One of the great football matches on YouTube is an Olympic final between Germany and Greece. Germany is led by ‘Nobby’ Hegel, with Kant, Wittgenstein and Nietsche in key positions. In midfield is Franz Beckenbauer, a surprise selection, the commentator informs us. Greece has Plato, Socrates, Archimedes.
As you can tell, this is a ‘match’ between philosophers, and the difference between the physical and the metaphysical is taken to a hilarious level in this Monty Python sketch.
When the referee (Confucius) starts play, the philosophers walk around speechifying and ignoring one another. Then Archimedes gets an idea (“Eureka”), moves towards the ball, passes it and before you know it Socrates has scored a goal. This is disputed by the Germans.
The commentator tells us: “Hegel is arguing that the reality is merely an a priori adjunct of naturalistic ethics. Kant, via the categorical imperative is arguing that ontologically it exists only in the imagination. Marx is claiming off side.” Nietzsche, pulled up for arguing with the referee, accuses him of having no free will.
Both philosophy and sport had their origins in ancient Greece. Plato was a talented wrestler and took his name from ‘platon’, meaning broad-shouldered, at the suggestion of his wrestling coach. “Pentathletes,” wrote Plato, “are most beautiful because they are equipped by nature at one and the same time for brawn and for speed.” Closer to our times, philosophy and sport came together when Mike Tyson was forcing himself on a model at a party. The philosopher A. J. Ayer asked him to desist, at which point Tyson turned to him angrily and said, “Do you know who the f*** I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” Ayer, then 77, replied, “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford. We are both eminent men in our field. I suggest we talk about this like rational men.”
The coming together of sport and philosophy has great comic potential — the juxtaposition of incongruities, if you will. They exist on either end of the scale from the cerebral to the corporeal, the mind and the body. But like all apparent opposites — black and white, short and tall — the one merges into the other or can be shown as an extension, negative or otherwise of its reverse.
Conversations about sport linger over such things as what is right and what is wrong, for instance, or the difference between what is beautiful (a goal, a cover drive) or ugly. All sporting arguments have their philosophical base — competition, collaboration, ethics, aesthetics, cheating, sacrifice and so on. Yet they continue to exist separately.
Paul Weiss, whose Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry (1969) first formalised the subject, might have an explanation for this, “The opportunity to deal with sport philosophically was let slip away by the Greeks. From their time to our own, sports have not been taken seriously enough as a source of large truths or first principles.”
Things have changed since, but philosophy has a long way to catch up with sports.