courage to risk one’s wealth and reputation in order to pursue higher ideals.

To the ancient Hellenes, there could be no such thing as aretē without struggle since life itself is struggle. The problem is that life’s meaningful struggles sometimes come along when we’re least prepared for them. It makes sense, in that case, to prepare ourselves intentionally by establishing and engaging in artificial struggles that cultivate qualities like andreia. This is exactly what sporting contests, ancient and modern, do. They manufacture agōn, challenges that test our ability to follow rules and execute plans. When Plato designed competitive games for his kallipolis in the Laws, he specified that the fighting contests be real enough to incite fear and reveal bravery (830e–831a). The cultivation of andreia demands that we take risks, not merely physical risks, but even more importantly, the psychological risk of trying and failing, of revealing embarrassing truths about ourselves in public. To take part in competitive sports is, by definition, to risk losing. But not to take part is to lack the courage to strive beyond what’s predictable and safe. By cultivating the courage to face challenges inside the stadium, athletes develop the potential to achieve excellence in other endeavors.

Sophrosynē, usually translated as temperance or self-discipline, contains a sense of power and control that is not easily communicated by those words. Nevertheless, it is a concept easy for those who love and participate in sports to understand. Sophrosynē applies the aesthetic qualities of harmony and balance to the metaphysical understanding of a human person as a limited combination of mind, body, and spirit. It views aretē in terms of the harmonious balance and dynamic function of these three elements. In Charmides, Plato’s Socrates rejects definitions of sophrosynē as modesty or quietness by using counterexamples from running and boxing (159c). Beauty, the central criterion for sophrosynē, requires a dynamic and harmonious tension between power and control.

Power and control are precisely the qualities demanded by both the aesthetic ideal and practical objectives of sports. In fact, much of the entertainment value of sports may be traced to the aesthetic pleasure we take in athletes’ displays of controlled power. But the purpose of sports should not simply be to market such beautiful displays, but rather it is to elicit such human excellences as sophrosynē that reflect our human nature as powerful but inevitably limited beings. An important metaphysical characteristic of sport is that it quite consciously imposes limitations and boundaries on space, time, and action. Ironically, these boundaries carve out a space apart from the “mundane world” where we can “go all-out” and express unprecedented freedoms.11 I can scream as loud as I want on the racquetball court, but not in my classroom, next door. What’s fascinating about sport is the dynamic human power displayed within extreme limits—gymnasts do things on a four-inch balance beam that defy imagination. Surely Plato had sophrosynē in mind when he emphasized dignity and control in dancing and wrestling contests (Laws 814e). Although modern sports are often characterized by excesses and “winning ugly,” the ideal remains a harmonious tension between power and control. Cultivating an aesthetic sense of harmony and balance that can guide our personal action is not only demanded by sports, it is important for moral development in general.

Dikaiosynē, or justice, is easy to translate but very hard to explain. There were many different ideas of justice in ancient times just as there are now. I think that sport’s own concern with justice helps it to accommodate the variety of theories and to establish itself as something designed to celebrate and cultivate justice. The term dikaiosynē is roughly contemporary with the introduction of written laws and was meant initially to describe a man who obeyed these laws. This ideal fits well with sports, since to break the constitutive rules is in a sense not to play the game at all.12 But it is clear in both sports and philosophy that justice cannot simply be reduced to rule obedience. What about the possibility of unjust rules or minor violations, such as an unintentional hand-ball violation in soccer that may nullify a justly deserved victory?

In the Republic, Plato came to understand justice in the individual and in the city as the proper ordering and harmonious function of the various parts of the soul or of the citizenry. For the soul, this means that the rational part must lead, with the spirited and appetitive parts following. Isn’t this just the thing demanded of an athlete by sports? Think of a martial arts form, a complicated dance move, or even an offensive play in American football. One must rationally conceptualize the proper moves and then have the heart and guts to perform the action with power and enthusiasm. Justice in Plato’s city, however, depended on the citizens best suited to particular tasks performing them for the good of the community at large. This is just the distribution of labor demanded of athletic teams that always perform best when the work is distributed according to talent and skill. It may be difficult to isolate a single theory of justice in the ancient world, yet sports seem well suited as a mechanism for eliciting most of our conceptions of it—so much so that we often refer to the language of sports to illustrate important aspects of justice, for example, the expression a “level playing field.” Playing sports in a spirit of fairness may cultivate in athletes a sense of justice that is useful far beyond the stadium.

Sophia, or wisdom, evolves in ancient thought from something like prudence to a philosophic understanding of good and evil. For Socrates at least, sophia seems to be that element of aretē that renders the individual virtues useful for the pursuit of happiness, which is the ultimate prize in the game of life. Just as a doctor’s skills may be applied to help or harm a patient, athletic skills such as courage and self-discipline can be used in the pursuit of either base or noble ends. The ability to discern what’s best, for oneself, one’s community, and one’s environment, is the lynchpin of any athletic program aimed at personal excellence. And this ability is also the goal of philosophia, the love of wisdom, as practiced by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. But despite its intellectual nature, sophia can and should be pursued with the whole soul. Practiced thoughtfully, athletics themselves can be understood as philosophy.13

The key here is the attitude and intellectual engagement of the athlete within the experience of sports. Just as philosophers recognize truth (and not victory in argument) as their true goal, athletes should focus on the ideals of excellence and perfection. The philosopher, like the scientist and the detective, tries to discover some truth about the world. Athletes try to discover some truth about what they, as humans, are capable of. In this sense, athletic contests are like science experiments that must be conducted according to the rules and with a willingness to accept the truth of the results they render, even when the results are not what had been expected. An embrace of sophia also requires an effort to reflect upon and evaluate the meaning of those results in the context of greater goals.

Most of this process is already in place for successful athletes. They see their sport, say a 100-meter dash, as a question asked, a complex problem to be solved. And they bring all their physical, intellectual, and spiritual resources to bear in their attempts to solve it. To progress, they must analyze and evaluate their results, searching for ways to inch closer to perfection within the limits imposed by their human nature. When things are going well, they experience states of beauty and transcendence referred to as flow or being in the zone. These are fleeting experiences of the truth they are seeking, akin to the peak experiences of musicians and theorists. In contrast, an athlete who dopes or otherwise cheats to effect the desired outcome ends up with a mere chimera of truth and thereby forfeits the aesthetic reward of having learned something about herself.

Modern sport tends to fail in developing sophia among athletes when it disengages them from solving the problem of their performance and fails to place athletic pursuits in service of the larger projects of personal excellence and happiness. Many coaches and athletic programs focus narrowly on the intrinsically meaningless objectives of the sports themselves, viewing athletes as means to their own career or an institution’s fundraising goals. Often in sports, tactics, strategies, and even particular moves are conceived of and dictated by coaches through small radios. Athletes uncritically follow prescribed training programs, without understanding the theories behind them or reflecting on their role in a balanced and happy life. Even student athletes competing at institutions that claim to be driven by the mission of education are provided little or no opportunity to reflect on their experience of sports in such a way as to discern values and meanings that might be applied to other aspects of life. These and other shortsighted practices in modern sports help to explain why athletes so often fall short of the virtues I’m claiming sport is designed to develop. By recognizing the wisdom-seeking nature of sport itself, sophia, the virtue that renders all others valuable, might again become the recognized end for athletes and coaches alike.

The emphasis placed on sports in modern culture makes it easy for us to forget that they are intrinsically meaningless. The goal, touchdown, or world record that inspires and amazes us does not have anything like the social value of a new cancer treatment or peace agreement. Even its pure entertainment value seems to stem from something more than putting a ball into a net or riding a bike up a mountain. We invent sports, and we attribute meaning to them. In ancient Greece, the motivation for doing this was spiritual—it was a religious attempt to cultivate aretē, the perfection that the deities represented; perhaps it was even a way to make their presence felt on earth. I argue that the value of sports today—even their economic value—depends ultimately on that ancient spiritual connection. If we can see sports again as a kind of spiritual striving, if we can revive their ancient connection to aretē, to such eternally valuable virtues as eusebeia, andreia, sophrosynē, dikaiosynē, and sophia, I think we can revive their social value today. So many athletes strive to win an Olympic medal, to make it to the Olympic Games, or just to have the physique of an Olympic pentathlete. Very few will achieve those things, but all of us can benefit from striving to achieve the greatest athletic prize of all: the virtuous soul of an Olympian.

  1. Every four years the ancient Games of Nemea are reenacted by people from every walk of life. For more information, see
  2. International Olympic Committee, Olympic Charter (2015), 13.
  3. For a complete account see Reid, “Plato’s Gymnasium,” Athletics and Philosophy in the Ancient World: Contests of Virtue (London, UK: Routledge, 2011), 56–68.
  4. Homer, Iliad 23.256–24.6.
  5. For a detailed account on the structure of sport, see Reid, Introduction to the Philosophy of Sport (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012), 29–93.
  6. For more on the nature of dynamis and its connection to aretē, see Plato, Republic 477bc and 430b.
  7. For a full account, see Paul Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  8. See David Sansone, Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988).
  9. See Plato, Laches 196d and 192e.
  10. A historical event recounted in Symposium 221a.
  11. An observation made by Eleanor Metheny, “The Symbolic Power of Sport,” in Sport and the Body: A Philosophical Symposium, 2nd ed., ed. Ellen Gerber (Philadelphia, PA: Lea & Febiger, 1979), 231–36.
  12. This “formalist” account of rules and games is a subject of hot debate among philosophers of sport. For an overview, see Reid, Introduction, 45–55. For a history of the term dikaiosynē, see F. E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1967), 39.
  13. This is the thesis of Reid “Sport, Philosophy, and the Quest for Knowledge,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 36, no. 1 (2009): 40–49.