Why do Americans care so much about such college sports? No other country gives athletics such prominence. We have our own detractors, pundits and professors who think sports are a waste of time and money. The games are exciting, but that can’t be the only reason they endure.
Some years ago while I was looking for something else down in Level D of Widener, I ran across an 1894 essay about sports by George Santayana. Santayana was a philosophy professor here, prolific but not much read today. He was born in Spain but educated at Boston Latin and Harvard—he lived just a few steps away, in Hollis. College athletics was one of the things he admired about America. Change but a few words and his account still seems wise and relevant.
“That athletic teams should bear the name of an institution of learning,” he wrote, “and materially influence its reputation and fortune, is at first sight very strange.” After all, he wrote, “The athletic temper is not particularly Athenian, not vivacious, sensitive, intelligent. It is rather Spartan, active, courageous, capable of serious enthusiasm and more ready to endure discipline than to ask for an ultimate reason for that devotion.” So true. In our pursuit of Veritas we value skepticism and debate, not obedience and drill.
The reason college sports thrive is that places like Harvard are descendants not of Plato’s Academy but of English boarding schools. “The English academic tradition,” Santayana wrote, “founded upon the clerical life of the middle ages, has always maintained a broad conception of education,” which “contained the student’s whole life and allowed a free and just development to all his faculties.” It brings to education a “beauty, individuality, and wealth of associations.” Such an education “cannot be … represented by any lists of courses or catalogues of libraries.”
Now that that last part was a jab. This was written 25 years after President Eliot started deconstructing the old College and rebuilding it on the model of the German universities, which, as Santayana put it, had “a more abstract function and minister to but one side of the mind.” Santayana saw what was slipping away. “The real loss would come if a merely scientific and technical training were to pass for a human one, and a liberal education were conceived to be possible without leisure, or a generous life without any of those fruits of leisure of which athletics are one.”
As Saint Paul recognized, athletic contests are metaphors for life. They are physical dramas, Santayana wrote, “in which all moral and emotional interests are in a manner involved.” “There is in them a great and continuous endeavour, a representation of all the primitive virtues and fundamental gifts of man.”
Yet even that does not get to the bottom of things. Athletic victory is an end in itself, “not sought for the sake of any further advantage.” Contrast that with the treadmill of real life, with its pursuit of rewards grinding the pleasure even out of things that should be joyful. “The curse of our time is industrial tyranny, the sacrifice of every spontaneous faculty and liberal art to the demands of an overgrown material civilization.”
Everything becomes part of the daily grind. Even art, he complained “sometimes becomes an imposition; instead of delight and entertainment, it brings us the awful duty of culture. … One cannot read verse without hard thought and a dictionary. … The saddest effect of moral servitude is this atrophy of the spontaneous and imaginative will. We grow so accustomed to hard conditions that they seem necessary to us, … so that religion, poetry, and the arts, which are the forms in which the soul asserts its independence, languish inwardly in the midst of the peace and riches that should foster them most.”
“Our athletic life,” Santayana concluded, “is the most conspicuous and promising rebellion against this industrial tyranny. We elude Mammon for only a few years, which the Philistines think are wasted. We succumb to him soon after leaving college. But while we are young, and as yet amount to nothing, we retain the privilege of infinite potentiality. The poor actuality has not yet taken its place, and in giving one thing made everything else forever unattainable. But in youth the intellectual part is too immature to bear much fruit; that would come later if the freedom could be retained. The body alone has reached perfection, and very naturally the physical life is what tends to occupy the interval of leisure with its exuberances. Such is the origin of our athletics. Their chief value is that they are the first fruits of that spontaneous life, of which the higher manifestations are not suffered to appear.”
So that is it, I think. It is not the momentary adrenaline rush that brings us to the games. It’s the way they express, as in a drama acted on a stage, everything we can hope to be, and everything we could have been.
[The Santayana Essay itself was in an 1894 issue of the Harvard Graduates Magazine and I have posted a pdf here.]