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The Body Beautiful

Updated: Sep 8, 2021

Qasim Ahsan

Editor’s Note: For this week’s archive piece I chose Qasim Ahsan’s essay (Vol. 2, 2018), which is a short, but insightful analysis of gym culture and its connection to Ancient Greece. It fits neatly with my own exploration of modern practices with roots in the past, and my current forays into the Ancient Greek dialogues.

— Hassan Tahir Latif

In times before protein shakes, Instagram diet plans and Olivia Newton John’s ‘Physical’, the philosopher was scientist, poet, mathematician, gym-rat. Perhaps that last bit is an over-statement; I don’t think any of the great Greek philosophers would have stood in front of a stone mason for hours, their togas held up, their sick shredded core on display. At the same time, philosophy is a deeply narcissistic act, the restructuring of the world according to one’s own image, so maybe they did.

The Death of Socrates, a painting by Jacques-Louis David, shows us the final moment before Socrates shunned life in favour of his beliefs, drinking a chalice of hemlock. A visceral image, it shows a Socrates who seems at first triumphant, his image juxtaposed with those around him, their gaze averted or obstructed by their own hands wrapped around their bodies.

Here, Socrates is triumphant, he is full of life, full of vitality, and with pectoral muscles anyone would be proud of. It also strays away from what the actual death of the philosopher would have been like, an event detailed by Plato but most accessibly available in Will Durant’s seminal The Story of Philosophy. In reality, his death was slow, the poison working its way from the ends of his limbs, snaking upwards towards his chest, his heart; those around him massaged his limbs to hasten the process.

The word ‘aesthetic’ is used to describe anything that looks good (even if just because of the Helvetica font and Instagram filter used), but its roots lie in the most pure of philosophical discourse: the pursuit of meaning through an appreciation of the physical. In the interplay of Greek and Roman, and the latter’s branching out into the Romance Languages, the word ‘aesthetic’ arrived, referring to either an introspection into the physical purely as such, or perhaps as a move towards the sensory judgment upon art. Here, the distinction between Socrates’s sick gains and those shown on Instagram begins: for Greek philosophers, exercise was not the base monotony it is today. It was a deeply philosophical exercise, an exercise of the mind as much as of the body. It is no surprise then that there are written records of Socratic, Platonic and Aristotelian dialogues taking place inside, around or involving gymnasiums.

Posing by Haider Ali Jan (digital print on canvas)

Philosophy is effective when eschewed properly, and what better vessel for transference than the body itself. The Socratic dialogue, revolving around what would later be codified as the dialectic, lends itself to the body. The current state is the thesis, exercise the antithesis, the result of those gains (yes, gains) the synthesis.

Gyms were places of socialization, where conversations revolved around issues surrounding philosophy, around life, around art, around science, and yes, around the aesthetic. The social aspect of exercise has a long and storied history, from Spartan soldiers exercising communally to foster closeness before the Battle of Thermopylae to the more sinister physical fitness programs organized by the Nazi Party in the 1930s (while using Nietzsche’s idea of the ‘Ubermensch’ or ‘Superman’ as its basis).

The above examples are either violent or tyrannical, so let us move backwards, once more to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It is with them that we may begin crafting what we may consider the gym they would personally want to visit and the kind that maybe, you should too. Perhaps in doing so we may find exercise and philosophy truly egalitarian, moving away from race, gender, creed and socioeconomic status.

Picture a gym in the Greek fashion: it is a wide, open expanse, one where entry is free, where exercise is communal, where there is space for discussion, for debate, for a dialogue. You are not discriminated on the basis of ability, and weight is not an issue. The fact that you are there is lauded, and appreciated. The ideal form, male and female, is not kept as the end goal and phased out in favour of the vaguer concept of ‘wellbeing’, both physical and emotional.

Martial societies promoted mass-scale exercise to have ready and able cannon fodder—the Fascist Nazi German state did it to create a productive worker—but the ultimate aim of exercise must be to free the mind, to promote social cohesion and to provide a channel for excess energy. Here, exercise will not satiate the mind of the citizen, remove all attempts at treason, but create a system where the body is rejuvenated from new ideas, and where the dialectic will form. The gymnasium will become once more a place for radical ideas, not the beer hall, the drawing room or acrid basement. The Greeks understood this years ago; perhaps it is time we did as well.


Qasim Ahsan is an aspiring political scientist with a master’s in international relations from Durham University. He is currently teaching at the undergraduate level in a university in Lahore—surprising for someone who spends half his day looking at pictures of cats.

About the featured artist: Haider Ali Jan graduated from the Beaconhouse National University in 2008, and has participated both in national and international shows, some of which include the 5th Moscow International Biennial for Young Art (2016); the 8th Asia Triennial Pacific at Queensland Art Gallery (2015); Love, War and Other Longings: Harvard-Brown Pakistani Film Festival (2015); Everything is Embedded in History at the Lahore Literary Festival (2015); 5th Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial at the Asian Art Museum in Japan (2014). His work is published in “The Eye Still Seeks”: Pakistani Contemporary Art by Salima Hashmi.


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