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Podcast #988: Of Strength and Soul — Exploring the Philosophy of Physical Fitness

When you’re lifting weights, you might be thinking about setting a new PR or doing your curls for the girls.

But throughout history, philosophers have thought about physical fitness on a deeper level and considered how exercise shapes not only the body, but also the mind and the soul.

My guest today, Joe Lombardo, is a strength enthusiast who follows in this tradition and has explored the philosophy of bodily exercise in his writing. Today on the show, Joe and I discuss several different ways the philosophy of strength has been expressed over time.

We begin our conversation with how the ancient Greeks thought of physical training as a way to develop personal as well as social virtues, and why they thought you were an “idiot,” in their particular sense of the word, if you didn’t take care of your body. We then discuss early Christianity’s relationship with physical exercise and the development of the muscular Christianity movement in the 19th century. We end our conversation by looking at the philosophy of physicality espoused by the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, and what he had to say as to how strength training moves us out of the life of the night and towards the light of the sun.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. When you’re lifting weights, you might be thinking about setting a new PR or doing your curls for the girls. But throughout history, philosophers have thought about physical fitness on a deeper level. They considered how exercise shapes not only the body, but also the mind and the soul. My guest today, Joe Lombardo, is a strength enthusiast who follows in this tradition and has explored the philosophy of bodily exercise in his writing. Today on the show, Joe and I discuss several different ways the philosophy of strength has been expressed over time. We begin our conversation with how the ancient Greeks thought of physical training as a way to develop personal as well as social virtues, and why they thought you were an idiot, in their particular sense of the word, if you didn’t take care of your body. We then discuss early Christianity’s relationship with physical exercise and the development of the Muscular Christianity movement in the 19th century. We end our conversation by looking at the Philosophy of Physicality, espoused by the Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima, what he had to say as to how strength training moves us out of the life of the night, and towards the light of the sun. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

All right. Joe Lombardo, welcome to the show.

Joe Lombardo: Hey, thanks so much, Brett.

Brett McKay: So you are a writer and a strength enthusiast who explores the philosophy behind strength training, bodybuilding, and fitness in general. Tell us about your history and your relationship with physical fitness.

Joe Lombardo: Sure. So I just turned 40. I grew up in North Jersey in a fairly pleasant suburb outside of New York City. Good childhood. I remember it being filled with biking everywhere, playing a lot of pickup games of basketball, football. Never joined the team sport, never really was into it. But I just enjoyed using my body in that way. And so in some ways, physical fitness was instinctive, and I think that’s something that’s definitely there when you’re a kid. You just use your body, and you can wake up from a dead sleep and run three miles. I remember that in high school and stuff. And definitely at 40, that’s not the case at all.

So I began to realize, even during the process, that as I was getting older and I went to college, went to grad school throughout my 20s and 30s, that some of that was starting to kind of disappear, some of that physicality of my body. I was finding myself sitting a lot more, whether it’s studying or working or anything like that. And I think the seriousness of adulthood unfortunately eclipsed the joys of childhood activity, to the point where really it was in my early 30s, I suppose, where I just looked and felt like garbage, to be quite honest. I put on a lot of weight. I started… I was always a cigar guy, but I was smoking way too many cigars. Definitely drinking a lot, and just becoming very irascible, not very pleasant to be around. I was doing my dissertation. Just not a really good person or human being. And I think a lot of that was just due to the fact that I wasn’t paying attention to a long-term goal that I had for myself, both maybe spiritually, as well as physically, if you will.

And I remember being a PhD student living in New York and being around all sorts of guys who also really didn’t care to lift or do anything. And they were very saturated with the ironies of life, always making very self-deprecating comments or even deprecating comments towards others. If there was a guy at the bar, it looked like he was jacked or something, someone would make some joke about it. There was just this bitter acidity, if you will, I guess, towards people like that. And it just felt very bizarre. I don’t know. It didn’t really leave me with a very good feeling about who I was becoming in that crowd, I suppose.

And so at one point, I was engaged to this woman. I’d broken it off. I was doing my research abroad. I was doing research in the Middle East. And I came back to Jersey, got a job, quit that, moved back with my parents and realized that I just was not doing very well. And I remember there were two instances. One, my mom was pretty disappointed. I remember one day she looked at me, and she just had this sigh of despair, like, what have I become? And that hurt, when your parents see you like that. [chuckle] The second one though was, I was working on third shift at UPS at a storage facility outside of New York. And I remember there was this guy. He must have been in his early 60s or so. Big, tall guy. I remember I accidentally crashed the Hi-Lo into all these sacks of dye, and they just went everywhere. It was like that Indian celebration with all the colors, except it was at work and it wasn’t supposed to be like that. And so this guy, palm to forehead, says, “Oh my God, what an idiot.”

So he helps me pick up these, I don’t know, 30, 45-pound sacks of dye to reload onto the Hi-Lo, and I was just having a hard time lifting them. Here I was at the time, I was, I think 33. And this guy was just taking one sack after another, just walloping them right out back onto the Hi-Lo like it was nothing. And he just goes over me and he says, “How old are you?” And I said, “I’m 33.” It’s like, “You are one weak 33-year-old. You really got to go to the gym.” This guy was unfiltered. And honestly, that was probably… Although I didn’t like to hear it at the time, that was the best thing someone could have ever said to me in my state, because that really stuck with me. And soon thereafter, I really did some thinking. And I had this dissertation, I wanted to finish it, I did not want to be one of these grad students who had a dissertation for years and years. I wanted to get this thing over with. And I wanted to do it in a semester, which is unheard of, typically, although it can be done, but that’s how desperate I wanted to be out of school and to really turn my life around.

So after that, I started going back to the gym and probably first time in, I don’t know, maybe eight, seven, eight years. In doing so, I started to cut down on some of the habits. I had no idea what nutrition was or dieting or anything like that. I just started lifting. And of course, I had no technique. I had no idea what I was doing. And so that’s when I started to go online and look up stuff in these different communities. And I very quickly realized that the people that were into stuff like bodybuilding or powerlifting, they just seemed to be… This almost saccharine sense of happiness, which I found so irritating at the time. They almost seemed too happy and positive.

And at the time, like I said, I was in this crowd where it was the brooding intellectual type. And I just didn’t like it. It didn’t really speak to me. But at the same token, the more I was exposed to it, the more I read up on their protocols and stuff, the more I realized, “I can see why they have this sense of mirth.” And so when I would go back to class or I’d go to some place where I was writing and maybe a friend was there, that sense of excitement just wasn’t echoed, I suppose. It’s kind of like you pick up a new hobby and you’re excited about it, but your friend’s like, “Okay, cool, man. That’s great.” They don’t really share the same excitement. That was kind of with me and lifting. But it felt like it was more than a hobby. It felt as if I was transforming my life. And I think a lot of guys feel that way when they start seriously lifting. They feel like they’re making this precipice of change in theirselves.

And I remember at one point, I was picking up some papers in my department in the city, and this one friend, young woman, saw me and she says, “Oh, I heard you started working out.” And she kind of rolled her eyes and she said something to the effect of, “Oh, that’s so hyper-masculine.” And it just… At the time, I was annoyed, but I laugh now because it’s such a silly term. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be more masculine than they are? [laughter] But at the time, it was seen as a derisive remark. And I thought, “This is… ” I realized I was coming to the point where these weren’t really my people, and I really wanted to unmoor myself from that particular coast of thought. And to really start to explore this other side. Even if I didn’t necessarily jive with the kind of happy-go-lucky attitude of the online bodybuilder community, I felt like it was a lot better than being miserable and being this kind of arrogant intellectual type, I suppose.

Brett McKay: Okay. So this experience you’ve had, you started feeling better, not just physically, but also, you can say, spiritually, emotionally. That caused you to start exploring, like, “What’s going on there? Maybe philosophy can help me explain why I feel better in my soul when I started exercising.”

Joe Lombardo: Yeah. It’s interesting. There’s a quote I remember reading a while ago by Emerson. It goes something to the effect of like, “God offers to everyone his choice between truth and repose. Take which you please. You can never have both.” And so I began to think, “Well, that’s interesting.” When I was reading and writing and studying and all that stuff, you always want to get to the truth of things, and that was a very active sense of exploration. It gave me a lot of pleasure. It still does. But at the same token, isn’t that physical fitness? Isn’t that, also in some ways, tending towards something that we could consider as the truth of the body or somatic truth if you want to be like, I don’t know, fancy about it. And the more I looked into it, I saw two camps at play. One was the kind of antibody body camp within academia. So these are people that are interested in the body, calling it stuff like the meat, for example, is a term sometimes they use in academia instead of the body, which is, again, weird and derogatory. And they just see the body as something that’s just there, and we can change it as we please, and we’re always reinventing ourselves, and it just seemed, to me, very banal. It was also a discussion mostly revolved around the sexualization of the body. It didn’t really have much to do with the active body, which is what I was interested in.

On the other hand, the place where I felt as though the body was being spoken of in terms that I can understand was Greek philosophy. What’s interesting about the Greeks, and in particular, Plato and Socrates and folks of that nature, Aristotle, of course, is that they never really wrote long treaties the way philosophers typically do on a certain subject. If you read the Socratic dialogues, most of the time, it’s about what is the law? What is it to be brave? Or what is courage? What is the truth? What is the best form of government? Like the Republic, and so on. But there’s only snippets or glances of what physical activity is and the importance of it. So it’s interesting. You read about it, Pythagoras, for example, was a trained boxer. Socrates was someone who trained every day. He was also a military veteran. Plato’s Academy was not just a bunch of guys in togas reading books or scrolls, maybe. They were actively engaging in wrestling and sports, sprinting, throwing javelin, all those kinds of activities.

Brett McKay: Of the writing that we do have from Greek philosophers on fitness, what were some of their underlying ideas? Let’s take Socrates. For him, what role did fitness or training play in living a virtuous life?

Joe Lombardo: Yeah. So Socrates was… Again, he didn’t write a whole lot about it. There are snippets in The Republic. Xenophon’s, Memorabilia, probably is where he talks about it a little bit more, although, again, that was more of a secondary source from his student, Xenophon. But really, it was… Physical fitness boils down to an ethical imperative or an ethical problem. To not train your body, to not purposefully exercise it with a goal of getting stronger or to even just look better is not just a problem where it’s an immoral problem, it’s actually, in some ways… Socrates was very blunt about it. It’s to be an idiot. The term idiot, of course, in English is… People immediately bristle at that because it just basically means you’re a moron. But actually in the Greek context, idiocy is very particular to a definition of being excessively interested in your individuality. And so people who are idiots are people who are not interested in helping others. They’re not interested in being good citizens. They’re not interested in helping their neighbor. They’re strictly concerned within the parameters and confines of their immediate pleasure. That’s what an idiot is. And everybody has these tendencies. An idiot can be the person who sits on the couch all day, whatever, eating chips and watching videos. An idiot also could be a person who moves out into the woods and decides to say, “To hell with society.” These are both categories of idiots.

So the body physical training is to not make yourself into an idiot for others, is to be useful towards others. And that’s where physical fitness tends towards virtue or wisdom or knowledge. Now, that said, in the final Socratic dialogue in Phaedo, for example, Socrates is about to drink his own death, basically exhorts the body, chastises it, saying, “Oh, the body is nothing but the prison house of the soul. The flesh is something that guides the soul by the nose, dragging around into overly-sexual activities or into slovenliness or gluttony or excessive predilection towards luxurious living.” But if you really do look at the entire corpus of works, no pun intended, you do start to see a much richer detail and relationship between the body and soul in the Greeks, where the soul is obviously the more important one, but the body is expressive of the soul. Not very politically correct, it’s like when we see someone who’s obese, and I speak as someone who was obese, by the way, unfortunately, the first thing that comes to our minds is, “Oh, that poor guy. There must be something wrong.” That’s basically what it is, because it’s an expression of the soul. So for Socrates, that’s why physical training is so important within his line of thought.

Brett McKay: Okay. Just to unpack that, so there is a personal element to physical fitness and how it can help you achieve personal virtue. And then there’s a social element. And to unpack that first part, how fitness or physical training can help you develop personal virtue, you talk about in the, Memorabilia, so this is written by Xenophon, he said this about physical fitness. I’m going to quote it. When you aren’t physically fit, this is what Socrates says happens. He says, “Who does not know that even here, many greatly falter because their body’s not healthy.” And he says, “And forgetfulness, dispiritedness, peevishness, and madness frequently attack the thought of many due to the bad condition of their body.” And it sounds like you experienced that. When you were a grad student, you felt that peevishness, dispiritedness, and that changed once you started physically training the body.

Joe Lombardo: Yeah. The body is not really meant to be a subject of ironic mockery or observation. The body really is meant to be something that we train, that we condition, that we discipline. In academia, I think, writ large, I mean, of course… Yeah, sure, there’s going to be the physicist out there who’s a PhD student who’s like, Jack. Okay, I’m not talking about that guy. I’m talking about your kind of run-of-the-mill, maybe a little socially awkward PhD student, which was me, maybe I still am, that doesn’t really feel very confident in the flesh. And of course, it’s not just a body problem, it’s a mind problem. I think of Jay Cutler. I think he’s four or five time Mr. Olympia bodybuilder. And he said… People always said to him, it’s like, “Oh, wow, look at his body.” He says, “The problem for me wasn’t the body per se, it started with the mind. I had to train my mind in order to train the body.” And I think that that really speaks, by and large, to cultivating a sense of personal ethic or personal virtue there, is that you want to… You could be very intellectually disciplined, for example. You could be very smart at calculating certain theorems, reading over certain methodologies, whatever discipline you happen to be practicing. But at the same token, shouldn’t that discipline extend into your very mortal being? What allows you to be on planet Earth in this moment is your body.

Martin Heidegger, infamous, I would say, probably philosopher, German philosopher of the 20th century, once said, “We don’t have bodies, we are bodily.” And I think that that’s the way to look at it, is that we exist in this body. We’re not just… As one of my friends once said, “We’re not a brain driving the meat robot, we’re the entire sum of our being there operating.” So I think the discipline that we lack for our bodies is obviously going to be a certain lack of discipline that we cultivate in our souls or our intellectual capabilities, I would say.

Brett McKay: I want to quote some more because you have some essays where you quote from Xenophon that I think are really interesting from Socrates.

Joe Lombardo: Sure.

Brett McKay: Talking about this idea of how exercise and physical health can help you attain personal virtue, he says this, “For those who maintain their bodies well are both healthy and strong, and many, due to this, are saved in a seemly manner in the contest of war and escape all the terrible things. Many bring aid to their friends and do good deeds for their fatherland and due to this are deemed worthy of gratitude, acquire a great reputation and obtain most noble honors and due to these live the rest of their life in a more pleasant and more noble manner and leave their children with more noble resources for life.” So exercise is nobility. It’s how you gain nobility.

Joe Lombardo: I agree. It comes down to an extension of, “The coward is the one who dies a thousand deaths.” I think lack of training, lack of that initiative echoes.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I love that. And then also, the opposite of that, if you don’t keep your body in good shape… There’s this famous quote, I’m sure people… It gets posted on Instagram and the internet a lot, by Socrates. He says this, “It is also shameful, due to neglect, to grow old before seeing oneself in the most beautiful and strongest bodily state one might attain.” So I think it’s interesting, this idea that it’s noble to want your body to look beautiful. That was a very Greek ideal, and we kind of lost that today.

Joe Lombardo: Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, the Western mentality or Western civilization is something that’s not necessarily strictly in the geographic parameters of Greece or Rome or Europe or the United States. I mean, I think one of the greatest exponents on what I would imagine is probably the best philosophy track on the active bodies by a Japanese man, an author, his pen name was Yukio Mishima. He was the person, who I think, in the Sun and Steel, this long essay, short book, depending upon what your definition of either, I suppose is, was thoroughly Western and Greek in his conception of the body in spite of being from East Asia. And I think the Greeks really spoke to this very biologically rooted instinct, at least in men. I can’t speak to women, but at least in men, to excel in their bodies, to be dynamic in their flesh and to look good regardless of their abilities or how they happen to have been born. I think that that instinct is there for each of us. And it’s something that the Greeks were maybe a little bit more successful than others at unpacking and exploring.

Brett McKay: And Socrates always talked about, as you train physically, it’s gonna help develop this more… I don’t know, I would say call them abstract virtues, conscientiousness, fortitude, discipline, moderation. By doing the physical act, it allows you to enact these abstract virtues that can play out in other parts of our lives.

Joe Lombardo: Yeah. One article that I had written last year or so was on this man, Ryan Belcher, probably still alive, I imagine he’s not that old, but he was an elite level powerlifter from Michigan. I can’t quite recall where. But anyway, there’s an interesting story that was picked up in the news maybe about five or six years ago, and that was around the time I started seriously training. And this guy’s going to pick up his kids. It’s late afternoon, it’s Valentine’s Day, it’s probably utterly freezing in Michigan at that point, I have no idea. And he passes by a car accident, I guess there’s a Cherokee that flipped over and there’s another car. And the man who had been in the flipped over Cherokee was pinned between a stop sign and the car itself.

And like everybody, we have this pedestrian instinct to, say, “Hey look, I’m gonna keep moving on.” It’s like the parable of the Good Samaritan. Before the Samaritan, all these other folks, even the holy ones, just walked on by. Belcher didn’t, he stopped, and he realized the man’s position and he managed to effectively partially deadlift a two or three ton vehicle off of this man to basically save his life. Now, of course, that’s an extreme example of strength that fractions and fractions upon a percentage of a population even possess. But I think that there’s something ethical and very “Greek” about that, is to use the body and the service to others to build that virtue, to express it, to not be an idiot, basically, in your flesh. I think Belcher exemplifies that almost perfectly.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And so this goes to this idea that physical fitness allows you to develop those social virtues that we’re vitally important to Greek life. You talk about to be an idiot in Greek life was to be a very private person. And for the Greeks, the Polis was the main social, that’s how you organize yourself. And Aristotle talked about, “The only way you can actually develop yourself fully as a human being is to be actively engaged in Polis life.” And so Socrates says, “In order to be a useful active participant in Polis life, which is vital to our very existence as a Greek, you had to be physically fit.”

Joe Lombardo: Yeah. It’s something that nobody today wants to hear. [laughter]

Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean, when we talk about fitness, we think about it just for ourselves. You never hear people think, “Well, I’m being physically fit so I can be a better citizen of the country.”

Joe Lombardo: Sure. I think everybody in modern society, and maybe this is more of a commentary about modern secular society than anything else, but it’s sex appeal. First of all, we wanna look good, attract a mate. Maybe there’s a health aspect too, but I think first and foremost, a lot of guys wanna lift because, “Hey, I wanna look good for girls,” and that’s fine. We all start from there. I’m not necessarily against that, but I think that there are higher iterations of thought, the more and more you get into it. And I think that there is an interesting cleavage in between modern fitness or secular fitness where it is about discipline, but it’s a very kind of warp discipline of being antisocial. “Oh sorry, I can’t help you today. I’m training,” or “I have to get to bed at 8 o’clock. And I wake up and six and I go to work and I train and I don’t really care about my family and I don’t really care much else.” “Oh, maybe I should look into this drug now, this enhancement.” That’s kind of a form of decadence that I think is not particularly healthy and doesn’t really breed the virtue that I think the classical Greek, or even for that matter, theological Christian virtue would have the body prepared for.

Brett McKay: It’s another form of idiocy.

Joe Lombardo: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I think there have been periods, in at least American culture, where this idea of physical fitness was seen as part of being a good citizen. Back in the ’60s, JFK, that whole, “We gotta get fit,” the soft American. And usually that happens during times of war where there’s this idea, “Okay, we might have to go to war against the Soviets, so we need to have a citizenry that’s able to do that.” And then you see that marshalling of we’re gonna get fit. We talked about on the podcast, the La Sierra High School, physical education program in the ’60s was a response to that call for physical fitness as to be better citizens. But typically it fizzles out. And we just go back to the… Just focusing on the self. So the Greeks physical fitness was a way you can develop your personal virtue, your social virtue, the mind and body were not separated. The Greeks thought they were connected, healthy mind and healthy body. What about the Romans? Did the Romans have a philosophy of physical fitness?

Joe Lombardo: The Romans, I think… Well, it’s interesting. I think when you talk to people who are… And I’m not an expert in Greek philosophy or something, but I think when you talk to people who are, the Romans are at bottom of the ladder there. The Romans didn’t have, I think a real complex understanding of just even an approach to philosophy relative to the Greeks. And I say that by the way, as someone who’s of Italian descent, so I hate to say it, but the Greeks were far superior than Romans were. For them, physical fitness was military training. That’s what it was tended towards. Yes, of course there were some that did become fascinated with the Grecian ideal of aesthetics and beauty and all that stuff. And they were often kind of taunted or made fun of in Roman society.

Romans saw the Greek understanding of fitness as effeminate, and Romans thought it was more proper to war to become proficient in javelin throwing and sword play and that kind of thing. I think in some ways it’s unfortunate because I think really the Greeks stand out amongst really all civilizations as being those who tended to take play in sports seriously. I mean, you think of the Olympic games. The Olympic games united entire Hellenic worlds, in fact, they induced peace treaties and ceasefires. If they knew that one boring sitting state had athletes from another come over, they would stop battle, they would ceasefire, they would let them pass the enemies, athletes, pass through unharmed. So it’s a real interesting ancient civilization that way where I think you see it in probably most other civilizations, maybe East Asian, Aztec or yeah, there was always sports and games, but the Greeks just… Or Romans for that matter.

But the Greeks just had a much more intense philosophical explication of that. So for me, the Romans never really impressed me. I know that they’re probably a lot of Ryan Holiday fans out there. I just can’t get into them. I think also too, because I tend to get my sense of ethics and purpose and stuff, I tend to see that more in my Christian faith, I guess. So for me, I’m not interested so much in what the stoics felt is how we should approach life. And so much as I feel I should be doing God’s will for my life and what he wants me to do. But again, I’m sure there are people who are Christians who love the stoics, and I’m happy to stand corrected, but I tend to see them as a little bit distant from my interests, I suppose.

Brett McKay: Yeah. The stoics would use fitness analogies to explain philosophy. They talk about you have to be a wrestler or a runner training, you have to take that same approach to your own philosophical development and training the soul. But yeah, they don’t say too much about exercise itself. And I like that idea that you talked about how the Greeks injected this idea of play into their fitness or their exercise. And Edith Hamilton wrote a really good book about the Greeks, where she captures this, I think really beautifully. She describes a culture that’s vital, it’s effervescent, it’s fun, but also serious at the same time. It’s just alive.

Joe Lombardo: For sure. Yeah, there’s something unique about, I think, the Greek experience and their natural curiosity that is really unparalleled. They didn’t look around the world and just adapt themselves to it. I think they tried to really see the world as a means to propel themselves to become better and more virtuous. So I think that’s fairly unique.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for you. Word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So in a couple of essays, you’ve talked about how you returned to your Catholic faith and you mentioned how you’ve been thinking about fitness and faith together. Let’s talk about that. What was the early church’s view on physical fitness and taking care of the body?

Joe Lombardo: Yeah. Pretty negative. Unfortunately, I will have to say that when the Greeks were becoming Christianized under the Byzantines, one of the things that I think was maybe Theodosius II, someone maybe could verify that. He basically had outlawed and banned the Olympic games because it was a form of pagan worship, but then it was, it had pagan rituals to it. So anybody kind of associated with the Olympic games or training and stuff like that… Even though Paul writes, for example, the testament about, “Faith is like running a race,” and talks with the bodies, the temple, Holy Spirit, all these things. Obviously they knew of athleticism in similar ways that the stoics were quoting about comparing training to train the soul. There was some of that a little bit to a less extent, certainly in the New Testament, but the early church was not really much of a fan of that to my disappointment, I think initially. Maybe there were some exceptions.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So speaking of Paul, I know Paul… Before he was Paul, he was Saul and he was a Roman citizen, and he was trained in Roman philosophy. So he knew stoicism and I’m sure he took these stoic lessons he took and these analogies of physical fitness and training his soul and brought that into his epistles. Another thing that was going on too with early Christianity, highly influenced by Platonism, particularly Augustine. So this idea that the soul’s the most important thing, the body, not so much. And that probably got mixed into that as well.

Joe Lombardo: I think too, what’s important though is that very early on, and even today, some would say, the Gnostic tendencies were very strong in the ancient world. This was one of the first heresies in the first century that the early church had to combat. Basically thinking that the material world was inherently sinful. The flesh was a sinful punishment. It’s all about kind of liberating the soul from the flesh. And so the church did have to very strongly rebuke this line of thinking that was coming out of Egypt at the time. And so they had to kind of pause the bodies, to be… As St. Thomas Aquinas says, “To be as good,” to have a body is great. We have to sanctify the body, of course, we have to do things with it.

We don’t just have a body and then that’s it. There are things that Christians have to do with their body. And of course a lot of it tends to be not just ritualism, but also sexual purity and things of that nature. But I think that as an extension of that, certainly physical fitness being helpful, carrying one’s cross, for example, if you will, all these kinds of physical and spiritual tasks, I think that you can easily draw from that a whole corpus of ideas that are pretty interesting to go down. So yeah, I mean, Christ wasn’t in his earthly ministry saying, “Hey, you gotta start lifting here,” nor were the apostles per se. But I do think at the same token, that a lot of the importance of the body that the Christians really used and fought against Gnostics, not just in Egypt, but also against the Albigensians in the 13th century in France, the Waldensians in Switzerland.

I mean, there were a lot of kind of heretical movements that cropped up that did kind of put the body or position the body as this just sinful carcass that we have. And we’re carrying around from a Catholic point of view. Even the kind of development of the rosary, for example, by St. Dominic was supposed to remind people of Christ’s incarnate earthly ministry, the crucifixion, the kind of corporeal sense that he was here and is on earth doing these things as his earthly ministry. Those were reminders and they were purposely used in some ways to counter the Gnostic effects in heretical viewpoints that were spreading in Bulgaria, Egypt, and France, and in parts of Switzerland at the time too. So I think that there’s a lot that Christianity says to the body, it’s just not in the sense of Socrates saying, “Hey bro, maybe it’s time to live.”

Brett McKay: Yeah. Christianity, it’s a incarnate religion. So yeah, God comes, takes on a physical body, he dies, takes up his body again, and glorifies it, resurrects and promises disciples the same will happen to you. Okay. So for early Christianity, physical fitness exercise, kind of like, “Well, body’s good and bad. We have to use it for good purposes, but you don’t need to be spent any time training it, specifically.” When do you see that change in Christianity?

Joe Lombardo: So I can’t speak to a long breadth of history. I will say that I think one of the more noteworthy periods that some folks know, Brett, I’m sure you’re aware of too, is this whole muscular Christian movement that was sort emerging in the latter half of the 19th century, particularly in the Anglophonic world, in England. At that point you’re at the higher golden arc of industrialization. Anglicans in England were noticing that the men populating their pews were fairly sallow looking, kind of exhausted, distancing, very virile, if you will.

And so there was this big discussion within high church Anglicanism about, “Well, what do we do about this? Men are kind of losing the very physical aspects or attributes that is to be a man.” And so there’s a lot of petty debate, I’d say mostly amongst the Protestant world. Interestingly enough, the kind of Catholic iteration comes from a man, St. John Henry Newman, who is Anglican. He converts to Catholicism and he wrote a book on the university in education. And one of the things he does is picks up on these debates and he says, “Part of a proper education is to have physical fitness and the spiritual importance of that.” So the 19th century was a time of spiritual and religious zeal. Of course, that’s when you have Coubertin who starts to resurrect in his idea the Olympic games. You start to have all these old-timey health clubs and strongman stuff. Eugen Sandow was around at the time. All these kinds of, in some ways, critiques of the effects of industrialization on man’s spirit and body. I think fitness is there, or that industry comes as an answer to that. And also to make a buck off of it too for that, no doubt.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So we did a whole mini book about the Muscular Christianity movement. It’s a really fascinating period. So yeah, you said late 19th century, it reached America and it kind of went on to the early 20th century. But a lot of things going on, a lot of different cultural currents just crisscrossing. And so yeah, Muscular Christianity movement, that’s what gave rise to the YMCA, the Young Men’s Christian Association. What was developed in the YMCA? Basketball was developed there. Volleyball was developed there. You see churches starting church leagues. Not just Protestant churches, but Catholic churches. You all see this in Judaism. A lot of synagogues were starting basketball leagues, boxing gyms would be at these places, and they were seen as a way not only to inject some more virility in the church, but it was a way… It was a missionary arm of the church, is how you could get young urban men who might’ve been committing crime. “Well, let’s get them to church boxing and maybe they’ll come to the pew as well.”

Joe Lombardo: Yeah. I think it’s an incredible part of history. I think there was one Canadian Presbyterian missionary out in the prairie area of Canada. And as he was going about, he’d see these prairie towns and these guys were hard drinking, that kind of stuff, that lifestyle and really started to kind of develop an athletic program for them. It wasn’t anything complicated, but it was similar to what you were saying. It was echoing the fact of, “Hey, let’s get you off the street, get you off the bottle, let’s do this,” and closely tie it to a sense of faith, not just like, “Hey, lift and look good, but this is [0:35:39.3] ____.”

Brett McKay: Yeah. You were supposed to exercise so you could be a better servant in the kingdom of God. And you started seeing these books come out. There’s this one book that I read, The Manliness of Christ, written in 1903, and it just talked about how Jesus was actually this really manly dude. He wasn’t this effeminate, kind of waify-looking guy you see in stain glass. He was actually really manly. And they’d look at the Bible and the New Testament stories and say, “Look how Jesus… “. He fasted for 40 days and then was able to battle the devil. And then he was able to just walk all over Judea and deal with thousands of people and healing them. And he had the stamina to do that. And he says, “We need to be like that. In order to do that, we have to exercise so that we can go forth and spread the gospel.”

And then he brought in the progressive movement into this, the social gospel where we had to not only develop ourselves spiritually, but the goal was to develop… It was to go out and change the world, bring the kingdom of God here on earth through missionary work, through eliminating poverty, increasing literacy, and improving health. And it’s sought not only to improve the health of people in society in general, there was also this idea that you as an individual needed to be healthy in order to do all this good work.

Joe Lombardo: That’s a fascinating time period.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Okay, so I wanna move on to… You mentioned this guy, Yukio Mishima. You mentioned him earlier, you’ve written some essays about him. This is a controversial figure, but if you’re in the body building world, you’ll probably come around to some Mishima quote, or you’re gonna see some guy, he’d be like, “Sun and Steel.” He wrote this treatise called Sun and Steel, and he explores his own journey into body building. Give us some background on Yukio Mishima.

Joe Lombardo: Sure, sure. So Mishima was a very interesting guy. He was, in some ways, born a little bit too young to participate fully in World War II as a Japanese, and that’s something that I don’t think he really let himself… He didn’t really forgive himself for that. I think he wanted to fight. As a student, I think he was working at some munitions factory in Japan, and basically saw his country’s defeat. I think for him, one of the turning points was when he noticed that on the day of defeat, it was a very sunny day, it happened to be beautiful outside. And in some ways, he became kind of angry at that because he felt like, well, how cruel it is the empire’s fallen, and again it’s so beautiful out. And I think that really stuck with him, this them of dark and light, the night time and the day time. These are certain themes that are very prevalent in his book, the Sun and Steel. Mishima was a complicated guy. He was a semi-enthusiast, although I think that’s kind of putting in a very hobby-like way. I think he was in fact a very brilliant supporter of Japanese imperialism and the kind pre Meijji modernization that a lot of his books often touched upon, mocking the ways that Japanese would attempt to mimic the West or bring Western traditions in. So he really held close to his heart the samurai tradition, and I guess he, at one point, maybe claimed some lineage to them. I’m not particularly certain if that is true or not, or if he was just saying that.

He was a man of a pretty small stature. I think he might have been 5’0″ or 5’1″, and he was very thin. And so he was also mocked for being so small. And so I think there was a lot that was building up into his interest in lifting and weights. I don’t think it was a pure intellectual adventure. I think it was also a confidence building exercise. But he was first and foremost a writer and poet. He was also gay, he was someone who certainly struggled I think with that in some of his books, that becomes evident. And all this kind of transpires for him, maybe in his 30s or so, probably at the same time I started lifting, maybe a lot of people do often. When he realized that, he became a man of the night. He was up late night reading, burning the midnight oil.

This is all things that he documents in the Sun and Steel. And for me, I think, to be self-referential, I suppose, I saw a lot of that when I was doing my PhD. It’s just a lot of burning the midnight oil, not really getting good sleep, up until 3 AM writing, drinking coffee, maybe having a cigarette or a cigar or what have you, and not really wanting to go into the day time, really to more enjoy the night and to find a lot of intellectual productive activities then. So I think for him, he was very much a creature of the night there. Eventually, I think he comes to a point where he wonders to himself, in the essay, “Why is it that with words they can soar to the greatest heights, and yet here my body still remains as it were in a room, not going anywhere?”

And I think he saw the dissonance between poetic flourish or metaphorical flourish against that of his body, which was just this very skinny thing. And I think he wanted to make that [0:40:41.3] ____. I think he wanted to kind of rebalance himself in that way. So for him, he was already very fluent, obviously, in writing prose, but he was not very fluent in what he would call learning the language of the flesh. And that is to train the body with steel or… Obviously in America, we call the iron.

Brett McKay: So there’s a lot of things there. So just to talk about it, he was a good writer. He was actually considered for the Nobel Prize in literature five times for some of the stuff he wrote. So he was a very good writer. This idea of the nocturnal life, I think that perfectly describes… It was the life of the mind. He talked about it just like, “I was just inside my head.” And it sounds like when you were a grad student, you were there, and your other grad students were just inside their head. And that’s as far as it went. Like you said, you could do these amazing lofty things with words, but then when you actually looked at your lived experience, it was like, “Oh, something’s not matching here, something’s off.”

Joe Lombardo: Yeah. For sure, for sure. I think for Mishima, there was something very noble. As I mentioned before, he’s very thoroughly Greek thinker when it came to the body. And a lot of his books, which are fantastic, I think he actually might be my favorite author, at least close to it, just incredible writer, or he’s just got very good translators, it could be both, but he talks a lot about the Greek understanding of the body. He has an incredible grasp on Western literature and culture. He’s East Asian, obviously, but he doesn’t really have a lot of reference to what Buddhism or Eastern thought might say to it. In fact, he even characterizes learning language of the flesh is almost kind of revivifying a dead language like ancient Greek or Latin. And he talks about sculpture, of course, that’s the eternal metaphor that every guy who lifts uses, is to be a self-sculptor, to carve yourself out of the flesh, the fat and all that stuff. So he has a very kind of interesting outlook. The sun is something that at first presents itself kind of as an enemy. It’s very merciless. The sun comes up, it doesn’t matter what happens or what is happening, it’s still out, it’s still a gorgeous day, whether it’s your country’s defeat, or whether you’re just this kind of slovenly grad student or a writer. There’s something that he wants to bear himself towards, to ascend to the heights, and I think that that’s kind of the metaphor of the sun. It reveals all.

In one of my essays that I write about, there’s something interesting about fashion, even athletic fashion, or athleisure, they call it, where there’s kind of a sleight of hand going on with some of these kind of trends. For Mishima, it’s like, yeah, exposing your body, its muscles, in the sunlight. People will see the imperfections, they’ll see the beauty of it, that what you brought from your training. And I think that there’s something incredibly invigorating about building a body and being able to look at. So I think that’s kind of what he meant by learning the language of the flesh, was to explore the threshold of his body through struggle, through pain. Exactly how the Greek sort of it in their concept like agon, or what we get, agony or agonistic, which of course is very negative in the English language. But agon meant struggle. It meant something that you encounter to reach a higher plane, to explore something else. And Mishima’s concept of pain is thoroughly Greek in that way.

Brett McKay: All right. So pain is how you learn, it’s like it’s a way to reveal who you are.

Joe Lombardo: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah. This idea of this language of the flesh, there’s intelligence inside our body, it’s not just in our head. You talk about how this is similar to what Nietzsche wrote in, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He says, “You say ‘I’ and you are proud of this word. But greater than this, although you would not believe it, is your body and its intelligence, which does not say ‘I’ but performs ‘I’.”

Joe Lombardo: Yeah. I think this goes back to a very banal truism that we all hear, it’s actions speak louder than words, I suppose.

Brett McKay: And then this idea… What Mishima found in the steel, or pumping iron and building your muscles, he had this to say about what it can do in training or helping you learn the language of the flesh. It’s a great quote. He says, “The steel gave me an utterly new kind of knowledge, and knowledge that neither books nor worldly experience can impart. Muscles, I found, were strength as well as form, and each complex of muscles was subtly responsible for the direction which it’s own strength was exerted much as though they were rays of light given the form of the flesh. For me, muscles had one of the most desirable qualities of all. Their function was precisely opposite of that of words.”

Joe Lombardo: Yeah. What an incredible quote. I mean, talk about the power of words right there. Yeah. I think he’s able to really leech a lot of what I think people who lift may not necessarily approach as a clear thought, sometimes maybe peripheral. I think sometimes our sense of talking about the body… To go back before about the online body building, where it just seems to be a very sugary sense of enthusiasm or optimism or a pop definition of discipline. I think these are our attempts, I think, to get close to what Mishima so brilliantly puts in that quote about muscles and what they are and what they do. The opposite of language, what the steel does for us. I think all these things are ways of… All of our thoughts about the body approximate, what I think Mishima put so brilliantly, and I think that’s why he’s probably the greatest exponent of a very Greek understanding of the body.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And I think there is a language of the flesh. Whenever you exercise, what I’ve noticed with strength training is that you develop a bodily awareness. I know when I’m getting to failure. And a lot of people, they might think they’re getting close to failure, but actually they’re not to failure, because they haven’t pushed beyond that initial feeling. But you can train, you can learn. Listen to your body, it’s like, “Okay, it might feel not great right now, but you can actually do three, four or five more reps if you wanted to.” You can’t get that without training.

Joe Lombardo: Yeah. Right. And pushing yourself beyond a self-perceived limitation. I think that that’s the hardest mental barrier, because really, for a lot of people, it’s about safety. If I get into this squat rack and this bar, what if I can’t make the last lift? Let’s say the pins aren’t adjusted properly, there’s no one to spot me. People immediately think of severe injury or death, and of course, that does happen. So I think kind of living on that edge of life, if you will, just in your garage squatting, is an experience that I think very few people will understand, maybe short of obviously serving in the military, or being a cop, or firefighter or something like that, or paramedic, I guess.

Brett McKay: Yeah. When I was really in powerlifting, I’d post videos occasionally of me squatting or something, like a PR. And people in the comments would ask, “What were you thinking when you were doing that?” And it’s like the only thought that’s going through my head is like, “Don’t die.” That’s all I’m thinking, “Don’t die.”

Joe Lombardo: Exactly. Exactly. But also in that moment of perhaps avoidable pre-death, you are also much more conscious of all the muscles you’re using. You realize, oh, wow, if I’m getting up out of a hole, for example, if my core is in tight, I’m not gonna make it out. So I think this bodily awareness, it expands. You begin to become more fluent, I think, in your body when you’re in these situations, which is why I do love powerlifting even though I’ve kind of departed from it for past couple of years now.

Brett McKay: And Mishima liked the Greeks, he thought that the body, how the body looked, it also revealed what your mind or your spirit was like as well.

Joe Lombardo: Yeah. For sure, for sure. And I think that whole beginning part of the essay where he’s emerging out of this intellectual cocoon of the night, if you will, I think that that’s just extremely apt, not just for a writer like him or a grad student like me or… I was a grad student… But really for anybody who just has that kind of profession where it’s a lot of sitting and thinking. I think a lot of people can identify that with that.

Brett McKay: So Mishima, he was a Japanese romantic, he loved samurai culture. He was also a nationalist who was extremely critical of the post war materialism that he saw in Japan and also the democratic government. And then after an unsuccessful coup, he attempted… Well, he committed seppuku. It’s harakiri, ritualistic suicide by disembowelment and then they chop your head off after that. And he was very famous for that death. But he thought a lot about death previous to it, so what role did death play in his philosophy of the body?

Joe Lombardo: It goes back to kind of this rejection of the idea of the body is not being an ironic or properly ironic subject object. If there’s something that Mishima muses about, it would be so bizarre and strange to have this flabby body upon death. So I think as far as I understand it, through his words, working out the body training was in some ways to prepare oneself for death, it was to fight to the death. There’s kind of this idea, I think in some Japanese literature, from what I understand, of the heroical loser. It’s the samurai that fights to last breath and then he dies by the enemy or something like that. There’s that theme, I think, that’s fairly rife in certain literature in Japan, from what I understand. So I think he was tapping into that aspect. It would just be kind of weird or silly to have this big, fat guy and he’s holding a sword, trying to defend himself. I think that there’s less of a romantic image versus a guy who’s jacked or something and he’s fighting to his last breath. I think that’s kind of what he’s getting there too. So to have a trained body is to prepare oneself for the final fight for effectively to fight to the death.

Brett McKay: Maybe Socrates would get that. Socrates said… Or someone said, “Philosophy is about preparing for death, preparing to die.”

Joe Lombardo: It is. And this is something that I think too. When you look at… Mishima’s writing here, when you look at the Socratic ideas as well, something that Martin Heidegger talks about in various areas being in time, is that we live in a society that avoids talking about death, we live in a society that just assumes that death isn’t there, that we’re about a full maximal enjoyment. And so what happens is that if we don’t have this clear understanding that we will die, and that’s something that we should think about, life becomes whatever you want it to become. It doesn’t have really a purpose, it becomes very amorphous, and in some ways it becomes very destructive, ironically. So I think for Mishima, having that clear aim of having a body to fight and prepare for death gives him that resolve and discipline to then train, similar to how the Greeks or even the Romans for that matter, to train to be able to fight the enemy, to go towards death. At one point, I kind of took a lot of these ideas so seriously. I ended up joining a fire rescue academy in Virginia because I wanted to really test my metal.

So I was probably the oldest guy in the academy at the time. I didn’t pass because I actually injured myself doing deadlifts, ironically. But I did notice something though, that in those paramilitary or somewhat martial environments, PT or going through evolutions, these were things that for the most part, we’re not fun at all. They were extremely taxing on the body, they were exhausting. And it wasn’t like when I was training where I can just stop and I can get a glass of water, something like that.

You had to keep going on and on. And so oftentimes, I would think about Mishima, most of the time thinking about God because I wanted to just get through the day, but there was something about that marshallness of the body that did kind of help push me through until eventually I did get an injury. So I often wonder what that’s like for other folks who went through those academies or are in the military and what their perspective is. And I think it mirrors closely to what Mishima goes about.

Brett McKay: So how has looking at exercise through a theological, philosophical lens, how has it changed how you approach your own training?

Joe Lombardo: Very simply, it’s just that the limits that I think I have aren’t really limits, they’re kind of reprieve on climbing the mountain, it’s to stop temporarily but realizing that there’s more to go. It’s to, in some ways, step out of the immediacy of my own comforts of kind of what Socrates would say about the flesh, where it’s always looking for the next high, if you will. And it’s to kind of pick myself up, physically pick myself up, but also spiritually or intellectually pick myself up to keep going a little bit more. And I think the quote that you had passed by Socrates or from Xenophon’s, Memorabilia, “It’s a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the strength and beauty of which his body is capable,” that famous bro-lifting quote. I think it’s amazing because I think that also gives me feel on sustenance to go on there. So it’s nothing incredibly worked out in my mind, it just provides [0:53:48.5] ____ of intellectual nourishment on days where I either do not want to lift or if I’m lifting, I want to stay safe and not lift as heavy.

I guess that’s, for me, what the importance of how that relates. And in terms of just bible in general, or how that might even… Or working out, I should say, works on the opposite in my life. My day job, so to speak, is that, yeah, you have to… It pushes you a little bit more, you’re healthier. I see a lot of folks get into just eating garbage food and stuff, and for me, it kind of trains me to be healthier at work, if you will.

Brett McKay: For me, it makes training… It just gives another dimension to your training, it makes it more fun, it gives it more texture, I guess. That’s what it does for me at least.

Joe Lombardo: I think so too. I think that it’s awesome to… I have two friends, Chris and Jason, we’re all the same age, all in our early 40s, married, kids, and all that. We go to the gym, train, and honestly, it’s better than meeting at any bar or craft brewery or having a cigar even. To me, that’s the most fun I’ll have with other guys, is lifting with them, joking, and there’s just something incredibly uplifting and pleasurable about that that I hope to continue on in my life as I get older.

Brett McKay: You got that Greek element of vital play.

Joe Lombardo: Yes. Yes.

Brett McKay: When you’re with them, it’s good.

Joe Lombardo: That’s exactly it.

Brett McKay: Well, Joe, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Joe Lombardo: Yeah, sure. So I co-edit an online journal of the active body, it’s called Ultraphysical… I think it’s, if I recall. We publish infrequently, but often quarterly, conversations from people who think about their bodies and the way that you have been thinking about it, the way I’ve been thinking about it, adding kind of an intellectual and philosophical capacity. It’s heterodox. Even though I, myself, are more conservative, the co-editor is liberal. So we have different perspectives as well, I think that are in there, because we don’t feel that talking about the body is necessarily the prominence of the left or right. It’s something that as human beings we all have. So we do that on a more, I guess, individual level. For me, Quillette… I’ve written about, I think, three essays for Quillette, an Australian-based journal. Recently in March, I came out with one from the European conservative, that’s another journal. And I think there might be something else, but I’d say Quillette, European Conservative, and of course, are domain clearing houses for all things Lombardo, I suppose.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Joe Lombardo, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Joe Lombardo: Brett, thanks so much. I appreciate it.

Brett McKay: My guest here was Joe Lombardo. He’s the editor of the online journal, Ultraphysical. You can check that out at Also check out our show notes at where you find links to resources. We delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. If you’d like to be part of an organization that takes seriously both the practicality and the philosophy of physical fitness, consider joining The Strenuous Life. It’s an online/offline program that challenges men to be their best in body, mind, and soul. A new enrollment of The Strenuous Life will be opening up next month, go to and sign up for an email list to receive an announcement letting you know when enrollment has began. As always, thank you for the continued support, and until next time, it’s Brett McKay, reminding you to all listen to AOM podcast and put what you’ve heard into action.

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