Playing the game: sport and virtue

As I write this, England will or will not be on the way to the finals of the World Cup, and that matter, like the fate of Schrödinger’s cat, will have been settled by the time this article is posted. Although I played (badly) as a boy, I have assiduously avoided following football as it seems an invitation to either adulation of bought success or perpetual disappointment à la Fever Pitch and, ultimately, always the latter. Moreover, the present games began inauspiciously, being located in a country that is an emerging threat to Western Europe, and through a process of tender that has come to be viewed in retrospect as highly suspect. However, like many others, I have been impressed by the shape of the England squad, less for their potential in lifting the Cup (though I would admit this is not entirely a negligible matter) than the character of the England manager, the care he demonstrates towards his players, the cohesion as a team and the attitudes they demonstrate on the pitch. This has inspired some thoughts on a topic not always considered these days, that is the nature of virtue.

According to Aristotle in Book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics:

Every art and every investigation, and likewise every practical pursuit or undertaking, seems to aim at some good: hence it has been well said that the Good is that at which all things aim.

Clearly, football, like any other pursuit, has an intended goal (no pun intended) of being played well. But what is it to play the game well? Aristotle makes a distinction between an art in which the goal is the pursuit of the practice itself and that in which the practice is productive of some tangible outcome. Aristotle’s examples are flute playing and house building respectively. Which one is football? For some this will be a ridiculous question, as the answer would clearly be that football is a productive activity, the product being scoring goals, winning matches and, at the professional level at least, winning cups and achieving eminent status. This much is not really in doubt. But as football has become increasingly wealthy, with the corruption that wealth can bring, the image that people have had is not so much that of ‘the beautiful game’ but something more akin to Game of Thrones.

Aristotle argued that every practice has an intended end, or telos, which is the cultivation of virtue; by which he meant the cultivation of the human character. This concept of the realisation of virtue through the cultivation of an expertise was also found in the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s teaching on the Tao – literally ‘the way’ – which persists today in various oriental arts, the do in Japanese martial arts (Judo, Aikido) and in the tea ceremony, Cha-do, for example. That is to say, the point is not merely to win, or more broadly to achieve success in something, although it is also that, but also to develop a virtuous character in keeping with one’s expertise.

The question then arises: what do we mean by virtue? The two great proponents of virtue in the history of philosophy are probably Aristotle and Confucius. There is some convergence between their thoughts on virtue, but important differences between them. For Aristotle the cultivation of reason (logos) was paramount, as this is what differentiates us from the animals, but this is mitigated to some degree by our sociality (ethos), what Aristotle calls our being a ‘political’ animal, that is one embedded in human society and its norms. Ultimately, though, Aristotle retains what today we would call a ‘critical distancing’ from the contemporaneous social form. By contrast, by today’s reckoning Confucius appears highly conservative. For Confucius virtue consists in obedience to the laws and rituals (li) of the past Zhou dynasty, which he considered to have embodied ‘the mandate of Heaven’. However, mere obedience to li without ren, literally ‘love’ though I prefer the translation ‘humanity’, is empty of meaning.

Both Aristotle and Confucius, therefore, have a binary concept of virtue, consisting of an internal virtue and an external virtue, an individual response and an external conformity. I would argue that this essentially balanced and cohesive idea of virtue was sundered in Christianity, something which has haunted the idea of virtue in the West ever since, though it also added another dimension. Jesus, who according to Karl Jaspers, is one of the great ethical teachers of history, came with the radical demand that people leave behind worldly concerns and focus on the kingdom of God. Asked whether the Jews should pay the Roman tax, Jesus took a denarius and asked whose image was on it:

They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. (Matt 15:21)

There are various interpretations of what this might mean, but subsequent history was strongly influence by St Paul’s insistence that the spirit has precedence over the law, underlying the split between the sacred and the secular in the West.

For Confucius ren was the love within the family, particularly of the son for the father (filial piety), which he saw as the basis for good citizenship and the model of the relationship between the king and his subjects (benevolence and loyalty). Jesus, however, took a radically different turn:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… (Matt 5:43-44)

What it means exactly to love your enemies – specifically – is not elucidated, though there are extraordinary cases of those who have been the victims of bestial crimes finding in themselves the power to forgive. I think more generally, particularly within the modern context, though, loving one’s enemies can be interpreted in a twofold way: the call to universality; and the call to empathy, both emanating from the implicit deracination implicit in Jesus teaching.

Both Aristotle and Confucius, as far as we know, saw their duty as delimited by that which was close to them, for Aristotle the polis, which at the time would have numbered a few tens of thousands and for Confucius the State ruled over by the king. Universality was not within their conception. The world that Jesus inhabited was already much wider and interconnected; in Palestine the Egyptian, Graeco-Roman and Semitic-Hebraic cultures collided. Literally collided, that is, as Palestine was a vassal state under the dominion of the Roman Empire. Through exhorting his disciples to love their enemies, Jesus was extending the range of their concern from the local to the universal.

Despite its Greek linguistic roots, empathy is a modern term coined in the nineteenth century, developing out of German Romantic philosophy. It has no analogue in the ancients, which could be taken as evidence for humanity’s continued spiritual development. However, I would argue that the seeds for the development of the concept of empathy are in Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemy, and that, therefore, it is more likely to have arisen in a civilisation based on Christianity. There is no historical evidence for this, of course, as empathy arose from the romantic school of interpretation of the artwork, as Einfühlung, literally ‘feeling into’, and it was only later translated into social theory by Theodore Lipps as an explanation of our ability to identify the emotional life of others. But it is at least plausible that the Christian context allowed the development of the idea that it is worthy to understand the world from the perspective of minds other than our own.

Is it possible, though, that the teaching of loving one’s enemy, rather than extending the idea of virtue, has fatally undermined it? Nietzsche certainly thought so; he saw through the supposed Christian virtues of meekness and forgiveness an underlying corruption of the spirit and the values underlying European civilisation. His solution was a radical transvaluation and a return to the warrior codes of aristocratic society.

The moral philosopher Alasdair McIntyre in his 1981 book After Virtue, though no less aware of the demise of virtue, targeted the humanism that emerged in the Enlightenment. According to McIntyre the concept of virtue was lost when thinkers such as Hume and Kant attempted to reconstitute virtue in purely sentimental or rationalistic terms, undercutting the notion of tradition – whether religious or cultural – that had always been a part of it, as can be seen in the case of both Aristotelian and Confucian ideas of virtue. For Hume the good was no more or less than human feeling. Kant attempted to explain virtue in terms of the categorical imperative, the admonition to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”, which while it is mirrored in the teachings of the great religions, is itself devoid of any particular content or transcendental cultural grounding. For McIntyre, modernism has so etiolated the notion of virtue that it is now virtually impossible to reconstitute it, unless through a return to classical notions of the community such as found in Aristotle.

I am not as pessimistic as either Nietzsche or McIntyre about the influence of Christianity or the Enlightenment project on Western civilisation. Both in their way have the potential to release us from the stultifying weight of tradition, as demonstrated historically by periodic episodes of reform and revolution. However, the discussion of virtue in the ancients placed an emphasis on what I have termed an external virtue, which can only be some form of social norms, as well as an internal attitudinal virtue. This, of course, is none other than a tradition.

Can we and, if so, how do we, reconcile these seemingly incompatible facets of a tradition, as an obstacle to aspiration and as a context to aspiration? It is, in effect, to achieve the seemingly impossible of a synthesis between the critical and the conservative approaches to tradition. There is in fact an activity with a long pedigree within religion, law, aesthetics and more recently in philosophy that sets out to accomplish that, which is the art of interpretation, the study of which is known as hermeneutics. Interpretation is premised on the assumption that the text – a general term for any object of interpretation, though frequently a written text – is given and indissoluble; that the interpretation extends the meaning of the text, but does not replace it. Interpretation, therefore, steers a middle course between literalism, which allows of no interpretation, and deconstruction, for which every interpretation has the same literary or aesthetic value as the original.

Interpretation offers a bridge between an Aristotelian more intellectual and critical approach to tradition based on the rules of the community and the Confucian one of loyalty to a tradition mediated by humanity. Interpretation allows the preservation of a tradition – in fact, insists on it – while seeking that which is essential and profound within it, not merely an external observation or observance. Virtue, then, can be understood as a variety of interpretation, one in which the telos of the activity is the acquisition of the good. The hermeneutic philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer likens interpretation to ‘play’ and cites the poet Rilke:

Catch only what you’ve thrown yourself, all is

mere skill and little gain;

but when you’re suddenly the catcher of a ball

thrown by an eternal partner

with accurate and measured swing

towards you, to your center, in an arch

from the great bridgebuilding of God:

why catching then becomes a power—

not yours, a world’s

Which is perhaps an apposite moment to return to football. According to Bill Shankly, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that”. Perhaps not, but neither is it as mundane as kicking a ball around a field. Like all serious sports it is a game bound by rules that represent a tradition within the sport, but one that is symbiotic with the traditions of civilised societies. Some interpretations may push the rules to the breaking point in a winner-takes-all attitude; while this may appeal to a narrow sporting fan base, it does not command widespread public respect. A truer – certainly a more virtuous – interpretation, one which we have seen inklings of this time round, sees the rules as the occasion for exemplifying the values of sportsmanship – courage and fairness, magnanimity in victory and resilience in defeat. Sport at its best humanises and civilises us.

(republished from – Dialectic of the Good: the structural containment of tradition in the in the establishment of virtue)

Selected Bibliography

Aristotle (2000) Nicomachean Ethics (tr. And ed. Roger Crisp). Cambridge: CUP. Online at:

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1994) Truth and method. London: Continuum Publishing Group.

Alasdair MacIntyre (1981) After virtue: A study in moral theory. London: Duckworth.

Karsten Stueber (2018) ‘Empathy’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Jiyuan Yu (1998) ‘Virtue: Confucius and Aristotle’. Philosophy East and West, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Apr., 1998), pp. 323-347.

About the Author

Don Trubshaw
Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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