Should Epicureans pursue competitive sport?

Epicurus believed a stress-free and communitarian lifestyle, where one tries to be friendly with as many people as possible. His teachings have informed a scepticism of ruthless competition and cutthroat business dealings here on Epicurus Today. But does the collaborative congeniality of Epicureanism prevent his adherents from partaking in competitive sport?

Firstly, I think its perfectly reasonable for any Epicurean to enjoy non-competitive sport. It’s good exercise, relaxing and a great way to meet people. I’ve played non-competitive sports my whole life with family and friends, and I enjoy them immensely. I think the benefits of non-professional sport go without saying. I also follow competitive sports, though not intensely, and partly for the benefit of being able to talk about it with friends.

However, competitive sport could be seen as un-Epicurean. Athletes and sports players often become incredibly stressed and anxious. In most cases, they must radically change their lifestyle: eating differently, sleeping less and training for long and often unsociable hours. They are under constant pressure to improve, and are made to feel inadequate if they lose, even if they’ve tried their best. I understand the vast majority of athletes and sports players enjoy what they do. But the demands of a sporting career are hardly fitting with Epicurean ideals.

The importance our society gives to competitive sports is un-Epicurean. Partly because of the sheer sums of money involved. We often mention the enormous investment American college sports receive, even as college classes are large and many academic staff are underpaid. American students should not have to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fees when so much of the money goes on sport, particularly if many of the students in question have no interest in sport. Equally outrageous is the wages many professional sportspeople receive. The most egregious example of this is European football, where South American superstar football Neymar, was transferred from Barcelona to Paris-St-Germain for €222 million. The wages of European footballers, particularly the English Premier League, are utterly vulgar and ridiculous.

I also deplore the idiotic tribalism often found in sport. I recently watched a football (soccer for our American readers) match between my university town’s team and another team from the same county. The match was kept under control by riot police wearing full protective gear and carrying an assortment of anti-riot weapons. Supporters of the two teams were shouting insults at each other. One of the songs sung by the home fans was about why the goalkeeper of the opposing team deserved to die; the goalkeeper was charged with manslaughter and dangerous driving. I got told off for eating a Cornish pasty made by a company that sponsored the opposing team. The overall atmosphere was brutally hostile and I left feeling very uncomfortable.

None of this is to say that competitive sport is inherently bad, but people need to engage with it with a sense of perspective. Sport should not make people as rich, famous or popular as it currently does. Just as importantly, sport should not come at the expense of other cultural activities, like the theatre, music, art or literature. In some working class parts of the UK, sport, especially football, is given funding and attention to the detriment of other pastimes. This means that footballers, who can be nasty, brash and unsophisticated, serve as role models for working class boys. Many British boys invest their time and money watching, playing and following football, seemingly disinterested in everything else. At school, football often constituted the sole subject of discussion amongst my male friends. I’m perfectly happy to talk about sport- I really enjoy doing so- but I don’t want it to be the exclusive preserve of my time. Sport’s clout needs to be moderated in my view. The only exception to that is the role sport plays in getting people fit. Much of the Western world is overweight- if sport motivates people to keep fit, then that can only be good.



  1. Good post! I entirely agree. When I was at school the only thing that seemed important was playing rugger ( rugby football). Noone paid much attention to success in the classroom or, indeed, to any other sport if it came to that. My father played for England against France ( once, anyway), so this made the pressure all the greater. Yes, I did it, I duly got onto the school 1st XV, thinking all the time “the exercise is great, but this is totally overblown and unimportant way to spend my time”. Get Bob Hanrott mad and we’re bound to win. It wasn’t difficult! What they didn’t know was why I was mad.

    Now my grandson has had concussion playing the game, and I only hope it doesn’t have long term effects. No, we put far too much emphasis on sport in general.

  2. Even as I am a follower of the Epicurean philosophy, so I am also a follower of Heraclitus, who considers that the first principle of nature is war, that all things change and move because of a competition of opposites. Heraclitus is similar to the Daoist point of view that harmony, or ataraxia, is about existing in the harmony between opposing forces. Acting in harmony with the common patterns of nature, rather than following opinions, is the path to ataraxia.

    I run my own business, I market a game, both business and game is competitive. Rather than see competition as bad, I consider this as natural, vital to a healthy life because it encourages growth and development through adversity. I consider competition like electricity or a knife, a tool that can have beneficial or harmful consequencies depending upon how it is used.

    Competition can either be approached from the mind of a player of chess, or the mind of a player of Go. The chess player pursues the path of the complete annihilation of the enemy, but Go wins through building and creativity. USA plays chess, so that they wipe out the leadership of Libya, Iraq and attempt to do so in Syria, but create a messy situation. China plays Go, it builds hospitals and schools in African nations, then gives those facilities to the nations, thus they gain influence in those nations and on important UN votes.

    I can approach a running race as either to think only angry negative thoughts about my opponent, or see my rival as a guide in a path of self development.

    In summary, I see competition as natural, and our state of mind will determine if competition becomes a tool of harm or benefit to us and others.

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