In a sporting contest, we face an enemy within the bounds of agreed-upon rule. The goal is to prevail, but not to kill. According to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, this historical innovation of our distant past has great significance for understanding the birth, ascendance, and lasting power of ancient Greek culture. The Greeks did not invent physical contests, but the Olympics are unique in the ancient world for bringing together both brain and brawn under formal terms of public contest. What did this signify? And what were its consequences? In Nietzsche’s view, the ancient Greek obsession with agon (contest) led inexorably to cultural preeminence. How so? This paper will explore Nietzsche’s view that the Greeks learned to “spiritualize” their passions, enmity in particular. This aggressive but rule-bound ethos became the competitive force in Greek culture to which we owe the very disciplines of philosophy, drama, history, and science, because each was conceived as a new arena of intellectual or artistic competition. The paper will engage Nietzsche’s thoughts on Greek contests, and the competitive nature of the sophists, Socrates, and Plato; it will trace how the Greeks understood the Olympic founding myths, and how sport created the template for civilized combat in what became the humane arts of Greek culture, a culture that depicted itself as triumphing over barbarism. The treatment will conclude by reflecting on current views of sport that deviate from the one presented, and will consider what this suggests about contemporary culture and its view of the passions.
|Keywords:||Contest, Sport, Agon, Nietzsche, Ancient Olympics, Philosophy, Ancient Greece, Sophists, Socrates, Plato, Pelops, Myth, Culture, Passions, Spiritualization|
Associate Professor, Philosophy, Westminster College, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA