Sunday, January 13, 2013

Janathon 2013 Day 13 - cunningly constructed clay

Run 7km (on a treadmill), Time - 35m, Weather - outside it was getting colder
Well what does Zeus say? 'Epictetus, if it were possible, I would have made your little body and possessions both free and unrestricted. As it is though, make no mistake, this body does not belong to you, it is only cunningly constructed clay. And since I could not make the body yours, I have given you a portion of myself instead, the power of positive and negative impulse, of desire and aversion - the power, in other words, of making good use of impressions. if you take care of it and identify with it, you will never be locked or frustrated: you won't have to complain, and never will need to blame or flatter anyone. Is that enough to satisfy you?'.
This is from the beginning of Epictetus’ Discourses where he lays the foundation of his argument that the only tool we have to guide our judgement, and the way we behave, is our reason. It it is the only faculty with the ability to examine itself and this reflexive quality makes it supreme as well as unique. It is the only quality that is truly ours.

I don’t want to argue whether this is true or false. I merely want to acknowledge the premise and the consequent idea that a human being, if he uses this gift, is perfectible. In other words the application of reason can enable us to be virtuous. It is an underlying faith that makes Stoicism an optimistic philosophy and also something (believe it or not) that has some bearing on running. Every time we start a training schedule, or undertake a challenge we are in effect saying to ourselves that we can get better. We have faith in the possibility of improvement and that the consistent  application of good principles we will be rewarded. At my age the objectives might have changed to slowing the decline rather than striving for new PBs, but the principle is the same.

In the beginning, when it was founded in Greece, Stoicism had three branches: logic, physics, and ethics. Ethics concerned how you led your life and was the ultimate aim but the other two subjects gave you the tools to understand the basis of your decisions. One of the metaphors used was that Stoicism is like a fertile field enclosed within a fence of logic, with physics as the soil and ethics as the crop. (Diogenes Laertius, Zeno, VII.40). I like to think that is what we do with running: We apply logic to the evidence of how our abilities match the demands we place upon ourselves and the way we respond. The soil is basic physiology: what we know about how the body works an responds, and the crop is our performance. 

Having noted that similarity though, it must be pointed out that we are working on the body, and as can be seen in the quote at the head of this post, that is of little concern to Epictetus. It is merely clay. But it is here that I must admit to a difference in outlook. Instead of seeing the mind and body as different realms, I see nothing but their interconnectedness. Exercise not only improves the tone of my muscles it helps my mood, concentration and ultimately the quality of my thinking. If I want to continue the metaphor: it is the rain needed by the soil for my crop to grow.

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