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Is Lifting Weights Good for Your Soul?
The Metaphysics of Exercise: Fitness, Heroes, and Demons
Ancient sources sometimes speak derisively of people who “exercise excessively.” Marcus Aurelius, for example, praises his predecessor Antoninus Pius for exercising moderately, only so much as was necessary for general health. The reasoning behind this ancient belief was primarily that too much exercise leaves your body and mind fatigued and sluggish, though there was also a substrate of philosophy which viewed hearty exercise as putting someone in danger of being “too embodied” and therefore less spiritual; Pythagoras once admonished a student for getting too swole, saying “Why do you insist on strengthening the walls of your prison?” Of course, Socrates was a war hero and Plato a famous wrestler, so this logic can’t be taken too far even in its original context.
The reason I am writing this in the first place, though, is because I have seen what I believe to be a misunderstanding of this idea emerge as a form of cope among some “cerebral” types.
The original premise as presented by the Ancients is not terribly disagreeable. We must remember that under the Hippocratic system of medicine exercise and food were thought of as equal opposites, and so Pythagoras’ disapproval of bodybuilding makes sense when his strict vegetarian diet regimen is factored in; he was likely more concerned about his student’s diet than about the exercise itself, as gains are of course heavily dependent on food. I have seen it suggested, though, that vegans and vegetarians sometimes mistake hormonal changes brought about by malnutrition as being a “more pure, spiritual state” and wonder if a similar mechanism could be at play in religious dietary regimens that are very light on animal products including eggs and dairy, even though abstaining from meat is certainly morally admirable.
Anyway, my main point is that our situation and way of life has changed so drastically in the modern world that physical fitness to the best of our abilities is not a spiritually neutral activity nor one which we are anymore in real danger of overindulging. Instead, working towards the perfection of our bodies through diet and exercise is now both a religious duty and an act of resistance against an anti-human system.
New World, New Body Issues
The world of Pythagoras, Marcus Aurelius, and even our own great-grandfathers in the 1900’s was one in which humans were habitually kinetic. They worked with their legs and hands in the fields or, more recently, in factories. On the weekends they played intense sports with their peers and attended hours-long dances with their counterparts. They walked for errands, travel, and leisure and in many eras the average man would be expected to be ready for warfare. In our day, children are placed in chairs for 6 hour days at age 6 and released at age 18 and for leisure they crane their necks over glowing devices like doting mothers. For employment, jobs that happen on your feet tend to pay poorly and be brain-killingly boring while in the white collar world financial success seems to scale alongside the quality of the chair you sit in while working. And as far as the diet that we are socialized into for the entire duration of this - even our society’s idea of health foods like salads and “low-fat” options are either woefully inadequate or outright traps.
In short, the athletic hobbyist of today is the equivalent of the normal citizen of yesteryear. Today’s “normal” on the other hand would be recognized by our forebears as literally diseased. They are imprisoned in flab, their very sense of self-awareness and divine fire encased in a hazy froth of brain fog, depression, and anxiety. Their blood pumps slowly and thinly like corn syrup and their sugar-nuked gut biome fails to digest what little of value they do consume. Their starving brains and organs grind agonizingly against their bones, failing to acquire the rich fats, proteins, and vitamins they need no matter how many millions of calories worth of corn gruel and canola oil careen through their innards. Tumors swell like fleshy pimples in their acidic bodies and their heart whimpers out like a dead sedan after straining to flush sticky blood through plaque-clogged veins for years. Is this the body that you are going to give your children as a role model? Is this the body you are going to spend the rest of your life negotiating with like a hostage, bouncing between drugs that target symptoms and not causes? Is this the body that you are going to bring before your Gods in worship, the Gods who have promised you peace, virtue, and beauty on the sole and generous condition that you emulate them as best you can?
But we would be too lucky if it was only a matter of body! In truth this is a situation that threatens our very cognition, our capacity to exercise our gods-given reason. In a world that lacks positive authority and increasingly attacks physical culture and social health pressure as “stigmatizing” it is a small miracle every time some individual lifts his or her eyes high enough to see the meat grinder they’re being funneled towards, and a bigger miracle when such a person takes action. Such people are pressing against an inertia so titanic that no normal person will be able to escape it without receiving guidance, a model, and a community to serve as a lifeboat. But there is a silver lining in the fact that those who do make their way to safety will find themselves in every way perched on a position of great advantage because there is no separation between the physical and the mental.
Mortal cognition requires a physically healthy brain to function correctly. Our brain requires a healthy bloodflow, a healthy cholesterol intake, and active, balanced, relaxed nervous and endocrine systems in order to operate at its full potential. All of these things are only attained through motion and nutrition. We should see this process of maintenance and growth as a spiritual activity, an imitation of the creative work of the Gods who shape, animate, harmonize, and preserve the universe. We are able to do so because, unlike the abrahamists, we affirm that the soul and the body are not fully separate. The soul pre-exists the body and serves as the organizing principle and metaphysical cause of the body’s existence, but the body proceeds forth from it and is intertwined with it at every juncture like roots and shoots springing from a seed. The ancients teach us that the pre-existing Soul is immortal and indestructible, but the body as an outgrowth of the numinous cause is itself a part of the soul, and we as humans experience our egos, our “I,” from a point suspended between these two portions of our selves. The soulful source may manifest its bodies in many ways at many times - thus the doctrine of reincarnation, which is not actually linear in time -and the degree to which we experience annihilation at death depends upon how well we learn to identify more with the numinous cause than with the contingent body during life.
When our bodies are damaged, then, without a strong pre-existing spiritual grounding we are not made to transcend our bodies but rather to grow alienated and disconnected from the body’s numinous source because our ego-experience is nestled closer to the contingent body than to the transcendent cause. This is what is meant when people speak of a state of '“soullessness,” as the separation of soul and body reserved for death has been almost enacted prematurely. In our world which is both secular and abusive of the body this condition has become endemic. As a culture, our bodies are all we have left; it should then be obvious that our return to spirituality must start with the body. Only by trying to bring our bodies’ health sufficiently close to the standard and the ideal which our own souls hold within themselves as blueprints will we start to be able to see the other side of the river we are crossing. The bodily experiences of focused effort, ease, power, affection, and gratitude are all still somewhat physical, but they are infinitely closer to the soul and the gods than the bodily experiences of anxiety, jealously, apathy, and derision are.
Working our way towards a positive or at least sustainable bodily experience is doubly important in the digital world where excessive screen time tries its best to pull your center of consciousness out from between your eyes and plant it in a server room. Touch screens and keyboards have become almost like new appendages and new sensory organs, and while this has greatly expanded our capabilities in exciting ways our self-control and self-awareness simply haven’t caught up to their new horizons yet. Consuming so much of the information around which we orient our opinions from media sources (not just internet, this process started with radio and television) basically overworks the faculties originally related to social gossip and leaves us “over-socialized” in a way that is ironically very isolating. In a natural social setting it is normal for our “locus” or center of selfhood to temporarily “drift” out to meet that of our partners, and our bodies are built so that such activities help to stimulate and regulate our hormonal and emotional health. Allowing media to share our selfhood in the same way friends or family do without providing us the normal hormonal and emotional benefits results in exertion with no reward. Without that reward we are almost stranded outside of ourselves, experiencing ourselves through a screen that recruits only a few of our senses instead of being present in our bodies and experiencing the fullness of our environment. In this state we are far worse off than even the most egregiously embodied athletes that Pythagoras would admonish; we sink below our own bodies and immerse ourselves too fully in models and abstractions (this is what language ultimately is, too) that are divorced from the phenomena they are meant to represent, rendering them ultimately meaningless except as pavlovian stimuli for our subconsciousness. This is the ultimate state of alienation.
Anabasis & Revolution
Luckily, as with most things, we have already been shown a way out. Our physical culture and fitness does not have to stay contained in our bodies with the other effects being treated as tangential, but this cultivation can be itself an act of worship. We have been passed down symbol-complexes for gods like Herakles, Hermes, and Artemis that give us models of exercise (and play!) that hone our bodies and minds in ways that align with our spiritual goals. To engage the forces at work in these symbol-complexes and to emulate them as best we can is an activity which operates on the same principles as a sacrificial rite and is equally pleasing; when we offer food and drink and incense to the Gods, what is effective in the rite is not the transfer of ownership or the power latent in the objects offered but rather the act of giving, of generosity and gratitude, and this is effective because it is a reenactment of the activities of the Gods who offer up their substances to us freely and affectionately. Likewise, when through exercise and proper eating we grow our capacity to be at ease in calm, strong bodies, we reenact the self-sufficience and vitality of these Gods who are in turn pleased by our efforts to draw nearer to them in the same way a parent is pleased by the success and affection of their child.
Fitness is also an immensely meditative practice. It forces us in the most immediate way possible to confront discomfort and coexist with it. The discomfort of exertion cries out to us like a starving child and makes us attend to it, makes us inhabit our bodies fully, and yet also allows us to develop a sense of ourselves which is separate from and superior to the body. Forcing your lactic-acid flooded legs to finish a sprint is more spiritually fruitful than any amount of reading that is not also turned into concrete action. When you push yourself further than your body is capable you are left for a brief moment with nothing but sheer will and spirit, and in these moments we are able to commune with the numinous cause and source within us that overflows to form the body. These experiences provide us with a vital new vantage point from which to see ourselves and our bodies - a vantage point which has much in common with the mountain or desert-dwelling ascetic who beats down his body with cold, heat, and starvation.
Now, as to why such an undertaking is indeed a subversive, almost revolutionary activity, I will say this: The sedentary human has become an overdomesticated creature, like a pug or a Flemish giant rabbit. Just as with the pug and rabbit we are left to wonder if there was some sort of intention to their creation; we are left to ask “cui bono” - who benefits? The attack on our health and wakefulness is an attack on our very agency and sovereignty; it is the manipulator, the abuser, the scavenger and the hoarder who wins when we are weak and panicked. In secular terms, it is the parasitic elite who profit from a population that lives only to assuage pain through consumption and performs whatever increasingly rote, degrading labor is asked of them in order to afford that consumption. You can argue back and forth over whether these elites are the masterminds or if the internal logic of the technocapitalist model of economics produces these conditions inevitably and autonomously with the current upper strata of society being unwitting accomplices in it, but the result and the roadmap from here is roughly the same.
In less secular terms, though, the effects of media oversocialization, over-abstraction, and declining health can be compared to the activities of the supposed “terrestrial demons” present to different extents in many traditions. Although christians irresponsibly label any non-christian entity “demonic,” the basic outline of the idea has some merit: there are low-level spiritual forces whose function is to attempt to prevent souls from climbing the chain of being and causation correctly. The later Platonists, operating in the same general late-antique philosophical ecosystem as the early christians, seem to have had a similar idea but did not form any orthodoxy about it. Platonism, of course, posits that there is “no such thing as true evil;” that is, evil does not have any self-essence in the way that a soul or a form does. Instead what we perceive as evil is an emergent property of forces that are close to nothingness growing disordered and clashing with each other. Beings cause “evil” when we use the will and agency inherent in our consciousness to act in ways that contradict the flow of peace and order in our own environments, and the pain we experience as a result is akin to the crack of a dislocated shoulder returning to its socket; because the origin of peace, unity, and order is so much higher than we are, it will always win, and all of our agency merely allows us to choose whether we identify with our body or with its cause; whether get to participate in that victory or if we will also be swept away when Kali arrives.
Increasingly, humans have been using our agency to set up systems that do not align with the natural flow of divinity, and the result has been that “evil” occurs on a larger and larger scale as those systems grow. Systems like industrial agriculture, the fishing and shipping industries, “free trade” slavery-outsourcing, the media-academia-federal intelligence matrix, antisocial and anti-intellectual public education, and many others create suffering for one single reason that they all share: They attack our capacity as conscious agents to live in balance with our environment, our economy, our social groups, our own bodies, and our own minds. Many of these systems are even semi-autonomous now like the golem of folklore. Their disorder is crystallized. They will act to protect themselves by absorbing the agency of the people “benefitting” from them, and in this capacity they function exactly as so-called terrestrial demons are described.
So perfect though is providence that even this situation is to our advantage; the adversary makes the Hero. I am, however, using that word in its classical sense rather than the modern one. The pop-culture image of a hero tends to center around sacrifice and the weight of responsibility, but for the ancients a hero was simply someone who is so completely himself, so aligned with his own spiritual cause and purpose, that his creative power and ordering principle overflows effortlessly into his world and community just as it flows from the Gods. It is from that overflow and through that ordering that the ancient state, the polis, was created. The message we are to take from this is as follows: The heroes of today will not be those Hectors who sacrifice themselves to protect systems that are sinking further and further away from the gods. Instead they will be individuals who seek to perfect and reunite themselves and to reopen wellsprings of divine force wherever they go. To do so in the modern age begins with reconnecting our bodies with our minds, it continues with reconnecting ourselves to each other, and it ends with reconnecting our communities to our Gods.