Seneca on exercise

I’m enjoying read Seneca’s essayistic letters, although I frequently come across passages I don’t agree with. This makes it fun, though, as I can argue with Seneca, both in my mind and here on this blog.

I’m not buying his thoughts on exercise:

For it is silly, my dear Lucilius, and no way for an educated man to behave, to spend one’s time exercising the biceps, broadening the neck and shoulders and developing the lungs. Even when the extra feeding has produced gratifying results and you’ve put on a lot of muscle, you’ll never match the strength of the weight of a prize ox. The greater load, moreover, on the body is crushing to the spirit and renders it less active. So keep the body within bounds as much as you can and make room for the spirit.

I can’t say I’m at all interested in broadening my neck and shoulders, but that’s beside the point. The real issue is that Seneca sees large amounts of exercise as detrimental to mental and spiritual health. The body and the mind are in competition, in his view, and devoting energy to one automatically means harming the other.

I suspect Seneca’s belief about education and large amounts of exercise — that they don’t belong together — continues to this day. But I don’t see it. As far as I’m concerned, exercise, even large amounts of it, contributes to mental and spiritual health rather than detracts from it. I don’t believe mind and body are in competition with each other; rather, as the body gets stronger it inspires the mind to get stronger. Exercise leaves me with more energy to devote to mental tasks, not less. To think that having a stronger body crushes the spirit strikes me as absurd — I’m more likely to see exercise as a spiritual activity in and of itself. So what our disagreement comes down to, I suppose, is a different view of the mind/body relationship. Seneca seems to be much more of a dualist than I am.

It’s not as though he’s against all exercise, though; he does say this:

There are short and simple exercises which will tire the body without undue delay and save what needs especially close accounting for, time. There is running, swinging weights about and jumping — either high-jumping or long-jumping … pick out any of these for ease and straightforwardness. But whatever you do, return from body to mind very soon.

Given his list of activities, I’m guessing he would approve of cycling if he knew of such a thing, but I don’t think he’d approve of hours and hours and hours of it. I can’t agree that shorter exercise is necessarily better, but he does have a point when he talks about time. Because I ride so much I have less time to read.

But for me, the benefits of spending all those hours on the bike outweigh the drawbacks. I need time away from books in order to enjoy my books. My job involves a lot of reading, after all, and if I didn’t ride, I’d be in danger of living a completely sedentary life and overstraining my eyes.

And, ultimately, I recognize I’m not interested in being as rational as he is. Because I know I’d stick to my view even if Seneca had the most overpoweringly logical arguments ever. I do try to be reasonable, but sometimes I just refuse to listen, and this is one of those times.


Filed under Books, Essays

9 responses to “Seneca on exercise

  1. I am just reading Seneca’s essay ‘On Anger’, which is much longer than I had bargained for. I’m having a dual response too – some of his points are excellent, but some are entirely dubious. For example: he rejects all actions impelled by anger as inherently vicious (even if they may actually lead to good) but finds that the exposure of children is perfectly acceptable, as long as it follows from calm, practical reasoning. Hmm.


  2. I wonder if people in Seneca’s day got plenty of exercise just making ends meet — after all, they didn’t sit in front of glowing screens for hours at a time like we do. Exercise seems to take on a different meaning in post-industrial cultures, no?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s quite a persistent idea that the mind and the body are in competition. Balzac, for instance, was convinced that lovemaking used up vital energy that he needed to put into writing. A night with a woman was the equivalent of half a book in his mind, and he said ‘I’ve never yet met a woman who was worth two novels.’ This might explain his strange courtship of the Polish widow, Mme Hanska, whom he loved from the other side of Europe for about 30 years and married only weeks before his death, Anyway up, I’m sure Balzac and Seneca would have got on!


  4. Teh mind/body split has always been fascinating to me especially in viewing it from a feminist perspective. Mind has always been thought to be the ideal, the highest and what any good man would strive for. Body on the other hand has tended to be associated with women and the animal and therefore lesser. So it isn’t surprising that Seneca warns against exercise. It is nice though that while we still haven’t completely overcome the split, we’ve managed to connect the two enough that you can talk about how mind and body support each other.


  5. Lots of interesting replies to your post. I think I agree with you that exercise is good for the mind and body–even lots of exercise. I think a healthy body would only improve how the mind functions. I’d be curious to know what life was like in Seneca’s time. I guess it was the Greeks who were heavily into athletics, though perhaps the Romans were too, only Seneca thought it was too much?


  6. Becky — interesting; I’m not sure I have “On Anger.” What book are you reading it from, may I ask? I think I’d have an ambivalent response to those ideas too!

    Casey — yes, indeed, good point. But it’s interesting how similar Seneca sounds to how people talk today. I suspect he’s talking about exercise among the elites, those whose lives are fairly sedentary.

    Litlove, oh, my, what an unfortunate thing to believe 🙂 Imagine being torn between love and sex and your writing!

    Stefanie, yes, it’s fascinating to look at this from a gendered perspective, and I think you’re right that Seneca fits into the tradition of looking down on the body in favor of the mind. The history of thinking about the mind and body and how it affects women is disturbing but fascinating, isn’t it?

    Danielle — Yeah, I get the sense Seneca is talking about people who devoted tons of time to body-building or something similar. He doesn’t give much context, but there seems to be a whole culture of exercise at the time. I’d like to know more!


  7. Sorry to dredge up an 11-year-old post, but I think you’ve read some Platonic assumptions here into Seneca’s Stoic philosophy.

    Seneca was definitely not a dualist, and while they might ask you to think critically about your values and time management, no Stoic would assent to the idea that the body and mind are in “competition.” Our mind is part of our body in Stoicism—the two cannot be separated—and a healthy body is essential for being able to act well in the service of others (i.e. for virtue, the highest good).

    And FWIW, several famous Stoics were known for their rigorous exercise regimens, and the most famous Stoic ever—Chrysippus—was in fact a competitive long-distance runner.


  8. I absolutely agree that exercise contributes to a healthy mind, the mind and body work in unison.


  9. I absolutely agree exercise contributes to a healthy mind, the mind and body work in unison.


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