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.