Salvo 02.24.2021 5 minutes

Gymbro v. Cloudboy

Inner strength

Which way, Western man?

“Each large muscle of a bodybuilder represents a language he didn’t learn, a poem he didn’t read, a fun fact he never memorised.” Judging by the 26,000 likes this tweet received, it expresses a popular view among the anti-weightlifting set. See also this webcomic, whose author assures us, “I could go to the gym too. But I’d rather read a book, draw a picture, play music or talk with friends. I’d rather lead a curious life than a muscly one.”

The online bodybuilding community faces daily anti-swole discrimination from soi-disant intellectuals, as the American Conservative’s Micah Meadowcroft discovered when he wrote eloquently about his own quest for gainz. But pitting physical and mental self-improvement against one another in a zero-sum competition for time, effort, and attention is not just extremely low-T: it is also a heresy. The heresy is called Gnosticism, and it is very old. “Gnosticism,” writes James Poulos on the American Mind substack, “maintains that our given human form, incarnate and ensouled, is a curse of sorts, a prison forged by an evil god from which we all must be liberated in order for our spirit to become that which it truly is, divine.”

Abjure all concern with the flesh to unlock your true potential; let your muscles atrophy while your mind grows strong. As a matter of intellectual history this line of thought is traceable to excesses which emerged in the 1st century AD and intensified during the 3rd century. Successors of Plato such as Porphyry and Plotinus carried Plato’s distinction between mind and matter to such an extreme that some of their overly enthusiastic readers sundered the two altogether. Manichaeism, the dualist religion which caught on in and around what is now Iran at about the same time, was also famous for dividing the world in two.

St. Augustine, in his conversion of 386-7, had to move beyond both Manichaeism and those “certain books of the Platonists” which had accompanied him thus far in his struggle against sexual self-degradation. It’s worth noting that he found the strength to break his addiction once he stopped viewing the body as inherently evil and began to regard his flesh as an instrument of both virtue and vice. In a commentary “On the Sermon on the Mount,” he aired his mature theology of the body and of lust, which he described as “the soul making a bad use of the body”—not, notably, as an indulgence of physical desire full stop. That which can be poorly used can also be well used; the Gnostic’s error is to give up on doing the latter out of horror at the potential for the former.

Today we are treated everywhere to glib decrees that true Gnosticism has never been tried. We are invited to abstain from meat, to eat bugs, and to forgo muscles in the name of memorizing Keats. We are assured we will get over our distaste for bodily atrophy, which should anyhow pale in light of our joy at attaining greater ethical purity and economic efficiency. But the human heart has proven stubborn on this point: A Zoom call is not the same thing as getting drinks together, as lockdown-era rates of depression and despair attest. No wifi connection is strong enough, no ethical narrative slick enough, to make us fully satisfied with merely digital—that is, with post-physical—life.

Hence the gymbro revolution. Many on the New Right are fond of weightlifting as an antidote to the bloodless self-enervation which comes from counting oneself—and being counted as—a brain in a jar. It is not quite right to call this a primal reaction against modernity and the discontents of civilization. It is a measured and considered response to Gnostic fantasies which have become newly seductive in the digital age. If there is something raw and fleshy about our response to those fantasies, that is because we affirm that rawness and fleshiness are features, not bugs, of being human.

Thus nothing could be more wrong than to say, as one scruffy fellow did recently, that “you lift weights to escape abstract concepts like time and death.” You do not: you lift weights to embody abstract concepts like strength, accountability, and discipline. Time and death are ever-present in the gym; they are the limits against which every bodybuilder struggles. Strain for a minute under a difficult bench press and you will give meaningful content to your idea of resilience; spot your friend while he does so and your idea of brotherhood will take shape in, and be informed by, the real world.

The term for this is hylemorphism: “form-in-matter.” Hylemorphism is an Aristotelian insistence that unless our speculations about the infinite are accountable to what we see in the here and how, we are certain to veer into the absurd. And, of course, it’s absurd to suggest that big muscles mean a weak mind.

As it happens, I memorize lines of poetry (and Hebrew vocabulary words) between sets. Other friends of mine use that time to plan and outline essays. We don’t do this to prove the Twitter trolls wrong. We do it because the mind works better in partnership with the body, because the two are not separable.

The poet Juvenal was not just finger-wagging when, following the philosophy of Thales, he advocated “a sound mind in a sound body.” He was expressing the whole of what we are, try though we may to escape or transform it. Perhaps we are dissatisfied with these meat sacks of ours; God is not. If the history of our relationship with him is any indication, we will not stop trying to escape the clay from which he molded us. But since there was no “us” before he did so, we may wonder—with fear and trembling—what will become of us should we ever succeed.

Photo credit: Bulat Silvia

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