Fitness Advice from Socrates

socratesOnly three writers from antiquity tell us anything about the great philosopher Socrates: Plato; Aristophanes, the playwright, and today’s guest, Xenophon.  In his book The Memorabilia,Xenophon relates a brief exchange between Socrates and one of his students, Epigenes, in which the older man berates the younger for being out of shape.

Do you count the life and death struggle with their enemies, upon which, it may be, the Athenians will enter, but a small thing? Why, many, thanks to their bad condition, lose their life in the perils of war or save it disgracefully: many, just for this same cause, are taken prisoners, and then either pass the rest of their days, perhaps, in slavery of the hardest kind, or, after meeting with cruel sufferings and paying, sometimes, more than they have, live on, destitute and in misery.

Why, then, does Socrates tell Epigenes to get to the gym? Happily it isn’t so that the younger man can get chicks. (Actually, that thinking could take us into a whole other, uncomfortable aspect of Greek culture.) Instead, Socrates appeals to the patriotism and self-interest of Epigenes. Essentially he says, “If you’re a fatty, then you won’t be able to defend our city, and, if you don’t care about that, then you also run the risk of dying or being made a slave.”

I can admire the reasons Socrates gives for being fit, but he utterly neglects the most important reason. Jesus, we learn in Luke 2:52, increased in favor with God and man as he grew up. Socrates’ thinking here focuses strictly on the favor of man, ignoring the desires of God.

Epigenes might allow his desire for the pizza buffet to outweigh his pride and patriotism. He might decide he didn’t care about Athens or that he would take his chances in battle. He might recognize that these war-time appeals would become less significant as he grew older.

God’s claims on our fitness are stronger and more enduring than those that Socrates presents to Epigenes. Sorry, Socrates.

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