in Think Piece



Whether you know it or not you are a Philosopher, probably.  Most people are.  Have you ever asked yourself what the fuck am I doing? Have you ever wondered aloud, or within the confines of your cranium, about this planet we live on, and about how crazy or how mad, or beautiful or cruel, about how joyous and wondrous and dangerous and all of the above our world can be.  If you have ever thought about any of these things then you have Philosophised, you have inquired into the nature of our existence here, you have given consideration to the fundamentals of our very being, you have become a Philosopher.  And you don’teven have to wear a robe or grow a long white beard or live in a cave, all you have to do is think; and I’ve been thinking about football.

What is football?  Take away the money and the media, remove the controversy and the sensationalism and look beyond the cynicism and the gamesmanship and the show-business and look at the essence of The Game and at its very nature and what do you see?  In fact what you see is often not as important as what you are looking for, because what all football fans are looking for when they watch a football match are those moments that make it The Beautiful Game.  The well-timed tackle and the incisive pass, the symmetrical runs and decisive cross, the mercurial movements and the definiteness of the goal when a ball is well and truly smashed into the net.

And then the joy, the quasi-religious existential joy, momentary and fleeting perhaps but no less addictive because of that, and like a heroin junkie crack hoe, you just can’t get enough.  Everyone has a basic idea of how smack and crack and nicotine and alcohol and tobacco and drugs in general work.  Drugs alter the chemical make-up of our brains somehow and just like that goal your team scored in some relatively meaningless mid-table clash of the titans, they can make this world a much more pleasant place to exist in, momentarily at least.  So how does football evoke a similar chemical reaction to make us feel elated, high almost, after those sublime moments of footballing excellence we fans regularly enjoy?  What is it about footy that has made it the new, Karl Marx would call, “opium of the people”?  What is it that we’re all hooked on?

One of the earliest and most famous philosophers was Socrates (469 BC – 399) BC, [not to be confused with Brazilian footballing legend, cult icon, and all-round cool dude Socrates 1954 – 2011, star of the 1982 World Cup.] The Greek philosopher would’ve made the perfect football manager as he saw himself not as a teacher of knowledge, but as an extractor or mid-wife of knowledge who merely prodded and probed until the inquiring mind gave birth, and became enlightened to that which was apparently always there.

Socrates would benefit from bringing in his own student, a famous philosopher in his own right, Plato (427 BC – 347 BC), as his assistant manager.  Plato taught that everything that exists in our world is merely an imperfect copy of an ideal and perfect form, that exists somewhere beyond our universe.  He would have really believed in the beautiful game, literally, and although he may have been hampered by the limitations of the players in the dressing room, and the fact that he believed most people lived their lives behind an invisible veil that shields them from the true nature of their being, he would surely have imbued in them a healthy appreciation for how the game should be played.

Then Socrates could do his thing and do what all great managers do;  get the best out of the players he has at his disposal, work with them to maximise their potential, make the team more than the sum of its parts.  A bit of philosophical mid-wifery and the idea of the beautiful game would become reality.  In theory anyway.  Not so much in practice perhaps, eh Wenger?

That’s the other side of football, the downside, even before Socrates another ancient Greek by the name of Heraclitus (535 BC – 475 BC) said “the road up and the road down are the same thing”, in other words, the world is a balance of opposites and all the highs invariably descend into indifference or mild depression-tinged lows.  At these points one must draw on the philosophy of acceptance put forward by the Roman Emperor and prominent Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (121 AD – 180 AD), made more famous by Richard Harris’ portrayal of the Philosopher King in the excellent epic Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe (2000).  If you remember the scene in that film where Aurelius is snuffed out by his decidedly dastardly son Commodus, take note of the contrast in the way they each accept their fate.

Stoicism teaches us that a well-developed sense of self-control and fortitude will overcome potentially destructive emotions, and seasoned stoics will adapt to the situations that the world throws at them and always remain free from anger, envy, and jealousy.  Accept the world for what it is and, in the words of another stoic philosopher called Epictetus (55 AD – 135 AD), you will remain “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and yet happy, in disgrace and happy”.  So if you are a player, a manager or a fan, and you feel yourself slipping into a football induced mind-fog, a little bit of light reading in the field of Hellenistic Philosophy will help you claw your way out of your slump.  It will certainly help you to sleep.

As the world of antiquity crumbled, giving way to the Middle-Ages, the Renaissance, and the Age of Enlightenment, many philosophers and academics put forward ideas to try and explain intangible ideas such as Truth, and Love, and The Beautiful Game.  Modern footballers could benefit from reading about the “cardinal virtues” of Thomas Aquinas, or the principals of humanism and individual freedom put forward by the great English philosopher John Locke, however, to understand what football at its essence really is, one should refer to 20th century French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859 AD – 1941 AD).

Bergson referred to the essence of life and growth as the Élan vital, a vital force that propels life into existence and continues pushing it to grow and evolve and progress and change.  This life force is propelled by a combination of instinct and intelligence, to varying degrees, and football is one of the ultimate and most effective illustrations of this philosophical theory in action.Instinct is a drive that most people possess and are aware of on some level; a feeling, an intangible; that although we can’t define it and sometimes even ignore it, we know that it is a powerful force within us.  It guides us, informs us and has an uncanny knack for helping us avoid catastrophic alternate realities.

Intelligence is simply knowledge gained from our experiences, and illustrated by our actions.  Wayne Rooney personifies how instinct and intelligence combine to illustrate the power of the élan vital when exploited by a professional sportsman.  At his best he is pure power and aggression and drive, that is intelligently harnessed on an almost sub-conscious level to produce moments of exquisite genius.  All players do this, from the forty-five year old five-a-sider to Lionel Messi, but Rooney embodies it more than most.  Maybe it is something to do with his primal aggression or simian-like features but when he is on top form he is surely a force of nature, W.B. Yeats might say, ‘a terrible beauty.’

Playing sport, and football in particular, requires one to use their instinct and intelligence in perfect harmony with eachother in an attempt to produce a symphony of coordinated movements and actions that combine to make a moment of sublime beauty, hence the beautiful game.  Some would say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and is formed by subjective opinion, but another interpretation by the historian George Bancroft suggests that “beauty is but the sensible image of the Infinite…like virtue and the moral law it is a companion of the soul”, and this is why we love football.

In those moments of joy when a player does something with the ball that seems to defy the laws of physics; when what seemed like the impossible pass or interception or tackle is made possible by an individual’s brilliance; when you think it’s all over and you’re down and out until the dying ember of hope in your heart is reignited like a phoenix from the ashes when your team scores the winner; it is in these moments of joy that we discover a companion for our soul.  That’s football, that’s the beautiful game.

by Paul Cahill (written 25/06/13)

Paul Cahill