The Training of the Gymnasium

By Jason Barney, Academic Dean

“What has the gymnasium to do with classical education?” we might ask ourselves. Academics have to do with the mind, we suppose, while PE and sports focus only on the body. Some classical education enthusiasts might even be inclined to disparage our society’s admittedly crazed emphasis on sports. And they would be right to do so, when the hearts and minds of students play second place to the trophies lining many a school’s hallway. Given this apparent conflict, where might the training of the gymnasium fit in to the classical tradition’s vision for education? We might be surprised to discover that the gymnasium was the ancient world’s quintessential locus for education. And as such, the training of the gymnasium became perhaps the greatest and most powerful metaphor for education in the history of the world.

In ancient Greece the gymnasium for adults (or the palaestra for youth) was a set of public buildings devoted to physical exercises and contests. Compulsory military preparation occurred here for males, but the gymnasium also became of locus of education and philosophy. Early on, teachers started gathering at the gymnasium to train students in various arts or sciences, whether music, the poets, or the art of rhetoric. In fact, Socrates himself had some of his famous discussions about virtues like friendship or temperance with his followers in the gymnasium. On more than one occasion he compared his method of dialogue to a wrestling match and once exclaimed that had a furious love for that type of exercise in pursuit of truth (Plato, Theatetus 169b-c). Over time the gymnasium was institutionalized as a school, so that in the Greco-Roman world it was likely to the gymnasium that students would be sent with their tutors, which were often equipped with lecture halls rented out for that purpose. In fact, the term ‘gymnasium’ is still used in Germany and other parts of Europe to refer to a secondary school, and its athletic background has been entirely subsumed in academic preparation for university.

The gymnastic training itself consisted, as we might have guessed, of physical exercises in strength, speed and dexterity, and these became the analogy for mental gymnastics of all kinds. Even today many standard textbooks contain “exercises” which attempt to “train” the mind in various skills through practicing them again and again until they become easy. But on a deeper level, philosophers made a link between the moral training of the gymnasium, which fostered military virtues like courage and resourcefulness in the face of danger, and the deeper virtue-training of the soul. For instance, Isocrates, the first great rhetorical teacher of Greece, advised one of his students,

“Give careful heed to all that concerns your life, but above all train your own intellect; for the greatest thing in the smallest compass is a sound mind in a human body. Strive with your body to be a lover of toil, and with your soul to be a lover of wisdom, in order that with the one you may have the strength to carry out your resolves, and with the other the intelligence to foresee what is for your good.” (Discourses, vol. 1, Loeb Classical Library 209, p. 29)

Unlike many in modern world, Isocrates saw no conflict between bodily training and hard work on the one hand and the mental and spiritual training of philosophy on the other. As another example, take Socrates, whom we might call the first philosopher. Instead of fitting the stereotype of an ivory-tower intellect, cultivating the mind but despising the body, he never neglected the compulsory military exercises, even into old age, and sharply rebuked any who did (see Xenophon’s Memorabilia).

Now if at this point you think that it’s just pagan philosophers who connected bodily and spiritual training, think again. The author of Hebrews pictured us in a great gymnasium, filled with the hall of faith, “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” and encouraged us to strip down for the race set before us (Heb 12:1 ESV). Then he envisioned us in the arena, boxing or wrestling against Sin, our fatal combatant, whom we must resist even to the point of martyr-like bloodshed (Heb 12:3). Or perhaps you will recall the apostle Paul’s comparison of the Christian life to an athletic contest:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor 9:24-27 ESV)

Just as for the philosophers, the point of the analogy depends on the value of physical discipline for cultivating spiritual virtues like self-control, hard work, determination and heavenly focus.

As a Christian school informed by the classical tradition, Clapham School aims to train not just our students’ minds, but also their bodies and their hearts. As Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain put it in The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education,

“Education is not merely an intellectual affair, no matter how intellect-centered it must be, because human beings are not merely minds. As creatures made in God’s image, we are composite beings—unions of soul and body.” (22)

What we do with our bodies matters as Christians, especially because they are, as Paul says, temples of the Holy Spirit, who indwells us (1 Cor 6:19). That’s why our teachers act as coaches for each individual student, attending to the habits of body and mind, encouraging them to grow and strive and press forward, not just in PE class, but all day long. Physical posture, self-control, forming a straight line, perseverance in the face of difficulty, and attention to the task at hand—in fact, all bodily habits!—make the intellectual and spiritual ones possible. Just as for Socrates, even our discussions are wrestling matches, whether students are straining to imagine a mathematical theorem or striving to discover the best form of government. The lower skills lift the soul up to the higher virtues, including Christian virtues like godliness or piety1. As Paul encouraged Timothy, “Train yourself for piety; for bodily training is profitable to a small extent, but piety is profitable for all things, since it holds a promise for present life and the life to come” (1 Tim 4:7b-8 orig. trans.).