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“On Exercise" by St. Nektarios of Aegina

An excerpt from For Mind and Heart: St. Nektarios As Teacher  Translated by Fr. John Palmer and available from Newrome Press here.

Both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength... while soundness is preserved by the mean.1

THESE WISE WORDS FURNISH the reason why moderate bodily exercise has always2, and by every civilized nation, been considered a necessary undertaking and the inseparable attendant and companion of every free and well-formed citizen, as well as a sure mark of perfect education. Behold the reason for taking such a view of moderate exercise. Everyone knows about the existent union between soul and body, and the influence these two have on one another on account of their referring back to one single person, to one single perceptive faculty of a single material-spiritual being—that is, man—who perceives each and every single movement in either soul or body as the movement of one lone being, which expresses itself through the 'I'. In other words, on account of this union, this or that state of either body or soul produces corresponding sensations in that one unified faculty. Therefore, when the body suffers, man says, 'I suffer,' and he says the same whenever the soul is afflicted. The opposite is true whenever the body is sound and the soul is healthy. The painful or pleasant sensation arising out of the affliction or health of either of these two is transmitted out of sympathy from the one to the other on account of unity of the person, on account of man's 'I'.

On account of this mutual influence, then, if man is to be happy, if he is to act in a way worthy of his calling, he needs to be healthy on both fronts, since without both being in good condition, he is unable to be happy and cannot be fit to perform the work of his calling. Since there are many things which undercut the health and well-being of the soul and body, man therefore ought to take great care to fortify both so as to keep them strong and robust. Thus they will be able to repel the innumerable assaults of enemies and be ready and prepared to enjoy that happiness which comes from the well-being of the two parts of the self, and at the same time be able to fulfil the work of his calling. Wherefore, as all know well, the training and exercise of both body and soul are inborn duties set upon man by both his very nature and his calling since a healthy body serves the soul willingly and readily, while a soul which has cultivated its faculties is sound, healthy, and governs the body prudently.

Although great care and concern is required in order to cultivate these two, one should not fall into extremes, and the care for the body of he who exercises ought to be especially measured. On the one hand, according to Aristotle, the extreme cultivation of the soul undermines the body through excessive strain, while on the other hand, the extreme cultivation of the body undermines the soul through unceasing exertion—the second is the greater evil, on account of it amounting to the corruption of what is more excellent. Very rightly, then, it is said that prudence is found in the mean: "Everything in moderation," and, "Nothing in excess."3 He who is given to immoderation and excess on one front, being unable to concern himself with both and ever tending away from the other front, undermines the other. Excessive concern for one is negligence of the other. Immoderate concern for the body, excessive exercise, doubly damages the soul: it damages it indirectly through subsequent illness, and directly through the body's gaining excessive strength. The excessive strength of the body arising out of unceasing concern for it renders it wild, difficult to manage, independently-minded, bold, and unyielding in the face of the soul's dictates. The soul, having become weak, deprived of power, compromised by inactivity, gives the body boldness to rebel against the spirit and prompts it to try and completely subjugate it, to bring it under the dominion of its strength.

It renders the enslaved soul an instrument by means of which the body's irrational impulses are fulfilled, corrupting it and causing whatever may be found in it that is noble to vanish. Therefore, neither the attainment of athleticism nor unrivaled muscular strength should be the aim of exercise, but rather the building of bodily strength for the sake of ready satisfaction of the demands of the spirit and the fulfillment of those duties set upon it. The aim of exercise is not to produce athletes for the games, but, rather, perfectly formed men capable of any undertaking, for it is well-known that exercise by means of habit renders one more ready for struggles, and more industrious through a familiarity with hard work.

Hence, moderation in exercise is required in order to maintain prudence— that is to say, a harmonic balance in the development of the powers of soul and body, so that the former may rule over the body and the latter may readily fulfill the commands it is given. We have come together to celebrate the renewal of such a balanced training of the powers of the soul and body, begun anew today by the establishment of this newly formed exercise club for young people. Its establishment is evidence of an awareness of the necessity of a balanced and parallel cultivation of the powers of the soul and body, and a powerful witness to the progress the youth themselves are quickly making. Its establishment honors the cheerful youth of Kymi who took the initiative, who made the bold decision, who took the first step forward, who urged things onward. On the one hand, this group of young people takes care to ensure its own progress, gives consideration to the improvement of its contemporaries, and makes good use of the precious treasure of youth, a passing and never-returning stream, thereby distinguishing itself within the community, shining amongst its greatest members, proving beneficial to its fellows, acquiring the necessary tools to prove itself in the stadium of activity and labor. On the other hand, this place is now fortunate to have a space wherein the means of growth and development are to be found. The establishment of this club is a good omen, foretelling excellent things for Kymi, which is now destined to bring forth noble and good men. Such men will prove beneficial to the city, society, and the homeland. Our ancient ancestors became noble and good men through measured bodily exercise and the parallel development of the soul's powers; they became great, all-beautiful, and glorious; they proved themselves most beneficial to the nation and humanity through the degree of civility they attained, and the memory they left behind is holy and unforgettable. With the program it has embraced, this club seeks to walk in the tracks of its forefathers, to come up to the level of virtue of its fathers, and to contribute to the progress and development of its homeland. This club bears within it all the necessary qualities to be strong and to achieve that end at which it aims, because its membership is composed of learned men and students, of learned scholars, and has the moral strength to be able to overcome every obstacle appearing in its path. It also feels that it is the present generation's lot to complete the work of its fathers in the present generation; it feels obliged to act resolutely, struggling to contribute to the grandeur of the nation; it feels that it is the inheritor of holy obligations which it ought to fulfil self-sacrificially; it feels that this is not the time for sleep, but rather to be wakeful. We alone hold aloft the banner of victory in the East; this lot has fallen to Greece. The eagerness with which all the Muses' attendants have labored to establish it reveals the noble feelings overflowing in the hearts of the founders and furnishes a sure pledge concerning the solidity of its foundation and good hope concerning the future success of the good work, as beneficial as it is great, undertaken by it. Yes, it is great and beneficial, because it aims at raising up noble and good men capable of benefiting the homeland.

Gentlemen, bodily exercise and spiritual development are the axes around which perfect education and perfect formation revolve, and from these follow happiness, glory, and greatness. The man who is cultivated on both planes will be happy, a man who stands out, who thinks big, who accomplishes big things, who is strong and capable of every undertaking, who is beneficial in all situations. This is because a cultivated intellect puts forth new ideas as from a deep furrow, while a fit body is able to act in the wide-open stadium and make these ideas concrete realities, offering his own flesh and bones, showing that, as Philo says, continual training produces firm knowledge4, and routine in this increases experience. The labors undertaken out of long-standing habit are less arduous. How can men. thus prepared and bearing such weapons into the stadium with them not have as their companion the hope of a glorious future? How can we not expect the best things from such discerning youth? How can we show even the smallest hesitation in light of the great benefit expected from such a club, especially when we see the mind considering most-excellent things, and the body tirelessly doing those things well-considered? Yes, they who are fit in both regards bear with them the ingredients of an auspicious future and a glorious life, because, according to the wise Aristotle, from this follows prudence, which is the token of the soul's health and mother of all virtues. Since all virtues exist collectively in prudence, if moderation is indeed a virtue, then prudence is in moderation, and, therefore, prudence is moderation. What is more honorable than such moderation? What man is more worthy of respect and more sound of conduct than he who is sound-minded? What is more seemly than a virtuous youth? What is more useful? Virtue alone is up to every task; it alone is able to raise up great statesmen, good citizens, and mighty soldiers. Virtue is a formative and shaping power, forming and shaping those who love it, raising up dexterous men able to meet the needs of social life and making them truly happy. Hence, we may thus understand the Stagerite philosopher's great enthusiasm for virtue, the boundless honour he ascribes to it, and his extraordinary hymn of it:

O virtue, toilsome for the generation of mortals to achieve, the fairest prize that life can win, for thy beau-ty, O virgin, it were a doom glorious in Hellas even to die and to endure fierce, untiring labours. Such courage dost thou implant in the mind, imperishable, better than gold, dearer than parents or soft-eyed sleep. For thy sake Heracles, son of Zeus, and the sons of Leda endured much in the tasks whereby they pursued thy might. And yearning after thee came Achilles and Ajax to the house of Hades, and for the sake of thy dear form the nursling of Atarneus too was bereft of the light of the sun. Therefore shall his deeds be sung, and the Muses, the daughters of Memory, shall make him immortal, exalting the majesty of Zeus, guardian of strangers, and the grace of lasting friendship.5

The attainment of this virtue is pursued by this very exercise club, which calls upon other organizations to strengthen the bonds of friendship through continual conversation; which seeks to foster brotherhood among young people; to disperse base antagonism and ill-will; to break young people away from vain and unprofitable pursuits; to lead them into the arena of preparation; to foster noble struggle; to increase the love of honour; to cast out laziness which gives rise to despondency, languor, indifference, and every vice; to raise up strong men who will uphold the customs of the homeland.

This is the club's aim. A lack of such clubs is an indication of a lack of a sense of their necessity and efficacy, and a sign of imperfect development. The lack of such clubs means that young people are deprived of all the aforesaid blessings of exercise, just as occurs when one leaves behind a flowing, beautiful spring. Moreover, they are left to be carried away by the resultant evils of weakness and illness. Civilized Europe has so many of these exercise clubs that their number exceeds the number of schools. Everyone knows what beautiful fruits these bear. Communities understand the importance and necessity of such clubs, and they ardently support them. I am convinced that this exercise club, too, will receive similar support from the local civil authority, the politicians, the community in general, and, most of all, from the wealthy, so that it may travel. uninhibitedly toward the arena of struggle, and ultimately fulfill the great end appointed to it. May it be so!

A Reading from Orthodox Wisdom

  1. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, II[2].1104a. (ed.)

  2. Delivered on the 21st of August, 1893, at the opening of a new exercise club in the coastal town of Kymi when the Saint was an ierokyrix on the island of Evia, this sermon argues that moderate exercise is a necessary part of the formation of youth, since it properly responds to man's bodily needs, the body being one half of man's psychosomatic existence.

  3. See Diogenes Laertios, The Lives of the Philosophers, 1.41, and 1.93. These quotes are attributed to Chilon and Cleobulus respectively. (ed.)

  4. See Philo of Alexandria, On the Birth of Able, 86. (ed.)

  5. Diogenes Laertios, The Lives of the Philosophers, 5.7-8. (ed.)

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