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Philosophy and Sport

Wrestling with Ideas

by Peter Rickman (a.k.a.“The Professor”)

I have been asked for philosophic reflections on wrestling because of my known interest in the sport – as a spectator, mind you, and if you have ever set eyes on me you will appreciate, not as a practitioner.

A crucial feature of wrestling and probably its main attraction is that it is one of the few sports presenting physical combat between two individuals. The only others I can think of are boxing and fencing. Fascination for such single combat permeates the history of mankind. In the Trojan Wars, Patrocles faced Achilles outside the walls of the city, was chased around them and eventually killed. Not long after that a fateful duel between brothers was fought at the siege of Thebes. In the Middle Ages combat between two mounted knights was a favoured spectacle. Duelling in defence of your honour was a practice which persisted to near our time. Westerns culminating in a shoot out between two antagonists retain their popularity.

Interest in such personal combat – of which wrestling is a ritualised representation – is deeply rooted in human nature. As the German poet Goethe wrote: to be human means to be a fighter. Man is a violent animal which kills its own kind without being driven to it by fear or hunger. Of course, Goethe did not refer merely to physical fighting. The duels which need to be fought are often within us: between ambition and lassitude, between emotion and reason, pleasure and duty. We may have to wrestle with our consciences. So the sweating bodies in the ring symbolise something within us all.

What we admire in a good wrestler is skill achieved by disciplined training, which we all need to achieve our goals. We are awed by the strength of men holding big opponents above their head, for strength, not always physical, we all need. For the same reason we appreciate courage and the capacity to endure pain stoically as the wrestler in a painful hold refuses to surrender.

Thus the philosopher observing these violent encounters gains a microcosmic vision of what it is to be human and coping with life.


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