Play, Politics, and Worship

Here is a thought for the day:

“I assert that in all the cities, everyone is unaware that the character of the games played is decisive for the establishment of the laws, since it determines whether or not the established laws will persist.”

This assertion was made by Plato in The Laws (book VII) and it suggests that the political culture of a society is bound up with the nature of its games. More specifically, Plato goes on to observe that the persistence of a society’s laws is bound up with the persistence of its games:

“Where this is arranged, and provided that the same persons always play at the same things, with the same things, and in the same way, and have their spirits gladdened by the same toys, there the serious customs are also allowed to remain undisturbed; but where the games change, and are always infested with innovation and other sorts of transformations … there is no greater ruin than this that can come to a city.”

We typically remember that Plato treated music with a great deal of seriousness in The Republic, we less often hear of the seriousness with which he treated sports and games, but there it is (courtesy of James Schall from whose essay, “The Seriousness of Sports,” these quotations are drawn).

There’s a good deal to think about here.

It is not insignificant that with regards to the two great civilizations of the classical period, Greece and Rome, we readily think of games which seem to characterize their societies: the Olympics and the gladiatorial games respectively. In Constantinople, that enduring but infrequently remembered enclave of classical civilization, the Blues and the Greens which functioned as part gangs and part political associations not infrequently contributing to riots and coups began and were sustained as fans of popular charioteering teams. More recently, in Egypt, one not insignificant block of participants in the current political turmoil are bound together primarily by their love of soccer.

On a related note, perhaps at the root of soccer’s inability to take in American culture there is more than a hint about the national character (insofar as we may legitimately speak of one).

Moreover, what might it mean that for a time baseball could legitimately be called America’s sport? And what, in turn, might it mean that while baseball remains popular, it’s place in American culture has been challenged if not replaced by basketball and football? Both of these, of course, have been around for some time and it could be argued that they too are distinctly American. So perhaps we may create a political taxonomy of sorts based on the three dominate sports of American society: baseball, football, and basketball. I wonder, has anyone studied whether a preference for one of these sports is a reliable predictor of political inclinations?

Two titles come to mind in connection with the theme of play and culture. The earlier one is historian John Huzinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Elements in Culture, the first Dutch edition of which appeared in 1938. Huzinga aimed at demonstrating the elements of play that variously manifest themselves in culture. The other is a more recent work,  Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution, which similarly stresses the links between play and worship.

The link between religion and sports is frequently noted and perhaps there is more to it than we usually imagine, more than the surface similarities between the worship of the religious and the devotion of the fan.

In The Laws, Plato puts the following claim in the mouth of the Athenian:

“I assert that what is serious should be treated seriously, and what is not serious should not, and that by nature god is worthy of a complete, blessed seriousness, but that what is human … has been devised as a certain plaything of god, and that this is really the best thing about it. Every man and woman should spend life in this way, playing the noblest possible games, and thinking about them …”

This is all well and good, but it seems to describe less and less the reality of sports in America. Perhaps because sport has become an end to something other than itself. Schall also cites the following from Aristotle:

“Men have been known to make amusement an end in itself … for there is indeed a resemblance; the end is not pursued for the sake of anything that may accrue thereafter but always for its own sake.”

Sports at their best, Schall notes, approach a form of contemplation:

“Here, in a way, we near what is best in ourselves, for we are spectators not for any selfish reason, not for anything we might get out of the game, money or exercise or glory, but just because the game is there and we lose ourselves in its playing, either as players or spectators. This not only should remind us that what is higher than we are, what is ultimately serious, is itself fascinating and joyful.”

It is these realizations that explain our collective fury and anger when sports is tainted with betting scandals or steroid controversies and even haggling over the distribution of dollars in the billions. In each case, the happy myth of sport played and watched for its own sake as a kind of end in itself channeling even higher realities is shattered. It is not that men and women have disappointed us –although this also is true — it is rather that the vessel of a certain secular grace has been broken and we are all the poorer for it.

2 thoughts on “Play, Politics, and Worship

  1. I find this essay intriguing, because, of course, watching or participating in a sport is similar to watching or taking part in drama — we enter something larger than ourselves and have the capacity for something transforming to happen. The same is true in worship.

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