- Aretism: An Ancient Sports Philosophy for the Modern Sports World by M. Andrew Holochak, Heather L. Reid
A desire to revive “the ancient Greek athletic spirit, focused on excellence” (p. xv) motivated the authors M. Andrew Holochak and Heather L. Reid to write this work of sport philosophy. Their book argues for a new, or at least modified, approach to sport based on arete, the ancient Greek term for excellence and virtue.
Divided into four parts, the first component of this book offers a whirlwind tour through the history of sport in Western societies. As with all surveys of such brevity, Holochak and Reid are forced to rely on broad generalizations and oversimplifications. Their straightforward, nearly laconic prose is bereft of flourish and adornment, producing a competent if sterile narrative. While many of the historical examples are interesting and applicable, a few of the authors’ choices are a bit puzzling, if not distracting, as they delve into the penis-fascination of twentieth-century Freudian writings (pp. 24-25) and a relatively unknown eight-game hockey series between the national teams of the Soviet Union and Canada in 1972 (p. 35). Overall, the chronological arrangement allows the authors to trace the foundations of their philosophical models over time and space, but a more thematic approach might have allowed for a more focused and nuanced narrative.
The remaining three parts of the book represent the core strengths of the overall argument and are arranged in a fashion reminiscent of Hegel’s dialectic. Holochak and [End Page 165] Reid demonstrate a thesis (the Martial/Commercial model of competitive sport), a contrasting antithesis (the Aesthetic/Recreational model), and their resulting synthesis (Aretism) that reconciles the two models into a moderate ideal. Organizationally, this structure offers a very effective vehicle for explaining and justifying a new model for conceptualizing the role of sport in contemporary society. For this structured approach alone the authors deserve high praise. Yet there is much more to recommend this work.
The Martial/Commercial (MC) model of competitive sport characterizes sport as “a form of war or commerce” with the attendant emphases on competition, aggression, and the moral pitfalls of the win-at-all-costs attitude (p. 53). This model produces external recognition and benefits, such as fame and wealth. The zero-sum nature of this hyper-competitive model exalts the elite and abases all others. As Holochak and Reid sternly remind their readers: “athletic superiority does not equate to social superiority” (p. 57). Similarly, the authors suggest that male dominance in sport reinforces societal attitudes of male gender superiority. Furthermore, the obsession with victory above all else leads to abuses and cheating. Finally, modern sport’s obsession with quantifiable statistics inflates athletic egos and denigrates the communal nature of team sports.
On the other hand, Holochak and Reid’s Aesthetic/Recreational (AR) model of sport considers “the idea that sport is ‘just for fun’” with intrinsic rewards and an emphasis on enjoyment, pleasure, and beauty (p. 117). Competition is valuable only insofar as it engenders “enjoyable, spirited play” (p. 118). Communal experience outweighs individual awards. The authors provide examples of the aesthetic appeal of sport in baseball, golf, and a strength competition. In each of these, the focus on drama (a walk-off home run in Game Seven of the 2003 American League Championship Series), fun (golfer Annika Sorenstam describing her historic round of 59 in 2001), and astonishment (the crowd’s reaction to Strongman Bill Kazmaier’s feat of strength) reinforces the value of sport beyond competition and victory.
With the establishment of these two contrasting models, Holochak and Reid advocate for an Aristotelean middle way, a system they call the Aretic model. Simply put, this model focuses on education with the goal to “improve persons and society” through the cultivation of arete (p. 168). The authors take pains to avoid castigating the MC model and merely adopting the more benign AR. Instead, their Aretic model conciliates the opposing models. Aretic sports should...