Health: the Greatest Good?

The traffic inside Central Park is snarling these days.  There are accidents and shouting matches around near accidents, yet there are no cars. There are hundreds and hundreds of men and women running, biking, and roller blading in all different directions.  It is amazing to see just how many people are out morning and evening sweating out dessert.  There are swarms of runners training for marathons.  Some of these groups come with coaches shouting at them.  

I have run quite a bit during the last few years in various places - in Rome (Doria Pamphili Park), throughout Toronto, and on Chicago's lake front, but I have never seen some many folks running and biking in one place and at one time.  It is astounding to think of the time and money and effort folks spend on fitness in New York City.  Even the amount of gear is confounding - calf sleeves, camel backs, gu, lululemon, tech shirts and shorts, heart monitors, ipods, and fancy sneakers.  Indeed, these people value their health and fitness highly.  Indeed, most of these people are extremely fit.


With this in mind, I read today an interesting article by Mark Edmundson, an English professor at UVA, in the Chronicle of Higher Education [here].  In the piece, Edmundson argues that the well-conditioned among us have made their own health - a means to higher ends - into their end.  That is, many Americans of the welathier and better educated classes seek health for health's sake.  Edmundson concludes that this obsessive pursuit of health is actually the desire to live forever.  Human beings now want to live for living's sake:

Health should manifest itself as a means to an end. We want to be healthy so we can get something practical done—or better still, something divine, something celestial. But now, since we do not know what we are doing here, do not know what we want or need, health has become an end in itself. People pursue health for its own sake. Why do you want to live? we ask the compulsive exerciser. The answer is not So that I can finish the work; so that I can make the discovery; so that I can find enduring love. The answer now—implicit, but to me, alas, unmistakable—is that I want to live simply to go on living. With the disappearance of tenable ideals, life, simple life, has become the great goal.

Francis Fukuyama glances at this matter in a passage from The End of History and the Last Man. "In America today, we feel entitled to criticize another person's smoking habits, but not his or her religious beliefs or moral behavior. For Americans, the health of their bodies—what they eat and drink, the exercise they get, the shape they are in—has become a far greater obsession than the moral questions that tormented their forebears."

Edmundson maintains such pursuit of health is vapid because, ultimately, it represents the dogged pursuit of nothing but the better functioning of the heart and lungs.  This is an interesting argument.  To some extent, I agree.  Yet, I think most people, including those torturing themselves in workouts throughout central park could readily identify an end higher than or coherent with simply prolonging life.  I think many of the fit would say they are committed to exercise with saintly discipline in order to be more successful, more sexually attractive, and more confident in themselves.  Now, the next question is: Does the end of human life consist in these ends?  Is pleasure - physical pleasure - that which is the greatest good of human life, and, therefore, that which one should pursue with absolute persistence and commitment?  Does pleasure - the pleasure of a well functioning organism - constitute the meaning of life?

All of the energy that once went into the pursuit of the ideal is now dormant, for almost no one can believe in ideals anymore. A quest for artistic perfection? Absurd. A search for true and absolute knowledge? A joke. A life's dedication to compassion and loving kindness? You must be kidding. So what is to be done with the power of human will that might once have sought after these things? It is redirected to more quotidian business. People now pursue a means—staying alive—as though it were an end in itself. Epic measures of energy invest a rank banality, for in truth there is no sustaining meaning to be had, no triumph to be achieved, simply in the maintenance of biological life.

Edmundson writes further:

Yet to my eye we go at that maintenance as if it were all important, as if life maintenance were capable of producing the sense of achievement and consequence that the creation of a perfect piece of art could produce. This is why exercise crazes and diet books and supplement hawkers and all the rest are so absurd. We treat all these things as ideals in themselves, overvalue them ridiculously. It is as though a man bought a car and spent all his time tuning it, getting the tire pressure right, vacuuming the interior, and checking the fluids, but the car stays parked in the driveway. The journey never begins. How could it? The man has no idea where to go. Just so, we tune our bodies, prepare for long life, maybe eternal life, though of what to do with that life, what makes it worth living, we no longer have any idea. So we turn living itself into the goal, just as the poor man knocks himself out maintaining an automobile that will never take him even a hundred yards away from where he lives.

Perhaps, Edmundson becomes a bit too enthralled with the contemplation of ideas here. Indeed, health is essential to a happy life, but is it constituitive of it? I think Edmundson's article is quite important in that it calls us to serious reflection about what it is that is the fundamental orientation of one's life. It calls one to be attentive to that which is most important in one's life. Do I take a good - something that is as inherently good like health - and distort it? Does it become an obstacle to other human goods or even the cultivation of the good of others?  Do I reject others because they have no attained the good for which I have conditioned myself?

Edmundson ends with interesting bits of dialogue:

The well-conditioned thin are made furious by the fatties—the abstemious being singularly disposed to fury. Why do we have to pay their hospital bills? Can't they take responsibility for themselves? They know what they should be eating and what not. Why don't they get in line and get in shape? As the (rather plump) late-night host Jay Leno seems never to tire of asking: "How fat are we getting?" The tubby are a health disaster and an aesthetic outrage to boot. Who can bear to look at them? Who can bear to be around them? At least they should stay indoors so we don't have to be appalled.

To which the fat might righteously reply: What for? Why bother? Is there a reason to get in shape and get in focus? What exactly does life offer at this point that would make such activities worth anyone's while? There are no mutually respected ideals to work toward (unless you are perverse enough to count making a great deal of money as an ideal) so it makes perfect sense to let it all go. The fat, perhaps, are sad. Maybe—let speculation continue—the world as it is appalls them and so they protest it in the way that is most ready to hand. They won't play. They won't participate. If the only reason to go on living is to go on living, then why bother with that?

The healthy—or those who aspire to be—can't really understand the unfit. Why don't they diet and exercise and read articles about the joys of vegetable soup? In behalf of the corpulent, one might say simply this: Maybe they have the courage of their lack of convictions. They cannot believe in anything—if they did they'd find a way to thin-up in behalf of their cause. Nonbelief may bring them to despair, but at least they don't hide their despair in futile projects like trying to stay alive in order to keep on living (in muted despair).

In the absence of true human purpose one can only say this: Health—health can be sickening.

Kevin Spinale, S.J.


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Bill Collier
7 years 5 months ago
While I agree that health is not the greatest good in and of itself, there is arguably some Scriptural support for a sound mind and body being conducive to helping us achieve the greatest good, i.e., fulfilling the precepts of the Two Great Commandments:

"Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy." (I Corinthians 3: 16-17)

Thanks for your post. It's motivated me to put on my less-than-fancy sneakers and hit the pavement before sundown. ;)
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 5 months ago
I know many people for whom exercise has become their version of meditation - a way to find some reprieve from the chattering voices of the ego.  A morning run is prayer for them.

Interesting that the individual body is where the battle is taking place.  The temple of God, indeed.  THe problem, in my mind, is believing that we ARE our individual body, rather a branch on the vine.  WE are ONE BODY, some are fat, some not.
Thomas Piatak
7 years 5 months ago
A very good piece.   Health has become a new religion for some in the upper middle class, and the obsessive way some people pursue this end is also indicative of the decline in the old religion, namely, a loss of belief in immortality.
John Barbieri
7 years 5 months ago
This is a silly article!
"Where there is life, there is hope!"
Being alive leaves us open to possibility! 
7 years 5 months ago
For those who are not aware there is a nun who holds records for her age group in the Ironman.  Her name is Sr. Madonna Budner.  Here is a video about her.  She is quite a woman.

I was at Kona one year when she got blown off her bike and broke her collar bone.  But she was back the next year.  Here is the Wikipedia article about her.  She began training at age 48 at the behest of Father John who told her it was a way of tweaking, ''mind, body, and spirit'' and for the relaxation and calmness it can bring an individual. She completed her first Iron Man event at age 55 and has continued ever since 
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 5 months ago
Thank you for the reference to Sr. Madonna Budner, JR.  I have a nephew who does Ironmans.  The training sometimes seems obsessive, but it is obvious that this is his way of both managing anxiety and finding an anchor which keeps him steady through life.

I also know a man who was haunted with alcoholism and other demons and then found running.

It seems very much like prayer to me.
Bill Mazzella
7 years 5 months ago
This post is significant because, as Kevin points out, fitness has become an obsession tinged with elitism and moral superiority. You can't get fat nor smoke but you are allowed to hate. It is the modern hypocrisy. Nothing wrong with fitness as such. But it has become the religion which is allowed to force itself on you. Is this the modern day equivalent of "compelle intrare?" Surely Augustine would have deemed it better that fitness was imposed on all for their own good. You know "nisi hoc terrore perculisi." I do like it if it will spare us all those fat priests. What kind of "prudential" judgment would Timothy Dolan make about that? At any rate where did fitness get all that power. Bishop Sheen would say it indicates the need for the absolute. 

On the other hand you can look at Monet, and many like him, who sat down painting most of his life and lived to a ripe eighty six. Makes you want to preach to those central park elitists. 


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