The Agon

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.


            Theodore Roosevelt

For the ancient Greeks, life was a struggle. If one was not striving, one was not living. They strove in war, they strove in poetry, they strove in courts, in politics, in the theatre, in their religious festivals, in business, in beauty; even their gods continuously strove with one another. The goal of all this striving was not so much to win, though that was a happy outcome, but to Live. No struggle; no life. Any reader of Homer is struck by the many funeral games held for fallen heroes. Where we sit in quiet contemplation and mournful silence, Homeric warriors competed for prizes in sprinting, riding, javelin, and yet more. The great life of the fallen hero deserved a tribute of what the dead have lost: the dead have lost the opportunity to compete.

 Many parts of Greek culture have been lost to us, but perhaps no aspect has faded more completely than the Agon. We seek release from striving. We wish for ease, convenience, smoothness, quiet, serenity, leisure, and, the ultimate goal of our working lives, retirement. Retirement from what? For the ancient Greeks, retirement would have meant the end of living and held little enticement for them.  

 Whence this desire for ease? In part, the source can be traced to Christian morality. If the meek shall inherit the earth, if we are to turn the other cheek, if we are to yield to Caesar Caesar’s due, then what point is there in striving? The Greeks knew from experience that the brave and strong inherited the earth, tried to never turn a cheek, and only gave to Caesar what Caesar could take by force. Immediately after Caesar took it, they began struggling to seize it back. Our morality has a strain of quiescence that is alien to the culture of the Agon.

 Christianity is not, however, the only cause of the fading of struggle as a central goal of life. To continually test oneself is to inevitably fail. One must possess a certain level of security in one’s own identity to be able to face the revelation of one’s limits. While we claim that we live in a society that allows each individual to strive for success, this is patently untrue in practice. We do not strive for success as much as we work diligently to avoid failing. We seeks job security, insurance, benefits, a retirement plan, position, sound investments, in short, a “piece of the rock.” To lose is to stand out from the crowd and draw condemnation. By not striving, we avoid being singled out and, for a great plurality of our society, that is very much the goal. 

 One driving force of the Agon was the love of honor. To be seen as honorable was one of the prime motive forces for free Greeks, much as being perceived as being wealthy is today. Perhaps we have substituted fame, or at least notoriety for honor. But when honor has no strong lure, why should one suffer for it? Our insecurity is largely a by-product of the social isolation and anonymity in our vast society. Appearances count very much more than achievement in a world of strangers. If no one knows you are honorable, what good is honor? Today, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet could, in theory, wear a t-shirt that said “I am a Pulitzer Winning Poet,” but I doubt this would have nearly as much impact on her status as spending the prize money to purchase a ‘statement’ car. What use is it to compete, when the gains of achievement are generally unrecognized?

 There is also the matter of our desire for equality. A society built on struggle can be seen as being equal if it allows everyone to compete. Compared to the Greeks, we have made great strides in expanding in this type of equality. However, we have also and, perhaps to a greater extent, emphasized equality of outcome. We want everyone to succeed at everything – despite the fact that this removes any incentive for struggle. Grade inflation effectively removes struggle from education, protective tariffs work to remove competition from our businesses, vast monopolies try to eliminate competition between corporations, and the general taint the word “elite” has acquired in common speech all suggest a society that views competition as destructive.

 One of the few areas where the culture of the Agon continues to thrive is in athletics. Many academics decry the emphasis contemporary society places on sports. They argue this while overlooking the central place athletics and competition of all sorts played in the life of the ancient Greeks. Sports competition is perhaps overemphasized today, but mostly because true competition has been eliminated from so many other aspects of life. We hunger, perhaps as never before, for the Agon presented in sports because it is so often absent from our own lives. This has led us, absurdly in the Greek view, to professionalize competition. Others are paid to endure the pain, discipline and risks of competition in our stead. From a safe distance, we can root for our team. Not that the Greeks did not have something of this sort as well – they invented the Olympics after all. However, the Olympics were an intensification of the daily competitions of all sorts, rather than a substitute for them.

 We also have what is often called the ‘entrepreneurial’ class. The definition of an entrepreneur is often given as “someone who has gone bankrupt three times.” This definition captures the idea that to compete seriously is to lose. Never losing, is never competing. Yet, like athletics, the vast majority of Americans do not pursue this path of struggle and opt instead for a safer, if lest bracing, route.

 For the Greeks the challenge had, for the most part, to be public. One can win no honor in seclusion. One cannot test oneself against nothing. The Greeks knew humans are great self-deceivers and not to be trusted in self-evaluation. If you think yourself a great boxer, then box. If you feel yourself a great poet, then recite your poetry and be judged. To falter in the face of the public, to lose one’s nerve, or flinch from conflict, this was to lose honor. One could lose honorable, but the failure to strive honestly and with one’s complete capacity would bring condemnation. Even, as Homer recounts, fleeing before an overmastering foe is not shameful. It is not taking the field at all that defines true failure. To be in the ring is to be alive – to risk nothing in the public realm is to be little more than a ghost in the world.