“It is circumstances (difficulties) which show what men are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. For what purpose? you may say. Why that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat. In my opinion no man has had a more profitable difficulty than you have had, if you choose to make use of it as an athlete would deal with a young antagonist.” —Epictetus
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.” —Corinthians 9:24-26
The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus and the apostle Paul — though their worldviews differed — both used the metaphor of athletic contests to explain the way a man was to struggle against weakness, erroneous beliefs, and all lower impulses, in order to win the prize of higher virtue.
They weren’t unique in deploying this analogy. Many early sages and saints also likened man’s attempt to conquer himself to physical exercise and the games of the sporting arena. They called their readers to become Stoic athletes, Christian athletes — spiritual athletes.
These philosophers and prophets understood that it was important not only to train the body, but also to train the soul.
The Greek word for training used by both Epictetus and St. Paul — áskēsis — was orginally associated with the physical training of athletes and soldiers, but later came to be used to describe any rigorous, discplined program of training, including the spiritual struggle for virtue.
This paradigm, in which practicing virtue is exercise; confronting personal weakness is contest, has not entirely disappeared from modern culture, but has become fainter and somewhat lost to us. It is partly for this reason that virtue and the spiritual life have come to be seen as “soft” and effeminate pursuits, despite the fact that the Latin word from which virtue derives — vir — actually means “manliness.”
Today, drawing on both the Christian and Stoic traditions (although adherence to either is not required to find usefulness in the underlying principles) we issue a wholehearted call to revive the idea of training the soul, and embrace it for the very meaningful, very “muscular” contest it is.
How Training the Soul Is Like Training the Body
“let the man who is rich in a worldly sense adopt in his own case the same considerations as apply to athletes. For the athlete who has given up the hope of being able to conquer, and to obtain the garlands, does not even give in his name for the contest; while the one who has conceived this hope in his mind, but does not submit to the fitting labors and diet and exercises, continues ungarlanded, and fails to gain what he hoped for.
In the same way let not a man who is clothed in this earthly covering withdraw his name altogether from the Savior’s contests, if at least he is faithful, and perceives the greatness of God’s kindness to man; and again, if he refuses exercise and contest, let him not hope to share in the garlands of incorruption without the dust and sweat of the arena; but let him at once submit himself to the word as trainer, and to Christ as judge of the contests; let his food and his apportioned drink be the new covenant of the Lord, let his exercises be the commandments, let his gracefulness and adornment be good dispositions, love, faith, hope, knowledge of truth, gentleness, goodness of heart, dignity; so that, when the last trumpet sounds for the race and the departure hence, passing out of this life as out of a race-course, he may stand with a good conscience before the president, acknowledged to be worthy of the heavenly home, into which he passes up with garlands and proclamations of angelic heralds.” —Clement of Alexandria
Philosophers and theologians have debated and expounded on the nature of the soul for thousands of years, and we can’t hope to provide a definitive definition of it here. But for the purposes of this article, let’s call the soul that part of a man’s make-up that desires higher order aims over lower order impulses. It’s the thing that seeks that which is life-giving, rather than life-deadening. It’s your moral compass, your attraction to doing noble deeds and choosing the right. It’s the capacity to reach beyond the self in order to serve others.
Your soul is your spiritual center, and, traditionally, your eternal essence. However, a belief in the immortality of the soul isn’t necessary for a belief in the possibility of actively training it; even if one sees it simply as the part of the psyche that’s more human and advanced, and less primitive and reptilian, the protocols for exercising it still very much apply.
No matter how exactly you view the soul, it lends itself to being seen as having a spiritual “physique” just as real and readily shapeable as your tangible one. The spirit, like the body, has muscles that must be regularly exercised in order to maintain good health, perform optimally in everyday tasks, and come out the victor in the occasional high-stakes contest. In both cases, you are given these physiques in a raw, impressionable form; you can either let them be molded by external forces, or intentionally sculpt them into the shape you desire.
Let us delve deeper into the parallels that exist between training the body and training the soul:
Physical and Spiritual Strength Atrophy Without Use
All matter — physical and spiritual alike — tends towards the path of least resistance. Without intentional effort to move and exercise our fleshy bodies, we become encased in layers of fat, get winded from light activity, and cannot pick up heavy objects. Muscles get tight; joints get creaky. Should an emergency befall us, we’re unable to flee or fight the danger. If forced to compete in a race or game, we would face embarrassing failure.
In the same way, ignoring one’s soul leads to the accumulation of spiritual flab. Our moral muscles atrophy, and we give in to sin and weakness more easily. We cannot put off temporary pleasures to achieve lasting goals. In wrestling with temptation or a heavy moral issue, we fatigue easily, and make a choice of convenience rather than principle. Or, we choose not to engage in the wrestle at all, defaulting to whatever direction our fluctuating feelings take us, or referring to a rote rule or bureaucratic expediency that may not be the best solution to the particular problem at hand. We lose our moral agility — our capacity to exercise practical wisdom and do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.
Of course, the converse of the above is just as true regarding both our physical and spiritual physiques. Muscles that get used, get stronger. Get more agile. And allow you to do more and be more . . .
Physical and Spiritual Strength Widens Your Freedom and Field of Action
A flabby, atrophied physical physique circumscribes your choices. This is true as a practical matter: You can’t play with your kids because you’re too tired; you can’t climb a mountain with your friends because you’re too weak; you can’t lift a certain weight, even if you wanted to.
A flabby, atrophied spiritual physique limits your ability to autonomously make choices at all. If you want to be faithful to your girlfriend, but hook up with an old flame, your lust is in control, not you. If you want to lose weight, but can’t stop overeating, you’re taking your marching orders from your belly, rather than your higher aims. If you want to be loving to your children, but keep losing your temper, your anger is calling the shots, not your soul. If your moods and reactions are determined by external events, then you’re being acted upon, rather than acting. You are not a free moral agent.
In training the soul, you strengthen your self-control: you gain the ability to harness your energies towards deliberately chosen ends, to choose long-term ideals over short-term impulses, to decide how you will act, regardless of the circumstances. You become master, rather than slave. As a consequence, your options increase; your potential field of action widens.
Or as former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink succinctly puts it: “Discipline equals freedom.”
Physical and Spiritual Strength Require Weight and Opposition in Order to Grow
“Souls are like athletes that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers.” —Thomas Merton
“Good fortune comes to common men and even to those of inferior talent; but only a great man is able to triumph over disasters and terrors afflicting mortal life. It is true that to be always happy and to pass through life without any mental distress is to lack knowledge of one half of human nature. You are a great man: but on what do I base this if Fortune denies you the opportunity to demonstrate your worth? You have entered the lists at the Olympic Games, but you are the only competitor: you win the crown, but the victory is not yours; I congratulate you, but not as a brave man, rather as one who has gained the office of consul or praetor: it is your personal standing that has been enhanced. I can make the same point also to a good man, if no more difficult circumstance has given him the chance to show his mental strength: ‘You are unfortunate in my judgement, for you have never been unfortunate. You have passed through life with no antagonist to face you; no one will know what you are capable of, not even you yourself.’ For a man needs to be put to the test if he is to gain self-knowledge; only by trying does he learn what his capacities are.” —Seneca
Physical training is essentially the act of intentionally breaking down the body with stress in order that it can be rebuilt stronger and better than before. Without this stress, no improvement can take place.
In weightlifting, the stressor is the weight to be lifted. A lifter essentially pits himself against gravity as he tries to move a barbell off the floor, or raise himself up when it’s sitting on his shoulders. Gravity is the opponent to be overcome; the lifter must struggle to resist its force — hence the name, “resistance training.”
Just as the body needs to confront an opposing force in order to grow, so does the soul. In this case, the antagonists are internal: our sins and weaknesses. It’s Soul vs. Lust. Soul vs. Selfishness. Soul vs. Self-Pity. Soul vs. Envy. It’s a contest between the best parts of ourselves and the worst.
Our souls also grapple with external combatants in the form of events and circumstances beyond our control — hardships and difficulties we are forced to face. The mere existence of these obstacles does not necessarily strengthen the soul or incur automatic benefits, however. Rather, the attitude we take towards hardships matters, and determines their effect.
In his Discourses, Epictetus responds to a hypothetical student who wants to know if he is making progress in following the Stoic way. The philosopher says that if he were talking to an athlete who had the same question, he would ask the athlete to show him his shoulders. If the athlete instead responded by showing the weights he had been lifting, Epictetus says he would reply that he didn’t ask to see the athlete’s weights, but his shoulders. What’s important is not that a man has access to gym equipment, but that he is using it properly, and the proof of this is in the embodied pudding — in the size and strength of his muscles.
In the same way, if you want to know if the soul is improving, you cannot look to the mere presence of difficulties in your life, but how you are facing them, using them. You can know if you’re making progress by the ways you can flex your spiritual muscles, “how you exercise pursuit and avoidance, desire and aversion, how you design and purpose and prepare yourself, whether conformably to nature or not.”
What emerges from the struggle against inner and outer demons, from the stress of pushing back against our flaws and frailties, is the development of character. The more we resist the gravitational force of our appetites, the stronger and more iron-clad our character becomes.
Physical and Spiritual Strength Require Effort, and Pain
“Where then is progress? If any of you, withdrawing himself from externals, turns to his own will to exercise it and to improve it by labor, so as to make it conformable to nature, elevated, free, unrestrained, unimpeded, faithful, modest; and if he has learned that he who desires or avoids the things which are not in his power can neither be faithful nor free, but of necessity he must change with them and be tossed about with them as in a tempest, and of necessity must subject himself to others who have the power to procure or prevent what he desires or would avoid; finally, when he rises in the morning, if he observes and keeps these rules, bathes as a man of fidelity, eats as a modest man; in like manner, if in every matter that occurs he works out his chief principles as the runner does with reference to running . . . this is the man who truly makes progress.” —Epictetus
Fitness is an encompassing lifestyle choice. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes dedication. You’ve got to structure your schedule, and say no to other activities, to prioritize getting your workouts in. You’ve got to follow special rules regarding what you eat, and sometimes how and when you eat. You’ve got to be keenly conscious about the decisions you make regarding your diet and training.
There’s effort required in the actual workouts too, of course. And pain. The stress that makes your muscles grow is not a pleasant thing. Sometimes working out is enjoyable in the midst of it, and sometimes in the afterglow. But if it also doesn’t hurt a little, sometimes a lot — if your legs don’t burn at the bottom of a squat, if your lungs don’t ache at the end of a sprint — you’re not getting better. You’re not getting any faster or stronger. The stress of physical training in fact creates tiny tears in your muscles. When these tears heal, the muscle is rebuilt stronger than it was before.
Training the soul requires the same kind of encompassing commitment and the same submission to the tearing and repairing of your spiritual muscles.
Forsaking the path of least resistance requires strenuous effort. It requires greater consciousness of your principles and your decisions. You must follow certain rules, some of which appear arbitrary to outsiders, and sometimes even to yourself. You must deliberately prioritize the practice of spiritual disciplines and look for opportunities to serve that the untrained and unprepared soul would miss, or spurn.
And you must embrace a certain level of pain.
Denying a lower appetite to fulfill a nobler aim is painful. Re-ordering your priorities to do more for others, and less for yourself, hurts. You must kill your native laziness. You must check your pride and learn to be humble. For virtue to live, you must die to the self. The process of striving for ideals, failing, and getting back up again — of ever trying to be a better man — creates endless tears in the tissue of the ego.
Just as the body cries out for cake when forced to feed on broccoli, the flesh screams to give in to indulgence when forced to walk a harder way.
Just as the body cries out to be released at the apex of a difficult lift, the flesh begs, cons, manipulates to be liberated from the strictures of discipline. “Just this once won’t matter,” “You deserve this,” “This isn’t really wrong given the circumstances.”
No matter the lies one tells oneself in the heat of crisis, at the height of temptation, the truth is that nothing can be sculpted without pressure, nothing can be changed and rebuilt without effort and pain. Progress — whether physical or spiritual — can only be found on the other side of five seconds of grind.
Physical and Spiritual Strength Require Consistency and Habitual Practice
Working out is not a one-and-done kind of affair. You can’t put in a few days of exercise, or a few weeks, or even a few years, and then stop going to the gym, and expect to maintain your fitness. It’s not like putting money in a bank account, where, if you don’t touch it, your investment will stay the same, and even accrue interest. Rather, fitness is like shaving, or flossing, or cleaning or any of the other regular maintenance tasks we have to do again, and again, and again, and that’ll we’ll never be free of. If you don’t use it, you lose it.
Training the soul must be engaged in regularly as well. You can never rest on your laurels, on past spiritual experiences, or former good deeds. Each day we must choose and re-choose to earnestly engage in spiritual disciplines and practices — despite changing circumstances, fluctuating feelings, and encroaching setbacks.
Aristotle said that virtue was a habit like any other, and that just as we get better at playing the piano, by playing the piano, we gain virtue by doing virtuous things. Every time we attempt to deny a lower impulse to grasp a higher one we work out the soul. Every decision we make is a moral contest; even small choices matter, not just in maintaining day-to-day spiritual health, but as preparation for a more strenuous testing. Every time we practice the virtue habit, we settle our souls in a nobler direction.
In The Road to Character, David Brooks describes this painstaking but vitally transformative process:
“Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation. Character is a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness. You become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship, and refined enjoyment. If you make disciplined, caring choices, you are slowly engraving certain tendencies into your mind. You are making it more likely that you will desire the right things and execute the right actions. If you make selfish, cruel, or disorganized choices, then you are slowly turning this core thing inside yourself into something that is degraded, inconstant, or fragmented. You can do harm to this core thing with nothing more than ignoble thoughts, even if you are not harming anyone else. You can elevate this core thing with an act of restraint nobody sees. If you don’t develop a coherent character in this way, life will fall to pieces sooner or later. You will become a slave to your passions. But if you do behave with habitual self-discipline, you will become constant and dependable.”
In the contest for virtue, there’s no standing still; if you’re not striving forward, you’re degrading back.
Physical and Spiritual Strength Require Endurance
“Who then is the invincible? It is he whom none of the things disturb which are independent of the will. Then examining one circumstance after another I observe, as in the case of an athlete; he has come off victorious in the first contest: well then, as to the second? and what if there should be a great heat? and what, if it should be at Olympia? And the same I say in this case: if you should throw money in his way, he will despise it. Well, suppose you put a young girl in his way, what then? and what, if it is in the dark? what if it should be a little reputation, or abuse; and what, if it should be praise; and what if it should be death? He is able to overcome all. What then if it be in heat, and what if it is in the rain, and what if he be in a melancholy (mad) mood, and what if he be asleep? He will still conquer. This is my invincible athlete.” —Epictetus
“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” —Hebrews 12:1
Endurance sports require perseverance — the dedication to running or biking a long, long course. You can’t just sprint the first few miles of a marathon, run out of gas, and walk 20 more to the finish. Well, you can, but you’re definitely not going to get an award at the end. To make a good showing, you’ve got to fight fatigue and keep on trucking all the way through.
The pursuit of virtue is also an endurance sport.
When spiritual dryness sets in, when setbacks arise, when temptation grows acute, you can choose to throw in the towel, or you can hold to your principles and keep pushing towards the distant finish line. When the excitement and animating feelings that explode at the beginning of the race begin to flag, you can call it quits, or you can switch to the steadier fuel of duty and discipline, and continue on.
It’s not an easy contest, but if the spiritual athlete perseveres, he can say with the apostle Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Why Train the Soul?
“To strive with difficulties, and to conquer them, is the highest human felicity. The next is to strive and deserve to conquer; but he whose life has passed without contest, and who can boast neither success nor merit can survey himself only as a useless filler of existence.” —Samuel Johnson
In delineating the many parallels between training the body and training the soul, we have also implicitly laid out the benefits of both kinds of exercise.
Physical training develops bodily health and strength, providing a man with hardness and toughness of physique, greater mobility and agility, wider opportunities for activity, the ability to perform day-to-day tasks, and the capacity to survive and thrive in a crisis. Truly, every man should be physically strong.
Spiritual training develops the health and strength of the soul, increasing its ability to delay gratification and deny lower impulses in favor of higher ones, conquer weaknesses and temptations, act as an autonomous moral agent, make weighty decisions with dexterous wisdom, and, willingly serve other people. For, ideally, training both body and soul leads to a greater desire and capacity to help others along the way, so that we may say, along with 19th century physical culturist Georges Hebert, we have become strong, to be useful.
The ultimate effects of both kinds of training can be summed up in one word: power. The man with a well-trained body and soul possesses the power to do more, and be more. The power to maintain his equilibrium despite life’s ups and downs. The power to transcend the petty status grabs and superficial entertainments of modern culture. The power to sidestep the snares of lust, greed, and pride. The power to attain a virtuous, flourishing, happy life in this world, and, if one so believes, an eternal life in the world to come.
Yet these are not the only reasons to commit to training the soul.
In fact, the most compelling reason of all may be this: in the modern world, the conquest of self constitutes man’s last, best contest.
In a time of luxury and convenience, when most men are not required to struggle with external hardships — do not have to plow the earth or hunt wild game or often even get up from their chair to earn a livelihood; do not have to grapple with the forces of nature; and do not have to go to war — there is little else to push against. There are few other opponents a man can bravely struggle with in order to, as Seneca puts it, “learn what his capacities are.”
In embracing the battle between our best and worst selves, in pursuing the tang of moral heroism, there is energy and meaning that can only be found in confronting a worthy antagonist. As the British writer Henry Fairlie put it, “If we acknowledge that our inclination to sin is part of our natures, and that we will never wholly eradicate it, there is at least something for us to do in our lives that will not in the end seem just futile and absurd.” He also puts it this way: “At least if we recognize that we sin, know that we are individually at war, we may go to war as warriors do, with something of valor and zest and even mirth.”
David Brooks perhaps best captures the attraction of self-conquest when he describes it as the chance to see one’s life as “a moral adventure story.”
There are twists and turns along the way; dragons to slay, new paths to discover, and myriad failures and chances for redemption. And, as long as there’s breath in your body, this hero’s journey never ends. As Epictetus explains, unlike sporting athletes, for whom the opportunity to contend for a prize comes only in occasional races and games, the contest for virtue and the chance for victory begins fresh every single day:
“Consider as to the things that you initially proposed you have managed to achieve, and which you have not, and how it gives you pleasure to remember some of them, and pain to remember others, and if possible recover the things that have slipped away from your grasp. For those who are engaged in this greatest of contest must not shrink back, but must be prepared to endure the blows. For the contest that lies before us is not in wrestling or the pancration, in which, whether a man succeeds or fails, he may be a man of great worth or of little . . . No, it is a contest for good fortune and happiness itself. What follows, then? In this, even if we falter for a time, no one prevents us from renewing the contest, nor need we wait another four years for the next Olympic games to come, but as soon as a man has got a hold on himself and recovered himself, and shows the same zeal as before, he is allowed to take part in the contest, and even if you should falter again, you may begin again, and, if you once become the victor you are as one who has never faltered.”
“The purpose of the struggle against sin and weakness,” Brooks notes, “is not to ‘win,’ because that is not possible; it is to get better at waging it.”
How exactly do you that? In physical training, the body is honed through exercises like running, and by grappling with tangible weights. What then are the exercises and weights — the spiritual disciplines — that can be used to train the soul?
That is where we will turn next time.
Last updated: August 28, 2017