37 Persians 9
September 2014: Grace Vitek, second from right, and several peers performing a scene from Aeschylus’ The Persians.

After a three-year absence, I am back teaching Great Books I this semester (Fall 2018). First-year students typically need more attention and assistance, and one example is the greater amount of time I have spent on typing up comments and suggestions on rough drafts and submitted drafts of their essays. It is more time-consuming but also rewarding as I become the first witness to their growth as writers, readers, and thinkers. My students, indeed, are the best evidence of the fruitfulness from a liberal arts education that I know today.

Essay assignments in this course push students towards conceptualizing a sharp thesis, making a good selection of textual evidence, elaborating well on the evidence, and organizing the elaboration into a coherent structure. They are interpretative essays: compositions that seek to interpret a particular aspect of the text. I also allow one “reflective essay,” usually on Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that reflects upon an angle of their life experience on the basis of the text’s ideas.

As I said to students, reflective essays are easier to write in some respects. There are personal experiences and observations to draw from, and one may feel more confident or empowered writing it because one experiences them directly.  In other ways, however, they are more challenging to write. It is easy to write about personal experiences superficially. It takes a lot of effort to sort through the complexity of a particular experience and to organize different parts so to make them coherent in writing. As a result, it is easy to reduce the interpretation of one’s experience to clichés. 

That said, there is an advantage on writing a reflective essay. The advantage is that the students would have Plato or Aristotle as the starting point. Students still need to think about the scope of what they can write in an essay of approximately 1500-2500 words. They will need to select and organize the content of their experiences and observations in conjunction with the ideas from Plato or Aristotle. Those ideas provide a springboard for them to step on and jump into the pool of self-reflection. It is my hope that by the time they reach the other side of this pool, they will obtain a little greater self-knowledge and a little deeper self-understanding–plus lucid prose, clear organization, thoughtful transitions, and the usual expectations of college writing. 

To help students understand better this task, I obtained permission from a former student to give them the following sample essay. Grace Vitek came to Pepperdine in August 2014 and graduated in April 2018. She hailed from Chicago area and majored in sports medicine. During her first two years at Pepperdine, she also played in the women’s soccer team: an experience that led to the writing of this essay for my class. (She had been with the team for only three or four months when she wrote it.) 

The rough and unfinished draft of this essay was no more than 1500 words, and the second draft was a good deal longer. Further revision led to the final draft, which was submitted to the writing portfolio at the end of the semester, of nearly 1450 words.  It is a good example of the adage that good writing requires revision. The quotations and citations come from the Robin Waterfield translation, which was the text that I used for this class before switching to the translation of Desmond Lee the following year.

Grace Vitek, “The Role of Exercise in the Republic and My Life”

As a member of Pepperdine’s soccer team, I have experienced the not-so-glamorous reality of life as a Division I student-athlete: wake up at 5:30 a.m., practice for two and a half hours, lift for another hour, rush straight to your first class without showering, doze off in your second class, eat, shower, go to another class, stay up until 1 a.m. studying and doing homework, fall into bed utterly exhausted and prepare to do it all again tomorrow. This scenario does not even include the challenges of traveling and make-up work, having to abide by strict team rules and NCAA regulations, and time spent taking care of injuries, in mandatory study hall, and team activities. As I have discovered in the past three months, balancing life as a full-time student with life as a full-time athlete is no easy burden. For me personally, I am not receiving an athletic scholarship, and I have no plans to pursue a professional soccer career. What, then, is the point of investing so much time and energy into athletics?

In his Republic, Plato acknowledges that there is tremendous value in integrating physical exercise into one’s education. In fact, Plato describes physical exercise as one of the two key components in the primary education for the guardians of his idyllic society: “It’s the person who makes the best blend of physical exercise and culture, and applies them to the mind in the right proportions, whom we should really describe as virtuoso and as having the most harmony in his life” (412a, p. 114). In Chapter 4 of the Republic, Plato discusses the role of exercise in the education of the guardians. He discusses the importance of physical training, strict moderation of diet and other indulgences, and a balance between cultural education and physical exercise—all of which, I have found, are extremely important aspects in the lives of student-athletes today. 

The first detail Plato points out about the physical component of the guardians’ education is that it comes after the intellectual component: “Well, after their cultural education, our young men should receive physical training” (403c, p. 103). First and foremost, Plato highlights the importance of cultural education for the mind. He says that an excellent mind “allows a body to maximize its potential for physical goodness” (403d, p. 103). It is only after this cultural education that physical training becomes necessary as a way to enhance the whole person. Thus, physical training is useless without a foundation of cultural education because one does not know how to use his physical abilities in good, meaningful ways. With a cultural foundation, physical exercise unlocks physical ability to do one’s job efficiently. Plato reinforces this idea by paralleling physical health with one’s ability to exercise his or her talents: “Incurably ill people should accept death gracefully (just as criminals should be executed), because they cannot exercise their talents” (403c, p. 102). Through this statement, Plato asserts that physical fitness is necessary for all human beings but especially for the guardians, who have important responsibilities as an elite group of leaders in the idyllic society. 

What kind of physical training is necessary for the guardians to carry out their duties? Since a cultural foundation has already been established, Plato “leaves the mind to attend to the details of the physical training” (403e, p. 103); however, he does tell us three things about the nature of the guardians’ physical training. First, like cultural education, physical training “starts in childhood and continues throughout a person’s life” (403d, p. 103). One begins physical training as a child, and this training regimen must continue throughout one’s life in order for one to maintain physical fitness. Second, Plato emphasizes “a simple and moderate physical training, and one designed particularly for warfare” (404b, p. 104). Plato does not advocate an extreme, overly intense training regimen; rather, he stresses a simple, particular training regimen that will allow the guardians to perform their duties most efficiently. Lastly, what is the purpose of this simple, moderate physical training? Plato tells us, “The goal he aims for even with this physical exercise and effort is the passionate aspect of his nature” (410b, 111). Unlike the contemporary Greek athletes who trained and dieted for the sole purpose of physical fitness, guardians use physical training to develop the passionate part of the soul. Altogether, physical training is a lifelong responsibility; it must be simple, moderate, and designed for a particular purpose (warfare, in the case of the guardians); and physical training aims to develop passion. 

Just as the physical training must be simple and moderate, the diet of the guardians must also be simple and moderate. Unlike Homer who described the elaborate feasting and drinking activities of Trojan and Achaean soldiers, Plato stresses the importance of moderation of diet. In order to ensure strict moderation, Plato establishes several rules regarding diet and other indulgences that may interfere with one’s goal of achieving physical fitness. He says the main source of a guardians’ diet should be protein – particularly roasted meat because it can be cooked on an open fire almost anywhere. For this reason, roasted meat is convenient for the “alert, military life” the guardians live (415e, p. 120). In addition, the guardians must refrain from “savoury sauces” and the “apparent delights of Attic pastries” (404d, p. 104). Sauces and pastries are indulgences that interfere with physical health and fitness. Likewise, a guardian must “avoid getting drunk” as it is an unhealthy indulgence and one that may not only hinder his ability to perform his duties, but also his reputation and credibility as a leader (403e, p. 103). In addition to these dietary regulations, Plato imposes that a guardian “must take exception to having a lady friend, if he intends to get fit” (404d, p. 404). Savory sauces, pastries, alcohol, and “lady friends” are extravagances that counteract the physical training of the guardians and must be avoided. 

Finally, Plato emphasizes the need for balance between cultural education and physical training. As previously mentioned, Plato believes the person who makes the best blend of culture and physical exercise is the most capable of living virtuously and achieving harmony in his or her life. For this reason, the primary education of the guardians focuses on a delicate balance between exercise and culture. To Plato, a life lacking physical exercise is deficient and unacceptable. Just as he condemned savory sauces, pastries, and alcohol, he describes idleness as an “indulgence” that ultimately interferes with one’s physical fitness and abilities: “Hypochondria is an indulgence born of idleness, and interferes with life” (403c, p. 102). To quote Dictionary.com, hypochondria is “an excessive preoccupation with one’s health, usually focusing on some particular symptom.” Thus, Plato implies that idleness, or lack of physical activity, results in ill health; consequently, ill health demands attention and hampers one’s ability to focus on the activities and responsibilities of life.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Plato condemns focusing too much of one’s time and energy on physical exercise: “And what about when someone puts a lot of effort into physical exercise and eats very well, but has nothing to do with culture and philosophy?… Like a wild beast, he uses brute violence to attain all his ends. He lives his life in blundering ignorance, lacking elegance or refinement” (411e, p. 113). Lack of physical exercise is damaging to one’s health, but overexercise is also damaging to a person because it detracts from the amount of time and energy one spends on cultural and intellectual development—development which, as previously mentioned, Plato believes is absolutely necessary as a foundation in one’s life. By explaining how the deficiency and excess of physical training are harmful to a person, Plato advocates for a middle ground, or a mean between the two extremes. The right amount of physical training allows one to invest a reciprocal amount of time and effort into cultural education. This delicate balance of nearly equal investment in both physical training and cultural education allows one to achieve harmony.

The author in Waves uniform

More than two thousand years later, I have found that Plato’s view on exercise is strikingly similar to my personal experience and observation about exercise as a student-athlete at Pepperdine. I have found that Plato’s view on the role of exercise for the guardians applies, for the most part, to the lives of today’s collegiate student- athletes. Student-athletes are the people who make the “best blend of physical exercise and culture” by balancing life as a full-time student with life as a full-time athlete. Plato’s guardians and modern student-athletes are held to very similar standards regarding the relationship between physical exercise and cultural education, the nature of the physical training itself, and moderation of diet and restraint from indulgences.

For the guardians, Plato emphasized that cultural education must come before physical training. Similarly, for student-athletes, school comes first. The NCAA enforces this principle by requiring all collegiate student-athletes to meet specific academic standards in order to remain eligible for competition. In addition, college coaches determine academic requirements for their teams. For example, everyone on my soccer team must report at least six study hours to our coaches every week, and freshmen are required to complete at least two study hours in the athletic study hall room in Firestone Fieldhouse. Further, everyone must report grades every two weeks, and anyone receiving a grade of C or lower in a class will be asked to meet with the coaching staff and encouraged to meet with a tutor, which is available through the athletic department. All of these requirements emphasize the foremost importance of academics, a principle that is acknowledged even by athletic coaches.

Plato argues that physical exercise is useless without a cultural foundation. I have found that this idea proves true in sports. Undoubtedly, physical fitness is important in the game of soccer; however, the fittest, strongest, and fastest people are not always the best soccer players. In my experience, I have learned that you must have considerable knowledge about the game first. It is only then that the physical qualities of fitness, strength, speed, and quickness become useful and can greatly enhance a person’s athletics abilities.

Regarding the nature of the physical training itself, Plato tells us that physical training should start in childhood and continue throughout a person’s life; physical training should be simple, moderate, and designed for a particular purpose; and physical training aims to develop the passionate part of the soul. In my own experience, I have found that nearly all student-athletes started playing their sport at an early age, usually between the ages of three and six. Personally, I began playing soccer when I was four years old, and I have continued playing for my whole life. Plato’s argument that physical training must be maintained has also proved true in my own life. Physical fitness cannot be achieved overnight. As a soccer player, I received a summer workout packet that outlined specific physical training I was expected to do every day for three months in order to achieve the level of fitness required of college soccer. However, once that level has been achieved, it must be maintained throughout the season. My team does a running workout at the end of every Tuesday practice—“Terrible Tuesdays,” as we call them. Also, my team lifts every Tuesday and Wednesday in order to maintain our physical strength. In the off-season, my team still trains five days a week. These trainings focus on maintaining and building upon our physical fitness in order to be ready for next August.

Plato advocated for physical training that is simple, moderate, and designed for a particular purpose. In my own experience with soccer, I have found the physical training to be surprisingly simple and moderate. Before coming to Pepperdine, I had expected the physical training to be extreme and intense to the point where it is almost unbearable. In reality, the physical training has been difficult, but manageable. My coach keeps the fitness training moderate by spreading it out over the days of the week. For example, my team has a hard training session of Tuesday followed by a running and lifting session, trains hard and lifts on Wednesday, and has a light training on Thursday to prepare for a game on My team’s fitness regimen is designed for the particular purpose of maintaining the physical fitness required for a ninety-minute soccer game. Since my team’s fitness regimen is specifically designed for soccer players, it varies greatly with the physical training of the other athletic teams here because each sport demands a different type of fitness.

Plato tells us that physical training aims for the passionate aspect of a person’s nature. I have found this idea to be extremely true in my own experience. I have yet to meet a collegiate student-athlete who is not incredibly passionate about his or her sport. College sports, especially at the Division I level, are huge time commitment. Student- athletes choose to devote a huge investment of their time in college to their sport because they are passionate about their sport. As I mentioned earlier, I am not receiving an athletic scholarship, and I have not intentions of pursuing a professional soccer career. I play because I love the game. 

Lastly, Plato emphasized moderation of diet and restraint from indulgences that are harmful to physical health and fitness. My soccer team does not have specific dietary rules or restrictions, but we are expected to eat a healthy, nutritious diet. On my team, I have found that almost everyone simply wants to eat healthy and chooses to eat healthy on their own, avoiding the “savoury sauces” and “Attic pastries” of today: Nutella, soda, ice cream, junk food, etc. Like the guardians, student-athletes are also expected to “avoid getting drunk.” My team has a strict “dry-season” policy, meaning that no one is allowed to consume alcohol during the season.

In the Republic, Plato describes physical exercise as a crucial component of the guardians’ education. With a strong cultural foundation, physical training enables the guardians to carry out their responsibilities as leaders and guardians of the society, for “these men are competitors in the greatest contest of all, aren’t they?” (403e, p. 103). Like the life of a guardian, the life of a student-athlete is unquestionably challenging. However, the blend of physical exercise and cultural education a student-athlete experiences is priceless and brings harmony and passion into one’s life. This physical and cultural balance allows the student-athlete to excel on the field, in the classroom, and in “the greatest contest of all”: this crazy game called life.