Plato’s guide to professional sports

Benjamin L. Woodfinden
September 8, 2017
Why does Sydney Crosby keep playing hockey after four concussions when he has $50 million in the bank? Why is Tom Brady trying for his 6th Super Bowl ring at 40? And why do millions of sports fans spend billions buying tickets, jerseys, cable TV subscriptions and all the other stuff that makes pro sport such a global economic behemoth? Plato knew the score, writes Ben Woodfinden, who reckons the great philosopher would approve of the way modern western society has channelled the innate human desire for glory into non-lethal entertainments for the masses.

Sidney Crosby won his third Stanley Cup last spring, the latest addition to his ever-growing collection of hockey accomplishments that includes two Olympic gold medals and countless individual awards (two Hart, two Art Ross, two “Rocket” Richard, and two Conn Smythe trophies) and a net worth of well over $50 million. But “Sid the Kid” turned 30 this year, and during his 12-year professional career he has also accumulated plenty of injuries, including at least four major concussions. Despite the significant risk to his long-term health, he intends to keep playing. Similarly, 40-year-old New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who won an unprecedented 5th NFL Super Bowl championship last season, will take the field yet again this fall against men half his age and twice his size who are paid to hit and tackle him as hard as they can. Fellow NFLer Brett Favre played into his forties and suffers from memory loss after being sacked over 500 times. Peyton Manning missed an entire season due to a neck injury, but returned to play four more years until retiring at 39 after winning his second Super Bowl.

This list could go on and on. Countless professional athletes play through and beyond serious injury, often long after they have made enough money to keep themselves and their families wealthy for generations. But they keep coming back for more, just like their devoted fans who will spend an estimated $69 billion on sports entertainment in North America alone this year. Many fans will dedicate much of their leisure time to the consumption of sports media, and make significant emotional investments in the triumphs and heartbreaks of their team.

Some would say the behaviour of the players and the fans is clinically irrational. Indeed, that’s what it looks like from a strictly utilitarian cost-benefit analysis. But, as most of us obviously believe, being human means being more than a utility maximizer, and our love of sports are the perfect illustration of this. Evolutionary psychology partly explains the widespread appeal of sports by locating it within our tribal need to organize our relations with others into “in-groups” and “out-groups.” But this doesn’t get to the core of why we invest so much in such an arbitrary and trivial social activity.

To really understand the phenomenon, we must forget the economists and evolutionary psychologists, and instead look to the philosophers. Much of our behaviour is rooted in a universal desire for approbation. We relentlessly seek the approval and admiration of others. For many, this desire is satisfied by those we are closest to, our family and friends; others aspire to widespread fame and acknowledgement. Many philosophers have noticed this over the ages, and have given it many different names. Machiavelli called it glory, Rousseau called it “amour propre”, Adam Smith called it approbation, Hegel called it recognition, and Nietzsche called it the will to power.

On this, however, as with so much about the human condition, we should look first to Plato. Twenty-five hundred years before people started craving “likes” on Facebook, he named this desire “thumos.” If we want to understand the mass appeal of sports in the modern age, understanding what Plato meant by thumos is our best bet.

Plato divided the human soul into three parts. The first is the “appetitive” part, which includes our basic animalistic desires for life essentials such as food, shelter, and sex. The second is the rational component (logos), the logical, reasoning part of the soul which seeks and yearns for truth and understanding. In between our appetites and our reason is the spirited (thumotic) third part of the soul. This is the wellspring of our desire for recognition and, in those of certain temperament, glory, fame and power. You don’t need to be a full-blown Platonist to believe he was onto something. An honest look in the mirror will reveal how these different parts of your “soul” manifest themselves in your personality and behaviour.

Thumos itself can be broken down into two further desires, isothymia and megalothymia. Isothymia is the desire to be recognized by others as an equal. It is a largely positive impulse that has fuelled all sorts of civil rights movements and egalitarian social changes. However, the isothymic drive does pose some dangers. It can be infectious, and taken to its extreme, it expresses as a Jacobinesque insistence on the absolute levelling of social status, wealth, and power. Contemporary “social justice warriors” may be viewed as the latest outbreak of extreme isothymia.

The more important, and potentially more dangerous, kind of thumos is megalothymia. This is the desire to be recognized as superior. Although it’s not necessarily expressed as physical dominance, it does have a zero-sum component to it. Our megalothymic impulses can only be satisfied by others recognizing us as superior or worthy of glory. Unlike isothymia, megalothymia cannot be universal, for this desire to be satisfied there must be those who possess glory, and those who don’t, but recognize it.

This desire is universal and trans-historical, but the way in which it has manifested itself has changed. The most obvious historic example of this is the glory and honour virtually all societies have bestowed on martial prowess. The most famous exploration of the phenomenon is in Homer’s Illiad. Achilles is the archetypal megalothymic figure, driven by the need for glory and recognition, even at the cost of an early death. This theme echoes through the literature of western civilization. Milton’s Lucifer in Paradise Lost is corrupted by his insatiable megalothymia, tellingly proclaiming that it is “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”

Megalothymia is not exclusive to war or satanic ambition. Any pursuit that produces wide recognition or esteem can satisfy megalothymic desires, but the zero-sum nature of this desire means that it is best satisfied in pursuits that are adversarial. War, politics, law, and other highly competitive enterprises all offer glory and victory only at the cost of someone else’s defeat. Many politicians are driven by megalothymia, which explains why many refuse to retire gracefully when they’ve worn out their welcome.

In modern society, notwithstanding personalities like Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, and Vladimir Putin, megalothymia has been drained from many pursuits, or pushed beyond the realm of acceptability. While we still recognize martial glory, it is not celebrated or encouraged as much as it once was, including in our bureaucratized modern militaries.  Similarly, politics and governance in the modern age are dominated by technocrats, not inspirational leaders. Corporate CEOs are more likely to succeed as cautious administrators than adventurous entrepreneurs.

Most people in western post-industrial welfare states today spend most of their working lives as administrators, bureaucrats, managers, analysts, service providers, or labourers. There are plenty of opportunities for isothymia to manifest itself, but for megalothymia, not so much.  A healthy society needs to find a way to express both of these thumotic impulses.

In the modern age, the extraordinary social and economic influence of sports entertainment is directly attributable to our insatiable desire for megalothymic achievements, if only vicariously for most of us. Sports produces clear winners and losers, and the glory we bestow upon our sporting heroes is virtually unparalleled by any other activity in modern life. This explains not only the widespread popularity and appeal of sports, but also the seemingly irrational behaviour of professional athletes.

Megalothymia is why Sidney Crosby has no intentions of leaving the game early to protect his body. It is why Tom Brady, at 39, says he intends to play for another decade, prolonging the suffering of fans of rival teams. It is why these stars and thousands of lesser heroes keep striving for success. They hold weepy news conferences announcing their retirement when their bodies can finally take no more. They cry not because they’ll miss the paycheques, but because they’ll miss the glory and fame that only comes from playing and winning.

Professional sports are a multi-billion-dollar global industry because they provide an outlet for the spirited part of our nature. American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has said that “sport is to war as pornography is to sex.” But this is only half true. Sport is not just a substitute for war, sport and war are both manifestations of the same human impulse, the primary difference being in the lethality of the injuries inflicted on the warriors.

Viewed from this perspective, professional sports looks like an advance for civilization, no matter how badly soccer hooligans or Stanley Cup rioters behave. That shouldn’t necessarily make us more amenable to demands from taxpayers by billionaire team owners for new arenas and stadiums for their young millionaire puck- and ball-chasers, but neither should we be embarrassed by our fandom. Our athletic passions are a uniquely human experience. The joy of victory, the agony of defeat, the injustice of a missed call, and the beauty of a perfect play help us remember that we are more than monkeys, and less than Vulcans.

Mercurial NHL star Phil Kessel may not quite look like Achilles (at least not the chiseled Brad Pitt version), but he shares a common driving impulse with the tragic figure. The desire for greatness is often rooted in the desire for recognition. This desire should be nurtured and encouraged, because it has helped drive some of humanity’s greatest achievements.

If Plato were around today, I could imagine him wearing a Connor McDavid jersey during a TedTalk in which he explains that professional sports are the best outlet for megalothymia in our thumotically-unbalanced world.

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