“Physical education.” Has not the expression the savor of oxymoron? What is it the body learns? Stand the oxymoron on its head: the mind is a muscle and thought, its exertion.
The critic John Dennis writes, “The faculties of the Soul, like the parts of the Body, receive nourishment from use, and derive skill as well as they do force and vigour from exercise” (Preface, The Comical Gallant). George Berkeley observes, “thought is to the mind what motion is to the body; both are equally improved by exercise and impaired by disuse” (Works Vol. VIII, L13, p. 40). We read in Henry Fielding’s Amelia: “the Practice of any Virtue is a kind of mental Exercise, and serves to maintain the Health and Vigour of the Soul” (335).
Hume excuses the difficulty of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by admitting that while his researches “may appear painful and fatiguing, it is with some minds as with some bodies, which being endowed with vigorous and florid health, require severe exercise” (11). Mary Wollstonecraft informs us that even should one fail in his or her researches, still “the mind gains strength by the exercise” (106).
It is on examples that we train the judgment. Or so it may seem to the empiricist. The citations that open this short essay are so many examples; the metaphors taxonomised in the database are so many more.
Such particulars or examples are themselves pictured by Immanuel Kant in a well-known turn of phrase as “the go-cart (Gängelwagen) of the judgment” (CPR 187 A 134, B 173-4).
Gängelwagen is a curious metaphor. (There is always another curious metaphor, one more example, to be enumerated.) A child of the eighteenth century is placed in the go-cart, a frame on wheels, and first learns to walk without suffering the indignity of stumbling or falling. My reader will find an image of a go-cart here.
But the Gängelwagen metaphor of the first Critique also appears in the opening paragraph of Kant’s essay on Enlightenment, in the paragraph in which the sinister structure of self-incurred minority or tutelage is characterized.1 Here the unenlightened, those in tutelage, are harnessed to go-carts, their guardians having impressed upon them the dangers of walking.
A go-cart is part of the machinery in a culture of fear. I conjure for you modern-day treadmills or stationary bicycles housed in expensive fitness centers, outside of which we park our cars.
Kant’s daily walks in Königsberg are famous, but it is Locke and Rousseau who are founding fathers of phys-ed. It will not do to pass by without citing Locke’s use of the formula a sound mind in a sound body or Rousseau’s pairing of exercise and enlightenment. We will remember that Locke, prone to illness himself, recommends open air and exercise, plain diet, loose clothing, exposure of the head and feet to the cold and wet. A child should learn to swim, to dance, to ride, fence and wrestle. “Due Care being had to keep the Body in Strength and Vigour, so that it may be able to obey and execute the Orders of the Mind” (Some Thoughts, §31). Rousseau, in deep dialogue with Locke, rehearses a similar list of activities but expands this last sentiment: “The body should be strong enough to obey the mind; a good servant must be strong … The weaker the body, the more imperious its demands; the stronger it is, the better it obeys. All sensual passions find their home in effeminate bodies” (Bk I, p. 24).
In works like Francis Fuller’s popular 1705 treatise Medicina gymnastica exercise is preferred over emetics and bleedings in the cure several distempers and nervous complaints. Fuller, like Locke and Rousseau, is keen to promote riding, an activity I can’t but read as an emblem of the mind astride its own passions, exercising mastery of the self.
Recall the horsemanship required of the charioteer in Plato’s Phaedrus or better yet the hobby-horses ridden by those children who have graduated from the confines of the go-cart. Indeed, Sterne’s hobby-horse delightfully complicates the pedagogue’s dialectic of mastery and servitude: we had best remember that Rousseau’s Émile is never not in the thrall of his tutor.
Disease and exercise, go-cart and hobby-horse, tutelage and physical education—I quote a passage from Shaftesbury’s Inquiry Concerning Virtue, or Merit at greater length:
There is no-one of ever so little Understanding in what belongs to a human Constitution, who knows not that without Action, Motion, and Employment, the Body languishes, and is oppress’d; its Nourishment turns to Disease; the Spirits, unimploy’d abroad, help to consume the Parts within; and Nature, as it were, preys upon her-self. In the same manner, the sensible and living Part, the Soul or Mind, wanting its proper and natural Exercise, is burden’d and diseas’d. Its Thoughts and Passions being unnaturally with-held from their due Objects, turn against itself, and create the highest Impatience and Ill-humour (213).
In ethico-teleological systems like Shaftesbury’s, the terms, “fitness” and “illness” carry great import and seem to take on senses both literal and figurative. Fitness comes in physical, moral, and ontological varieties. Mind and body are connected in analogy.
The passage from Shaftesbury precedes a warning that with “the enormous growth of luxury in capital cities” numbers of men suffer in a kind of “lazy opulence and wanton plenty” (214). These men lack labor and exercise and are prone to neglect their duty in “settled idleness, supineness, and inactivity” if they do not find other application in letters, sciences, arts, husbandry, or public affairs (214).
The corrupt, immature, effeminate, diseased and vice-ridden fop is no athlete, no soldier, no politician.2 To take a liquid line from Mark Akenside, he is “Lull’d by luxurious pleasure’s languid strain” (Pleasures of Imagination I, l. 32). He (note the gender and social position of the pronoun)—he is distinctly unqualified to exercise virtue in the government or defense his homeland.
This foppish figure is a locus of much eighteenth-century anxiety and makes his appearance in everything from Colley Cibber’s stage satires to Adam Smith’s ambivalent discussion of the division of labor.
Manly exercise is to have martial efficacy. The Duke of Wellington is quoted—spuriously, it seems—as claiming that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Indoors at Eton aristocratic children practiced severe exercises of a different variety, working at their Latin and Greek when not disporting on the margent green. Mens sana in corpore sano.
Mental exertions are meant to offset the increasing refinements available in the metropole. The moral sense is inwardly active and the fitness of “inward constitutions” is tested in gymnastic and imaginative responses to sublime poetry and sentimental novels that exercise the faculties. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith describes those spectators of a “dancer on the slack rope” who “naturally twist and balance their own bodies as they see him do” (I.i.i.3).
The belief that minority is thrown off in wartime is one that abides. But from my vantage tutelage and self-imposed minority fully characterize the population at war. The president rides a hobby-horse at a grave and sober pace across the deck of an aircraft carrier. Tristram Shandy‘s Toby and Trim, veterans of the siege of Namur, play on a bowling-green, building elaborate fortifications against psychic trauma.
Just what sort of phys-ed will exercise a body politic?
1 See “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” in Practical Philosophy. Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. Trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge: CUP, 1996. pp. 17-22. The guardians of minors carefully prevent the “placid creatures from daring to take a single step without the walking cart in which they have confined them” (8:35, p. 17).
2 “Corruption” is a keyword. J.G.A. Pocock explores the term and its place alongside changing conceptions of “virtue” and “commerce.” See his Virtue, Commerce and History. Cambridge: CUP, 1985.