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Race Without Fear: The Road to CIM with Socrates

I just finished running the longest run I have ever run – 22 miles. I have a month to go before my first ever marathon, the California International Marathon on December 5 in Sacramento, where my goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon with a time of 3:40. This goal feels to me like what Shalane Flanagan recently called her goal of running the six world majors in six weeks: a big hairy scary goal. I think I can do it. My training has been going well. I feel good. I feel strong. I feel capable. (Those three sentences together have become one of my mantras.) But I also don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if I can run as fast as I need to for as long as I need to.

This week I’ve been teaching Plato’s Protagoras, one of my favorite dialogues of Plato. Scholars have so much disagreement over this dialogue but on my reading, Socrates is making the case to those listening to the exchange between him and Protagoras that what Protagoras teaches is unable to make them virtuous. His case for this is that Protagoras doesn’t really see virtue to be knowledge and in order for it to be teachable it must be knowledge. The problem is that Protagoras teaches his students how to make claims about what is virtuous, but these claims don’t affect how they live leading his students to occupy the position of seeming to act against what they know to be good. Socrates argues that some knowledge other than propositional claims is required to be virtuous and this knowledge would be a way of measuring what is best — whether construed as most pleasure or good — in an action against what is not good in it — pains. As the discussion comes to a close, Protagoras is continuing to insist that at least one virtue is grounded in something other than knowledge and that virtue is courage.

To consider the question of whether courage is grounded in knowledge, Socrates first argues that to fear something is to think it is bad. Then he explains that no one willingly goes toward what they think is bad. The courageous and the cowardly person are similar in that both of them avoid what appears frightening to them. But they are different in that they disagree over what is frightening. The courageous person withstands what appears frightening to the cowardly person because the courageous person realizes that not withstanding what appears to the cowardly person would be more frightening. For example, Socrates describes himself holding his ground in battle in the Apology. What appears frightening is the threat of death, but what is more frightening is having to live with oneself being unwilling to remain committed to what one sees to be right even when threatened with violence. As Socrates suggests, some things are worse than death.

I had a student in my office yesterday, a boxer, struggling with this argument. He was saying to me, but I am afraid before a match. And I was trying to think through his experience with him in relation to my sense of fear and trepidation ahead of this race. I am afraid that it is going to hurt. I am afraid that I will not be able to maintain the paces of the race plan. And so yes perhaps it seems as if I am going toward what is frightening. But I think Socrates point is that if you keep going toward it then you are saying it isn’t frightening. Or at least, it isn’t the most frightening option in the situation. Thinking about what would be more frightening led me to think about my reasons for wanting to run a marathon. (I say “a” but when my husband asked me if I was going to keep running marathons after this one, I couldn’t imagine stopping now!) I think I run to put myself on the line, to learn what the edge is. More frightening to me would be not putting myself on the line, not taking the risk, not learning what my body can do. More frightening would be having to live with myself knowing I wasn’t willing to seek out the edge of my possibilities. When I said to the student, yes you feel fear before the match, but the fact that you still box means, on Socrates’ terms, that the match isn’t the most frightening thing for you, but not stepping into the ring would be.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates says that we shouldn’t fear what we don’t know. And my boxer student was saying but of course, those things we don’t know are the things we fear. I think he’s on to something. I am afraid that I won’t have the courage to leave it all on the course. That I will be more afraid of not finishing than pushing as hard as I can and the first will keep me from the second. I’m afraid that I will not have what the race requires.

After a strong 22 mile run today I think I am gaining the knowledge that I do have what the race requires. And maybe that is why we train. We train to know that what seems frightening is not. I can finish this race. If the Socratic insight is that we should not fear what we do not know then we should both avoid fearing and seek to know. To fear is to suppose we know that it is bad, but we don’t know that. I think that is what people who focus on positivity in the mental training of athletics are talking about: affirming what you know, knowing it is good. Knowing that you feel good and strong and capable. And also knowing what you don’t know and not judging it, and by not judging it, not fearing it.

When it comes down to it, I race because I want to know. Now I know it takes courage–finding the pain and the possibility of failure less frightening than not trying– to want to know.

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