Aristotle’s Conception of Arete and the Meaning of Records in Sport

in Kinesiology Review
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  • 1 Department of Kinesiology, Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, MS, USA
  • | 2 Department of Kinesiology, Boise State University, Boise, ID, USA
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The modern sports world is currently obsessed with records, data, statistics, and/or the objective measurement of human performance. A primary message originating from this trend—manifesting in youth, club, interscholastic, intercollegiate, and professional sport—is that breaking records and improving one’s statistical output is the main objective of sport. In this article, we argue for why a predominant focus on records, stats, and winning is self-limiting and thereby misses the mark of what sport and sporting performance are. It is human beings who play sports rather than mere physical mechanical objects. Furthermore, we propose an arete-based philosophical perspective—taken directly from the ancient Greeks and particularly Aristotle—for how we ought to conceptualize and pursue sport. An arete-based philosophy captures the true essence of what sport is about by rooting it in what is “good and beautiful” (kalokagathia as the Greeks called it). Arete or “virtue” is, for Aristotle, about the cultivation of human excellence. Excellence, however, is not myopically reduced to “being the best,” “achieving fame or honor,” or “winning.” Instead, arete aims at cultivating the skills, both kinesthetic and moral, that lead to a good life. Elite performance, no matter how impressive, is never more than one small aspect of such a life. Character matters too, which means human excellence is never reducible to the measurable. After articulating this Aristotelian philosophy of sport, we then conclude the article by offering five recommendations for how teachers, coaches, and leaders of sport organizations can improve the culture of sport. Physical educators and coaches would be wise to take this Aristotelian conception of arete to heart.

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