Body and Mind Seminar Fall 2020 with Professor Charles Stocking, Western University (Ontario, Canada) | Mind, Body, and Athletics in Antiquity: A Brief Cultural History

Written by Alba Curry

The Center for Hellenic Studies would like to extend their greatest thanks and appreciation to all of those who participated in the last meeting of the Body and Mind Seminar. We would also like to thank Professor Charles Stocking for his talk, titled “Mind, Body, and Athletics in Antiquity: A Brief Cultural History”.

As part of a general understanding in Classics, mind/body dualism is largely classified with regard to two forms of discourse in antiquity: the discourse of philosophy in reference to the psyche and the discourse of medicine in reference to the soma. Stocking argued that philosophy and medicine alone cannot fully account for mind/body discourse in antiquity, since medicine is not the only form of ancient bodily knowledge. The techne of the soma is divided by Plato into athletics and medicine (Plato, Gorgias 464b), but, of the two, athletics has received almost no attention as a form of ancient bodily knowledge among classical scholars.

Stocking showed that athletics was in fact an extremely productive cultural site for mind/body dualism throughout antiquity. The beginnings of this dialectic associated with athletics can be observed in the Archaic period, and such associations continue well into the Roman imperial period and beyond. In fact, shifts in the history of debates on the mind/body problem parallel specific transformations in athletics as a cultural practice. Furthermore, it is actually the role that athletics played in the history of mind/body discourse itself which helps to explain why it has been excluded from modern discussions of mind/body dualism.

Stocking gave a general survey of materials, beginning with Homeric sources. In the Iliad’s funeral games for Patroclus and in later Pindaric poetry, athletic competition stands in opposition to both the shade and the corpse, the psyche and the soma, which stand for the person’s non-identity. In the Classical era, we see a development of psyche/soma discourse as a duality that is associated with a living person rather than the deceased. Stocking argued that this development is commensurate and perhaps even causally linked with the advent of the Greek gymnasium, a structure and institution initially designed for physical training and later, from the Classical period onwards, became a center for education more generally. During this period, psyche and soma are more substantively developed and associated with the individual, and sources are often in specific reference to the civic good of education, which necessarily involved physical training. Furthermore, one of the major contexts for talking about psyche and soma is that of education in the Classical period.

Into the Hellenistic era, the psyche/soma discourse itself underwent a dramatic transformation: rather than representing two opposing aspects of the self, one finds a fairly uniform argument that psyche is soma. This change appears to be the result of the influence of materialist philosophers and physicians (see Tertulian, De anima 5). Although there is little discussion of athletics during the Hellenistic period, this lack is more than compensated for during the Roman imperial period, especially in Stoicism where askesis becomes a key term. Roman Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufu notes two types of askesis, one for the psyche alone and one for both psyche and soma. He further explains that one participates in an askesis of both psyche and soma when that person is subjected to physical hardships. By training one’s ability to avoid pleasures and exercise patience in the face of suffering, both psyche and soma are thereby strengthened. So askesis, which originally had a strictly materialist implication for physical training, comes to mean training for the soul. Furthermore, because of the material dimensions of the psyche itself, philosophers are not compared to athletes, but they become athletes in their own right. At the same time, due to this materialist presupposition regarding the psyche Stoicism was also highly critical of sporting activity, precisely because it can physically detract from philosophic endeavors.

Stocking concluded by raising the question of why athletics has remained a largely silent third party in the discussions of the history of mind/body dualism in antiquity. He offered three reasons: (1) the nature of the evidence, (2) the anti-athletic sentiment of ancient evidence (especially Galen), and (3) our modern institutional histories where the study of athletics (kinesiology) is less than a century old.

We would like to extend a special thanks to Professor Lisa Raphals from the University of California, Riverside for her work as organizer of this semester’s Body and Mind Seminar Series. Questions of how our bodies relate to our minds and spirits are of central importance to several disciplines and are becoming an important focus of study in several areas of Classics. This fall semester seminar investigates current research and methodologies in conceptualizing perspectives on the body and its relation to mind, soul, or spirit in the ancient Mediterranean. Topics include perspectives from anthropology, the history of sport, epic, gender medicine, the study of language and metaphor, philosophical debates, and practices of cult and sacrifice. Any interested researchers should write to for more details about the schedule for the next seminar series.