Manhattan Athletic Club Dinner (1890)
Robert Green Ingersoll
New York, December 27, 1890
Athletics among the Ancients
THE first record of public games is found in the twenty-third Book of the Iliad. These games were performed at the funeral of Patroclus, and there were: First. A chariot race, and the first prize was:
"A woman fair, well skilled in household care."
Second. There was a pugilistic encounter, and the first prize, appropriately enough, was a mule.
It gave me great pleasure to find that Homer did not hold in high esteem the victor. I have reached this conclusion, because the poet put these words in the month of Eppius, the great boxer:
In the battle-field I claim no special praise; ‘Tis not for man in all things to excel –"
winding up with the following refined declaration concerning his opponent
"I mean to pound his flesh and smash his bones."
After the battle, the defeated was helped from the field. He spit forth clotted gore. His head rolled from side to side, until he fell unconscious.
Third, wrestling; fourth, foot-race; fifth, fencing; sixth, throwing the iron mass or bar; seventh, archery, and last, throwing the javelin.
All of these games were in honor of Patroclus. This is the same Patroclus who according to Shakespeare, addressed Achilles in these words:
"Rouse yourself, and the weak wanton Cupid Shall from your neck unloose his amorous fold, And, like a dew-drop from the lion’s mane, Be shook to air."
These games were all born of the instinct of self-defence. The chariot was used in war. Man should know the use of his hands, to the end that he may repel assault. He should know the use of the sword, to the end that he may strike down his enemy. He should be skillful with the arrow, to the same end. If overpowered, he seeks safety in flight — he should therefore know how to run. So, too, he could preserve himself by the skillful throwing of the javelin, and in the close encounter a knowledge of wrestling might save his life.
Man has always been a fighting animal, and the art of self- defence is nearly as important now as ever — and will be, until man rises to that supreme height from which he will be able to see that no one can commit a crime against another without injuring himself.
The Greeks knew that the body bears a certain relation to the soul — that the better the body — other things being equal — the greater the mind. They also knew that the body could be developed, and that such development would give, or add to the health, the courage, the endurance, the self-confidence, the independence and the morality of the human race. They knew, too, that health was the foundation, the corner-stone, of happiness.
They knew that human beings should know something about themselves, something of the capacities of body and mind, to the end that they might ascertain the relation between conduct and happiness, between temperance and health.
It is needless to say that the Greeks were the most intellectual of all races, and that they were in love with beauty, with proportion, with the splendor of the body and of mind; and so great was their admiration for the harmoniously developed, that Sophocles had the honor of walking naked at the head of a great procession.
The Greeks, through their love of physical and mental development, gave us the statues — the most precious of all Inanimate things — of far more worth than all the diamonds and rubies and pearls that ever glittered in crowns and tiaras, on altars or thrones, or, flashing, rose and fell on woman’s billowed breast. In these marbles we find the highest types of life, of superb endeavor and supreme repose. In looking at them we feel that blood flows, that hearts throb and souls aspire. These miracles of art are the richest legacies the ancient world has left our race.
The nations in love with life, have games. To them existence is exultation. They are fond of nature. They seek the woods and streams. They love the winds and waves of the sea. They enjoy the poem of the day, the drama of the year.
Our Puritan fathers were oppressed with a sense of infinite responsibility. They were disconsolate and sad, and no more thought of sport, except the flogging of Quakers, than shipwrecked wretches huddled on a raft would turn their attention to amateur theatricals.
For many centuries the body was regarded as a decaying casket, in which had been placed the gem called the soul, and the nearer rotten the casket the more brilliant the jewel.
In those blessed days, the diseased were sainted, and insanity born of fasting and self-denial and abuse of the body, was looked upon as evidence of inspiration. Cleanliness was not next to godliness — it was the opposite; and in those days, what was known as "the odor of sanctity" had a substantial foundation. Diseased bodies produced all kinds of mental maladies. There is a direct relation between sickness and superstition. Everybody knows that Calvinism was the child of indigestion.
Spooks and phantoms hover about the undeveloped and diseased, as vultures sail above the dead.
Our ancestors had the idea that they ought to be spiritual, and that good health was inconsistent with the highest forms of piety. This heresy crept into the minds even of secular writers, and the novelists described their heroines as weak and languishing, pale as lilies, and in the place of health’s brave flag they put the hectic flush.
Weakness was interesting, and fainting captured the hearts of all. Nothing was so attractive as a society belle with a drug-store attachment.
People became ashamed of labor, and consequently, of the evidences of labor. They avoided "sun-burnt mirth " – were proud of pallor, and regarded small, white hands as proof that they had noble blood within their veins. It was a joy to be too weak to work, too languishing to labor.
The tide has turned. People are becoming sensible enough to desire health, to admire physical development, symmetry of form, and we now know that a race with little feet and hands has passed the climax and is traveling toward the eternal night.
When the central force is strong, men and women are full of life to the finger tips. When the fires burn low, they begin to shrivel at the extremities — the hands and feet grow small, and the mental flame wavers and wanes.
To be self-respecting we must be self-supporting.
Nobility is a question of character, not of birth.
Honor cannot be received as alms it must be earned.
It is the brow that makes the wreath of glory green.
All exercise should be for the sake of development — that is to say, for the sake of health, and for the sake of the mind — all to the end that the person may become better, greater, more useful. The gymnast or the athlete should seek for health as the student should seek for truth; but when athletics degenerate into mere personal contests, they become dangerous, because the contestants lose sight of health, as in the excitement of debate the students prefer personal victory to the ascertainment of truth.
There is another thing to be avoided by all athletic clubs, and that is, anything that tends to brutalize, destroy or dull the finer feelings. Nothing is more disgusting, more disgraceful, than pugilism — nothing more demoralizing than an exhibition of strength united with ferocity, and where the very body developed by exercise is mutilated and disfigured.
Sports that can by no possibility give pleasure, except to the unfeeling, the hardened and the really brainless, should be avoided. No gentleman should countenance rabbit-coursing, fighting of dogs, the shooting of pigeons, simply as an exhibition of skill.
All these things are calculated to demoralize and brutalize not only the actors, but the lookers on. Such sports are savage, fit only to be participated in and enjoyed by the cannibals of Central Africa or the anthropoid apes.
Find what a man enjoys — what he laughs at — what he calls diversion — and you know what he is. Think of a man calling himself civilized, who is in raptures at a bull fight — who smiles when he sees the hounds pursue and catch and tear in pieces the timid hare, and who roars with laughter when he watches the pugilists pound each other’s faces, closing each other’s eyes, breaking jaws and smashing noses. Such men are beneath the animals they torture — on a level with the pugilists they applaud. Gentlemen should hold such sports in unspeakable contempt. No man finds pleasure in inflicting pain.
In every public school there should be a gymnasium. It is useless to cram minds and deform bodies. Hands should be educated as well as heads. All should be taught the sports and games that require mind, muscle, nerve and judgment.
Even those who labor should take exercise, to the end that the whole body may be developed. Those who work at one employment become deformed. Proportion is lost. But where harmony is preserved by the proper exercise, even old age is beautiful.
To the well developed, to the strong, life seems rich, obstacles small, and success easy. They laugh at cold and storm. Whatever the season may be their hearts are filled with summer.
Millions go from the cradle to the coffin without knowing what it is to live. They simply succeed in postponing death. Without appetites, without passions, without struggle, they slowly rot in a waveless pool. They never know the glory of success, the rapture of the fight.
To become effeminate is to invite misery. In the most delicate bodies may be found the most degraded souls. It was the Duchess Josiane whose pampered flesh became so sensitive that she thought of hell as a place where people were compelled to sleep between coarse sheets.
We need the open air — we need the experience of heat and cold. We need not only the rewards and caresses, but the discipline of our mother Nature. Life is not all sunshine, neither is it all storm, but man should be enabled to enjoy the one and to withstand the other.
I believe in the religion of the body — of physical development — in devotional exercise — in the beatitudes of cheerfulness, good health, good food, good clothes, comradeship, generosity, and above all, in happiness. I believe in salvation here and now. Salvation from deformity and disease — from weakness and pain — from ennui and insanity. I believe in heaven here and now — the heaven of health and good digestion — of strength and long life — of usefulness and joy. I believe in the builders and defenders of homes.
The gentlemen whom we honor to-night have done a great work. To their energy we are indebted for the nearest perfect, for the grandest athletic clubhouse in the world. Let these clubs multiply. Let the example be followed, until our country is filled with physical and intellectual athletes — superb fathers, perfect mothers, and every child an heir to health and joy.
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