The Victor's Virtue: A Cultural History of Sport

Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of a good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.

—Baron Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympics.

The intersection of sports, philosophy, and culture is illustrated in the multiple meanings of the ancient Greek word aretê. Interestingly, the Greeks used aretê to describe the ultimate purpose of both athletic competition and philosophical speculation. In the context of moral philosophy, aretê is usually translated as "virtue." In the context of athletics, aretê is usually translated as "excellence."

This lesson explores the twofold meaning of aretê, focusing on the ways in which the concept of aretê bridges the gap between philosophy and sports. Students will read and critically evaluate an academic essay arguing that through the concept of aretê, the ancient Greeks created an athletic culture in which winning was valued not for its own sake but for the moral virtues that contribute to victory. Students will find relevant evidence in ancient Greek primary source texts for and against the author's thesis. And finally, students will consider whether the author's arguments are applicable to the high school sports culture in which they themselves are immersed.

Guiding Questions

To what extent does the role and value of sports in modern high schools resemble the role and value of sports in an ancient Greek education?

Learning Objectives

Students will become familiar with ancient Greek attitudes towards sport.

Students will be able to describe the distinctive features of the philosophical approaches known as virtue ethics, deontology, and utilitarianism.

Students will become familiar with the contributions of Aristotle and Plato to the construction of virtue ethics.

Students will be able to describe how cultural attitudes towards winning and losing reflect broader philosophical currents.

Students will be able to respond critically to the thesis that "the goal of sport in education hasn't changed in 2,500 year."