The Meathead Philosopher – Reuniting physicality with philosophy

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When many of us think of the gym we often think of the tanned, young, buff gym-rat busting out of a t-shirt that is two sizes too small for him, or the lycra-clad gym-bunny with washboard abs and buttocks so pert they put a Greek goddess to shame.

blue and red superman print tank top shirt

We often view the endeavours of the gym to be a purely aesthetic affair. Of course there is the health aspect, but this is often considered a nice side effect if you want to look better naked.

Now there is nothing wrong with seeking an aesthetic goal, but this is not the sole role of entering the Iron Temple; the gym.

Many non-gym goers will laugh and mock the musclebound as being a little bit thick. Thick in the arm and thick in the head. And indeed any commercial gym will be a hub for so-called ‘Bro-Science’ – the discipline of badly articulated science recounted by those who didn’t really understand it the first time round. The term bro-science seems to have originated in the bodybuilding world.

“Education is good and all, but big biceps are betterer”

Jason, The PT

This of course is just another stereotype. Brainy doesn’t equal puny, nor does fit and strong equal dumb. Some of my favourite science boffins and scientific communicators are proper buff. Check out the guns on associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, Dr Andrew Huberman, for example. Or even Dolph Lundgren, with his Masters in Chemical Engineering and rippling muscles, at 64 years of age!

And this hybrid of brains and brawn is no new phenomena either. I’d go as far to say that it was once the norm.

The word Gymnasium has it’s origins in the Greek word ‘Gymnos’ meaning naked or nude. This is due to the fact that the dress code of these early training grounds was literally non-existent. Athletes trained in the buff, or well oiled at most, to encourage the aesthetic appreciation of the human form as tribute to the gods.

Focus on the eyes! source: chunkfitness.com

With the advent of the hip abduction machine and the elliptical cross trainer, this tradition has thankfully died a death and will hopefully never be resurrected.

One other role of the gym, that has endured to an extent, and one that should be invigorated and refreshed, was as a seat of learning.

The early Greek gymnasiums weren’t just a place of athleticism but of education and health, where men (only men at the time) could learn about science, mathematics, philosophy and medicine. In fact other than the learning of letters and music, all formal education was conducted in the gymnasium. The great philosophers would regularly hold talks and seminars within the grounds of the gymnasium to crowds of well built naked dudes.

Plato himself wrote in both ‘Republic’ and ‘Laws’ about the importance of the gymnasium to education. This is no surprise when you consider that ‘Plato’ was actually his nickname, supposedly given to him by his wrestling coach on account of his broad, muscular shoulders.

Plato was a Meathead Philosopher.

“Civilise the mind, but make savage the body”

We love this quote at Wild Life. It’s that perfect balance between mind and body. Building our physical form into a robust vehicle for life whilst simultaneously fortifying our minds to handle the mental rigours the world throws at us.

This kind of mindset has been shared by countless philosophy systems throughout the ages. Even Socrates, the forefather of Western Philosophy, had strong words to say on the matter of getting ripped.

“No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”

Socrates

This is key to the Wild Life movement philosophy. So often people used exercise as punishment.

“I need to go running because I ate that cupcake at lunchtime” or ” I’ll have to workout for over an hour today because I missed my session yesterday”.

Here at Wild Life we encourage you to see movement as a celebration of human excellence; to relish in the wonders of your body’s abilities; to see “the beauty and strength which [your] body is capable”.

The biggest philosophical influence to me and the development of the ethos at Wild Life, is Stoicism.

Despite it’s great age, Stoicism remains a relevant and practical philosophy today, and is currently seeing something of a revival in recent years.

A concept that features prominently within Stoicism is the idea of the ‘dichotomy of control’. This is to identify those factors in our life that we truly have control of (our thoughts and our actions) and what we cannot control (everything else).

photo of yellow arrow road signage

And while our bodies come under the ‘what we can’t control’ heading, due to disease, injury, death, etc, our actions and mindset allow us to give it the best possible chance of success.

By understanding that it is ultimately up to us to take control of our thinking regarding our health, and to implement the action to follow a regime of health, we wrestle back the power of our own health.

In short , this is about agency. It’s about taking responsibility for ourselves and owning it. This is a major part of Wild Life’s teaching and what we base our Reboot and Revolution health programmes around.

Taking ownership both empowers you and forces you to step up to the mark and start moving forward.

This is the way of the Meathead Philosopher.

We do not blindly follow a plan. We own the plan. We know why we are doing it, we know what we want from it, and we hold ourselves accountable for getting shit done.

The dichotomy of control is also a perfect way to look at bumps and obstacles in every health journey. Shit happens. In fact, shit never stops happening. But the Meathead Philosopher knows that if said shit is within our control then we can change it and move forward, and if it’s not within our control then there is nothing we can do about it anyway. Get over it, move on.

city businessman fashion man

The classic stoic metaphor for this is the Archer. The archer spends years learning her trade. When the day of her competition arrives she carefully selects the right bow and the right arrow for the conditions, distance and target. She prepares herself for the shot, calming her body and her mind. Steadying her breath she takes aim, allowing for the light breeze. With total mindfulness she releases the string and sends her arrow on it’s way to the centre of the target.

From the moment the arrow leaves the bow the archer knows everything from this point is out of her control. A gust could blow the arrow off course; an obstacle could move in front of the target; the target itself could move. If the result is less than ideal she still has control over her mindset. She accepts the outcome, plucks up another arrow, and takes aim again.

The Meathead Philosopher understands this too. When he follows the proven training programme to the letter, he knows that, barring injury or equipment malfunction, he will get the results promised.

Again this is something that we really try to impress upon our clients. Those that follow the programme as prescribed always have impressive results.

Having this understanding also helps the Meathead Philosopher to avoid the scourge of health progress – incessant programme hopping.

“Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it — turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself — so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.”

Marcus Aurelius

The Meathead Philosopher understands that things will not always go our way, that we will be confronted with ‘failure’. But just like Marcus Aurelius, the Meathead Philosopher knows that this impediment, this failure is where the growth really occurs, and to seek out this edge of his ability, because the more failures we face the closer we get to success.

I think a form of the Serenity Prayer would be an apt reminder on every gym wall.

Serenity Prayer

The Stoics, along with many other philosophers, embrace the suck. They understood that we need discomfort in order for comfort to exist, that struggle was an intrinsic part of relief, that failure was often the precursor to success.

“Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.” 

Epictetus

This is what German Philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche referred to as ‘Amor Fati’, the love of fate. Or as Bruce Lee put it:

Armed with this knowledge the Meathead Philosopher understands that there are no real shortcuts, no cheat codes to building a healthy resilient body (or mind). It requires commitment, discomfort and sacrifice.

Knowing that the way up the metaphorical mountain can only be achieved by uphill trudgery somehow makes the endeavour easier to bear. It cuts down the options and gives us a sense of shared experience.

The Meathead Philosopher knows that no-one in the gym is looking at their progress in a derisive manner, because every one of them that has gone before him has experienced the same struggle. They are all comrades-in-arms.

And despite the struggle, or more likely because of the struggle, we slowly make improvements.

What seemed impossible last year doesn’t even register today. And these tiny incremental, marginal gains add up to massive results.

Well-being is attained little by little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself.”

Zeno of Citium – Founder of Stoicism

And as the ebb and and flow of struggle and success endlessly repeats, the Meathead Philosopher slowly comes to understand what happiness truly is.

It was never about the muscles. It wasn’t the flash car, the high paying job, or the gorgeous spouse. Neither was it about the Instagram followers, or even the personal best Bench Press.

The Stoics used the term Eudaimonia. Most often described as happiness, the literal meaning is ‘good spirit’.

photo of a smiley face

The idea of happiness as we know it today, the emotion of pleasure and elation, doesn’t quite do the concept of eudaimonia justice.

Happiness is a fleeting moment. We cannot feel happiness without sadness.

Eudaimonia is sometimes translated as flourishing. I think this is better. It shows that we can flourish in life regardless of the good or bad.

The Meathead Philosopher comes to realise that by fortifying the mind and body, by becoming anti-fragile, by being truly harder to kill, we are able to flourish in any condition. What we do in the gym is merely a microcosmic interpretation of what we do everywhere in life.

Suddenly it’s not about the big guns anymore.

Health is the soul that animates all the enjoyments of life, which fade and are tasteless without it.

Seneca

So don’t be so quick to assume that that gym -rat has biceps for brains. That thousand yard stare into the gym mirror may be him looking into a 1000 years of Meathead Philosophy. He may be contemplating the vast expanse of thought whilst still getting swole.

The ranks of the Meathead Philosopher are always open to new comrades, and entry is simple. Just keep on working on the equation:

Brainz X Gainz = Meathead Philosophy

Just keep your clothes on when doing burpees.

Here are a couple more Meathead Philosopher concepts for you:

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