Finding Meaning in Fitness Through Philosophy Part I Understanding Plato’s ‘Body as a Prison’ Concept for Lasting Motivation

Scroll this

A few years ago, I embarked on my philosophical journey, starting with Plato’s dialogues. One of the first, most striking concepts Plato presented was the idea that the “body is a prison”—a temporary entrapment of the immortal soul, which holds us back from our true potential and authentic nature.  

Although the idea of the “body as a prison” serves as a metaphysical metaphor, it led me to reflect on my own fitness journey and the degree to which my body played a role in my motivation. Plato said that “[we’re] compelled to gain wealth because of the body, enslaved as we are to its service.” In a similar vein, we may be be driven to strive for external rewards in service of our egos.

For years, my primary goals for fitness were centred around body composition. This approach worked for me for a while as my body became leaner and stronger week-after-week. HowevHer, I eventually reached a point where progress stagnated, and regressed. I hit a genetic ceiling in my body’s ability to gain muscle, and so shifted my focus towards obtaining a leaner physique. As I focused on the latter goal, I found my motivation began to wane. As my body fat decreased, I paid a high price: compromised mental health, diminished energy, and a decline in my running performance.

The concept of the “body as a prison” didn’t make me resent my body, but rather, prompted me to contemplate the inevitable deterioration our bodies will face. Regardless of our efforts, ageing is an unavoidable reality; our bodies will eventually decline. 

In fitness, if we only strive to make our bodies as chiseled as possible and tether our happiness to how fit or lean we are, we will struggle to sustain our efforts for the entirety of our lives. Physical changes over time ultimately go beyond our control.  

What remains in our control is our inner world. By cultivating detachment from results, letting go of expectations tied to our efforts, and embracing the enjoyment of the activity to its fullest, we can derive more meaning and purpose from our workouts. We don’t need to solely be doing something for the sake of achieving something: Ars gratia artis—we can do for the sheer joy in doing. 

Source Citations/Notes

†1: Phaedo, Plato. David Gallop translation
†2: latin proverb “art for art’s sake”

Leave a Reply