In the last issue of TPM, I foolishly announced plans to cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats – it’s about 1,000 miles from one end of the UK to the other. This puts me at the top of Scotland on a bike made largely from spare parts sometime in the autumn – I’m alarmed to think that’s actually the best case scenario. If nothing goes wrong I’ll be on this ridiculous Frankenstein bike, having a seizure on a freezing mountain in Scotland.
Anyway, when I started all this, I wrote something that I thought was true, but now I’m not sure:
Plato advises a careful blend of physical exercise and cultural pursuits for the children of the Republic. Neglect the Muses, and you become a graceless brute, but without the rigours of sport, the individual “melts and liquefies till he completely dissolves away his spirit, cuts out as it were the very sinews of his soul”. We ought to bring “the two elements into tune with one another by adjusting the tension of each to the right pitch”.
This split between the physical and intellectual shows up more than once in philosophy — I don’t mean mind and body, but mental and physical experiences or pursuits or something along those lines. There’s Mill’s claim about intellectual versus physical pleasures – Bach versus back rubs — that the former are “worth more” than the latter, and those who have experienced intellectual pleasures prefer them to mere physical pleasures.
As I rack up miles on my ridiculous bike, I’m finding it difficult to divide things so neatly — I wonder if both Plato and Mill failed to spot something that’s obvious to people whose legs are burning after seven hours in the saddle. Long distance runners go on about self-discovery, a kind of introspective revelation attending physical exertion. It’s there at the top of hills on bikes too. Some valuable experiences (I won’t say pleasures) seem like weird combinations of the intellectual and the physical — not one or the other, but both or maybe neither. If that’s too rich for you, maybe the right thing to do is to say that we’re just having physical experiences what we can reflect upon — no big deal.
Any pointers? Are you with Plato and Mill, or anyway the caricatures above, holding on to the idea that physical and mental pleasures are distinct, or do you think, maybe with the long-distance runner, that the two are intermingled, something not easily divisible?
(The cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats is traditionally done for a charity. Who am I to get in the way of tradition? Shelter From the Storm do splendid things – if you’d like to offer them a donation, you can do so here.)