Seneca part 15: A healthy mind in a healthy body

This article is part of the weekly Seneca series. New articles will be published every Thursday.

In his tenth letter, Seneca states: “pray for a sound mind and good health, first of soul and then of body”. In the fifteenth letter, he continues to discuss this theme. It is probably no surprise that the Stoic philosopher advises us to prioritize our mental development over physical training. After all, the cultivation and use of reason is the way to live in accordance with Nature, find happiness, and flourish as a human being.

Without philosophy the mind is sickly, and the body, too, though it may be very powerful, is strong only as that of a madman or a lunatic is strong.

This quote reinforces the idea that we control our mind, while we don’t control our body: a strong body combined with a weak mind belongs to a madman, who has no self-control.

[Mental health] then, is the sort of health you should primarily cultivate; the other kind of health [physical health] comes second, and will involve little effort, if you wish to be well physically. It is indeed foolish, my dear Lucilius, and very unsuitable for a cultivated man, to work hard over developing the muscles and broadening the shoulders and strengthening the lungs.

Is it really that bad and foolish to engage in physical exercise? I wouldn’t think so. The old dictum ‘mens sana in corpore sano’ (a healthy mind in a healthy body) seems to have some value, right? And remember that the second scholarch of the Stoic school, Cleanthes, was an accomplished athlete. If Zeno choose an athlete as his successor, then physical exercise can surely not be that bad? Seneca probably agrees, but he has a few valid arguments against focusing too much on the body instead of the mind.

First, physical exercise costs energy, which may be better spent at the cultivation of reason and the training of our mind. Second, he makes an argument for the negative effects of the great amounts of food that accompany muscle-building and the like. This makes us lethargic (which you probably know by experience to be true). An overall argument that I sense in this letter, is that it is the human nature to act with reason, while physical strenght is a attribute better fitted to animals. Our nature is about reason, not strenght.

For although your heavy feeding produce good results and your sinews grow solid, you can never be a match, either in strength or in weight, for a first-class bull.

But, Seneca indeed acknowledges, some physical training is not bad. He advises us to use simple and effective exercises:

Now there are short and simple exercises which tire the body rapidly, and so save our time; and time is something of which we ought to keep strict account. These exercises are running, brandishing weights, and jumping, – high-jumping or broad-jumping (…) Select for practice any one of these, and you will find it plain and easy. But whatever you do, come back soon from body to mind.

Besides, we can combine mental and physical training:

Of course I do not command you to be always bending over your books and your writing materials; the mind must have a change, – but a change of such a kind that it is not unnerved, but merely unbent. Riding in a litter shakes up the body, and does not interfere with study: one may read, dictate, converse, or listen to another; nor does walking prevent any of these things.

A balance must be found: while prioritizing your mind, you can maintain and improve your body. Indeed, we should strive for a healthy mind in a healthy body – and exactly in that order.

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