Gymnastics in Platonism

There is a common fallacy to which many of those who come close to the “spiritual” realm, that is, the matters of the soul, as opposed to the matters of the physical body, fall into and use as an excuse for an unattended body shape or health condition. The fallacy goes: if the only part that overcomes death is the soul, which is immortal, why spend time attending the needs of the body, other than covering its basics? Orphic Materialism, an immanent – as opposed to transcendent – system that precedes and constitutes the cradle of the Platonic philosophy, could be of great help in dismantling this fallacy.

Famous for their Olympic Games, ancient Greeks practiced sports on a regular basis, involving exercises on horizontal bars, ladders, poles, ropes, foot races, dumbbells, wrestling, throwing of the javelin and discus. Gymnastics, just like music, was part of the education of any young man who aspired to become a philosopher. In the Book III of the Republic, Plato observes that young people should practice gymnastics regularly as a tool of the soul to improve the body (and not vice versa): “Gymnastic as well as music should begin in early years; the training in it should be careful and should continue through life. Now my belief is, (…) not that the good body by any bodily excellence improves the soul, but, on the contrary, that the good soul, by her own excellence, improves the body as far as this may be possible. What do you say?” Glaucon asked Socrates, who answered: ”Yes, I agree. Then, to the mind when adequately trained, we shall be right in handing over the more particular care of the body“. (1) This is what is called in modern medicine top – down, or mind – body approach.

The tension between the material and spiritual aspects of life is a major theme in the Platonic dialogues, and was unfortunately imported as dichotomy by transcendentalist religions such as the Christianism, contributing to the condemnation of the “flesh” by the Christian church. How did this happen? According to one of the authorities of the Hellenic tradition, “many of the early church fathers were enamoured of the Platonic ideas and incorporated them into their theology. The Christian terminology simply substitutes “spiritual” for Nous or Mind or Ideas, making a separation between the spiritual and the material”. (2)

Within what Plato calls in The Republic “a just soul” (ψυχή – psykhí, psyche) this tension should not lead to dichotomy and conflict, but to an effort towards harmony. In Phaedrus, Plato indicates that the material plane of existence is the source of non-rational passions, desires and appetites, hosted by the appetitive part of the soul (ἐπιθυμητικόν – Epithymetikon, the Appetite), while the spirited part of the soul (θυμοειδές – Thymoeides) makes an individual, or a state, aspire towards goodness. Both aspects must be controlled and harmonized by the Reason (λογιστικός – Logistikon), which seeks the truth. The harmony within the soul depends on the outcome of this continuous dialogue between its three parts – The Reason, the Spirited part and the Appetitive part. If someone allows to be ruled by bodily passions and appetites – which Socrates and Plato regard as sources of sophistry and delusion – then the soul falls prey to vice; but if the appetites are ruled by reason, then the soul is virtuous. Plato does not negate the appetitive part of the soul, with its hedonistic inclinations, but he indicates that a control mechanism should be in place so the individual is not driven by comfort and pleasure seeking. The soul can be declared “just” only if all three parts agree that the Reason (logistikon) should rule.

In the Republic, Plato categorizes values, or goods, in two sets, of human and divine nature. Thus, wealth, health, beauty and strength are of human (more dense, palpable) nature, while wisdom, temperance, courage and justice are of godly (impalpable) nature. Apparently, physical exercise could be most obviously connected to two of human set of goods –  strength and health. However, Socrates advises otherwise:

“Socrates: ‘Have you noticed,’ I asked, ‘how a lifelong devotion to physical exercise, to the exclusion of anything else, produces a certain kind of mind? Just as a neglect of it, produces another type? One type tends to be uncivilised and tough, the other soft and over-sensitive.’

Glaucon: ‘Yes … excessive emphasis on athletics produces an excessively uncivilised type, while a purely literary training leaves men indecently soft.’

Socrates: ‘What I should say therefore is that these two branches of education seem to have been given by some god to men to train these two parts of us – the one to train our philosophic part, the other our energy and initiative. They are not intended the one to train body, the other mind, except incidentally, but to ensure a proper harmony between energy and initiative on the one hand and reason on the other by tuning each to the right pitch”. (3)

Thus, Socrates indicates that gymnastics has a godly origin, is a tool gifted by the Gods to the humanity to be used to harmonize and bind together the three centers of the human being: the mind, which knows, the emotions, which give birth to the wish and the body, who does the work. Know – wish – do: they all coordinate together harmoniously towards a common goal, such as better health or getting in shape. When the will power (βουλή – voulí) and the mind (νους – nous) work in harmony, the soul itself becomes harmonious and makes progress. This is the state of justice and harmony within the complex unit of the rational, spirited, and appetitive elements of the soul described by Plato in The Republic. Gymnastics needed to be balanced by the practice of the right type of music in order to maintain harmony within the soul. To Plato, individuals who practice gymnastics will not become soft and effeminate by neglecting their bodies, nor harsh by neglecting training in beautiful, but simple music. Thus the proper guardian of the soul is a balanced gentleman, a philosopher. Music may soothe the savage beast; but the just soul needs the kind of music that does not undermine valuable qualities of vigour and manliness (andreia) – although Plato did not generally endorse a gendered view of qualities of the soul, which needs to be balanced in all aspects, and is of both feminine and masculine nature, as showed in Symposium.

In orphism, the Ancient Greek religion of Pythagoras and Plato, the human being is a reflection of the entire cosmos. Therefore, the desirable state of harmony within the human being must be a reflection of the cosmic harmony. In fact, human beings are able to tap into that cosmic ability through the aithir (αἰθήρ). Impressions and eternal ideas of beauty, health and wellbeing are first received within a medium which Orpheus calls aithir, and is the medium within which the soul communicates, within itself, as well as with the outer world (4). Images of a perfect prototype of you – your most perfect version of endurance and strength – is “downloaded” in the human nous (mind) from the cosmic nous via the aithir. Greeks decorated their homes and cities with marble statues of toned, strong bodies as symbols of character and discipline, embodying Forms, prototypes of beauty and harmony. Contemplating a perfect toned body had different layers of meaning, alluding to a strong character with perfectly balanced centers, that could as well encapsulate a Delphic maxim** such as: Respect yourself, or Guard what is yours or Be well off as a mortal. In Phaedrus, Socrates describes an otherworldly existence in which souls ride across the top of heaven enjoying direct visions of the Forms. After falling into bodily existence a soul responds to beauty more avidly than it does to any other qualities for which there are Forms.

Modern olympians use visualizing before performance as mental enhancement before competition. (5) The brain has neuroplasticity, and training creates new synapses in the brain. As a consequence the body functions differently after visualization. (6) It is likely that statues representing Forms, prototypes of perfect beauty and character, were used by the Ancient Greeks as capturing devices within the aithir, as visual aids for the souls aspiring to reach beauty and self perfection. Modern scientific studies (7) on the relationship between brain and intense physical exercise show that exercise enhances the communication between the brain cells that regulate physical and emotional health, increasing the levels of two common neurotransmitters – glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA – that are responsible for chemical messaging within the brain. These finding offer new insights into brain metabolism and why exercise could become an important part of treating depression and other neuropsychiatric disorders linked with deficiencies in neurotransmitters. Many levels of connection and connectivity here, that could all be part of the generic aithiric forces identified by the Ancient Greeks. It is clear, for this author, that physical training with the purpose of a good shape and healthy body is an act of the soul (while sitting passively in front of the TV is not!). It is also clear that the soul – as the architect of the body – needs self discipline so it does not tilt the balance towards the hedonistic inclinations of its appetitive parts. The Delphic maxims indicate honoring discipline. Discipline builds character. Character builds virtue, which builds beauty and harmony within the the soul, eventually leading to freedom. This is the journey that the Platonists were on.

* “When the two Kozmogonic substances attain harmony, they merge together: the Aithír enters the Particulate Substance, the Mæristí Substance: Earth. This unification forms the most elemental cell, what Orphéfs calls an Egg, from which the entire Universe emerged, as described in the Orphic Rhapsodies:

“For Ageless (ἀγήραος) Time (Χρόνος) was moved by Necessity (Ἀνάγκη) and gave birth to Aithír (Αἰθήρ) and a limitless chasm (χάσμα) which extended in every direction, and everything was in tumult. In the Aithír, Time formed a silvery egg (ὠεόν or ᾠόν), the offspring of Aithír and Kháos (Χάος). And the egg began to move in an enormous and wondrous circle [71] and from the egg Phánis (Φάνης) emerged, and as he was born, the Aithír and the Chasm were torn apart (ἐρράγη).” [7]

This evolving Egg is called the Soul (Psykhí; Gr. Ψυχή). [8]  The Kózmos itself is a Soul. Likewise, all creatures have souls and are the result of the union of the two Kozmogonic substances.”

**The Delphic maxims constitute the ethical and moral code of the Ancient Greece, attaining virtue being the ultimate state of the perfection of the soul for the orphics, including the Platonists.


(1)  Plato. Republic, Harmondsworth: Penguin. trans. Desmond Lee, book 3, 1987.

(2) The Materialism of Orphism.

(3) Plato. Republic, Harmondsworth: Penguin. trans. Desmond Lee, book 3, part 2, 410c–412a, 1987

(4) The Materialism of Orphism.

(5) Clarey, Christopher. Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training. New York Times, February 22, 2014.

(6) Alivisatos, A. Paul et al. The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics.  Neuron, Volume 74 Issue 6, 21 June 2012, Pages 970-974.

(7)  R. J. Maddock, G. A. Casazza, D. H. Fernandez, M. I. Maddock. Acute Modulation of Cortical Glutamate and GABA Content by Physical Activity. Journal of Neuroscience, 2016; 36 (8): 2449 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3455-15.2016

Adina Dabija is a writer, philosopher and western esoteric arts practitioner. Adina currently lives in New York, where she practices Chinese medicine. She published several books of poetry and fiction. She is also a priestess of Dionysus in the ancient Orphic mystery tradition, an initiatic lineage of Hellenic priesthood passed down directly from teacher to student. 

One thought on “Gymnastics in Platonism

  1. If not for the Athenian component, I’d say I was reading about King Lycurgus, the great Spartan lawgiver (about whom Plato was such a fan). A well-informed article and, to my surprise, yet another intellectual dedicated to an ancestral religion. Very very good work, Abina.

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