Stoicism as a Martial Art

The art of living is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s in this regard, that it must stand ready and firm to meet whatever happens to it, even when unforeseen. — Marcus Aurelius

Greek and Roman youths typically engaged in combat sports, including wrestling, boxing, and the pankration, which combined elements of both. It should be no surprise that we find many references to these sports in the writings of ancient philosophers, many of whom must have had personal experience engaging in them, as well as watching others compete.

The Historia Augusta says that in his youth the Stoic philosopher, and Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius was “fond of boxing and wrestling”, and that he had been trained to fight in armour. However, we’re told that over time he became more physically frail, suffering from chronic health problems, and his interest in philosophy came to distract him from these physical pursuits.

Nevertheless, Marcus’ early enthusiasm for combat sports perhaps inspired him to write of boxing, wrestling and pankration in The Meditations. In the quote above, he describes the whole “art of living” as resembling the art of wrestling. The Stoic philosopher must be psychologically resilient, he’s saying, and prepared in advance to meet the blows of fortune, like a wrestler facing his opponent.

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