Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

The Victor's Virtue: A Cultural History of Sport

Created November 9, 2010


The Lesson


The Victor's Virtue: Pentathlon Scene

Philadelphia MS403, Side A: pentathlon scene with three figures.

Credit: Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, through the Perseus Digital Library

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."


Students may know that there are two components of a modern education that are closely associated with ancient Greek culture: philosophy and sports. It was ancient Greeks like Plato and Aristotle who first introduced philosophy into the classroom as a rigorous academic discipline. And it was also the ancient Greeks who brought organized athletics into the schoolyard by making sports an integral part of a youth's basic education.

Beyond the fact that the ancient Greeks treasured them both, it may seem that philosophy and athletics have very little to do with each other. We often think of sports mostly in terms of recreation and diversion—matters far too trivial or physical for a field as serious and abstract as philosophy. But our deepest philosophical commitments can sometimes be inferred from the specific sorts of games we enjoy and from our attitudes towards the participants. A cultural preference for team sports over individual sports, for instance, might reflect a philosophical view of the human condition that stresses interdependence over self-reliance.

Sport bears the hallmarks of a quintessentially human activity: all societies have sports, but no two societies develop precisely the same athletic culture. Indeed, athletic competition can be conceptualized as a structured, scaled down model of all human interaction. In sport, as in life, success and failure (winning and losing) are often defined from within the parameters of fixed, socially-constructed rules. In sport, as in life, there are people who further our efforts and people who impede them. And sport, like life, stresses the critical importance of both preparation and improvisation. Sport situates human beings in a role that occupies much of our lives: the individual or cooperative pursuit of a predefined goal, by all fair means, within a set of conventional boundaries, for the sake of a promised reward.

The goals we set in life, our means of pursuing them, and the indices we use to measure success all help define what we might call our "philosophy"—but these are also precisely the factors that define our athletic culture. Thus, our attitudes towards sport can serve as a barometer of the philosophical inclinations prevalent in the surrounding society. If sport is understood as imitating the inevitable experience of competition in our daily activities, then the structure and organization of our sports cannot help but embody a broader outlook on what it takes for a human being to lead a successful life. In other words, a society's idea of the consummate athlete may be informed by the society's philosophical conception of the consummate human being.

Preparation Instructions

  1. Read, print, and copy Heather L. Reid's brief article entitled "Sport, Education, and the Meaning of Victory." Reid's essay was presented at the Twentieth World Conference of Philosophy and is available as a link from the EDSITEment resource EpistemeLinks. Analyzing Reid's arguments will be the central activity of this lesson.
  2. Download, print, and copy the Arguments and Evidence Worksheet, a visual organizer that will help students follow the reasoning in Reid's article.
  3. Aretê (excellence) is central to the branch of moral philosophy known as "virtue ethics." Review section 2a on virtue theories from the article on Ethics available through Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Note the role of Plato, Aristotle, and the ancient Greeks in the development of virtue ethics. Note especially the contrast between virtue ethics and the two other dominant strands of moral philosophy: deontology and utilitarianism that are discussed in sections 2b & c from the same article.
  4. For information on the basics of Aristotelian ethics, please consult the article on Aristotle’s Ethics from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. See the same site for more general background and biographical information on Aristotle (384-322 BCE).
  5. Review verses 739-785 in Book 23 of Homer's Iliad, available through the Perseus Project website. Book 23 gives an account of a series of athletic competitions held as part of ancient Greek funeral rites. Verses 739-754 describe a footrace, in which the goddess Athena intervenes to enable Odysseus to win the race over Ajax. We will use this brief vignette from the Iliad as a primary source to analyze the ancient Greeks' understanding of the meaning of victory. Print out, copy, and distribute the passage to the class.
  6. Familiarize yourself with an English translation of Pindar's Eighth Pythian Ode, a poem written in 446 BCE in honor of a famous wrestler named Aristomenes of Aegina. Pindar traveled throughout ancient Greece to attend the major sports festivals (the most famous festival was held every four years at Olympia and was the precursor of today's Olympic Games). Pindar earned a living composing odes celebrating the feats of the victors at Greek athletic festivals, so his poetry offers insights on ancient Greek attitudes towards winning and losing at sports. The text of Pindar's odes is available through the EDSITEment resource Perseus Project. For our purposes, we will be interested only in Strophe 5 of the Ode, which describes the competitors who lost to Aristomenes at the Pythian games.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Warm Up

Begin the lesson by asking students to share their views on the institution of high school sports. Discuss:

  • Why do you think that almost every high school in America has an athletic program?
  • What is the best rationale for including sports in a high school education?
  • How would you summarize the goal of a high school sports program?

Take note and make a list of the specific values that students most readily associate with high school sports. Do students emphasize the educational value of physical fitness and exercise? School spirit and pride? Teamwork and camaraderie? Sportsmanship and fair play? Hard work and discipline? Determination and competitiveness? Try to get a sense of which values students deem most central to the success of a high school sports program. Are there any students who believe that high school athletics do not effectively serve a real educational purpose?

What are some of the non-educational functions that high school sports might perform for the school and local community? Entertainment? An opportunity to socialize? An outlet for physical aggression or hyper-competitiveness? Something to keep students occupied after school?

Once students have brainstormed and commented on the various educational and non-educational functions that high school sports may serve, ask students to consider the importance of winning in varsity athletics. Discuss:

  • To what extent do high school athletes and coaches consider winning to be the primary goal of the sports program in which they participate?
  • What do coaches, teachers, and administrators teach high school athletes about the value of winning?
  • To what extent is winning a legitimate way to describe the goal of high school sports?

Finally, have students comment on some of the well-known maxims that may have shaped their attitudes towards winning and losing. Specifically, call your students' attention to the two often-cited quotations below:

  1. "If winning isn't everything, why do they keep score?" Attributed to Vince Lombardi, coach of the Green Bay Packers, 1959-1967.
  2. "The important thing in life is not victory but combat; it is not to have vanquished but to have fought well." Attributed to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympic games.


Which one of the above two quotations has had a greater influence on students' perspective on the importance of winning at sports?

Activity 2. The ancient Greek connection

Distribute copies of Heather L. Reid's article, "Sport, Education, and the Meaning of Victory," a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed EpistemeLinks. Tell students that the paper was presented at a conference of philosophers, and that Reid's argument focuses on the connection between sports programs at modern educational institutions and ancient Greek philosophy. Instruct students to carefully read and annotate Reid's article and then to complete the attached Arguments and Evidence Worksheet. The worksheet requires students to complete an outline of the article by identifying Reid's thesis and filling in the blanks with evidence and examples from Reid's essay. The worksheet's outline should help students follow the logical flow of Reid's arguments. The worksheet also includes a "Key Definitions" section to help students keep track of the technical terms that Reid uses.

Activity 3. Reid's Arguments: An Initial Appraisal

Once students have completed the Arguments and Evidence Worksheet, they can discuss their initial impressions of Reid's central claim. Recall that her thesis is that "the real goal of sport in education hasn't changed in 2,500 years; it is the cultivation of aretê, human excellence." Invite students to evaluate the assumptions and premises that enable Reid to reach this conclusion. Use any or all of the following prompts:

  • Remind students of their discussion in Activity 1 of this lesson. How closely does the ancient Greek rationale for including sports in education, as described by Reid, match the rationale articulated by the class in Activity 1?
  • What are the four personal qualities that constitute the concept of aretê according to Plato? Inform students that in the tradition of Western philosophy, these four qualities are often referred to as the "cardinal virtues." Reid suggests that the cardinal virtues are precisely the qualities most often associated with winners of modern athletic competitions. If students had to name the four personal qualities that they most closely associate with victory in sports, what would they be? Are they the same as the four cardinal virtues that Plato identified?
  • Notice that Reid claims, on page five of her essay, that "schools are in the business of making better people." Does the class agree with that premise? What alternative conceptions of the "business" of schools might we offer?
  • What does the class think of Reid's premise that we value sports in education because of a "belief that sport helps to make better people"? Is Reid right to assume that the qualities that make someone excel at sport are the same qualities that will enable them to succeed at "almost any endeavor in life?" Is there really any correlation between being good at sports and being a virtuous or a successful person?
  • Reid asserts that "we view winning as the manifestation of certain virtues inherent in the athlete in the given performance." Does this premise accurately capture the reason why we admire winners? Or do we simply admire the idea of being the best at something regardless of the "virtues inherent" in that achievement?
  • Reid observes that even when a team or an athlete loses a competition, "we describe the performance in terms of victory nonetheless; it is a moral victory, a personal victory, or some such qualified win." Reid suggests that our appreciation of "moral victories" is stronger than our appreciation for "analytic wins." Is she right? Does the class think that the pursuit of "moral victories" can ever realistically be called the goal of a high school sports program?
  • Reid suggests that a high school coach who instills virtues in athletes but loses all his or her games anyway should be retained as coach. Does the class agree?
  • If Reid is right that sports ought to be about the promotion of specific virtues, are some sports more "educational" than others?
  • How might Reid (or Plato) respond to the rhetorical question posed by Vince Lombardi: "If winning isn't everything, why do they keep score?"
Activity 4. Reid's Evidence: A Closer Look

Once students have discussed their initial reactions to Reid's thesis, they should more closely inspect some of the evidence that Reid presents. On page two, Reid cites a short passage from Homer's Iliad to illustrate "the association of virtue and victory" in ancient Greek culture. Certainly the Iliad is representative of cultural and philosophical currents in ancient Greece, and students should examine the passage Reid cites to see whether they agree with her interpretation.

As Reid states, the passage includes "an account of a foot race at Patroclus' funeral games in which the goddess Athena chooses her favorite Odysseus as the winner of the race and ensures his victory by having his younger opponent Ajax slip and fall in some cow dung while leading the race." With this summary in mind, students should read and annotate the actual text of Homer's Iliad, available in English translation through the Perseus Project website. Students should note that the relevant passage appears in Book 23, beginning with verse 739. Direct students to read and annotate the passage.

First, make sure that students have understood and processed the basic storyline of the text. You can use the following questions as a quick reading check:

  • What is the role played by Achilles? By what other name is he known in the passage?
  • What is the first prize for winning the footrace, and why is it valuable? How many prizes are there in all?
  • How many competitors are there? Who are they?
  • What single adjective is used to describe Odysseus? How are the others described?
  • How does Odysseus secure the help of Athena?
  • In what order do the competitors finish?
  • How does Ajax react to his defeat? Is he aware of what happened?
  • What is the moral of the story according to Antilokhos?

Reid offers the following interpretation of the passage: "When Athena chose Odysseus to be an athletic victor, she did so because she loved his character—he had aretê (virtue), and so deserved to win the race." From this, Reid concludes that the ancient Greeks viewed winning "as much more than scoring the most points or crossing the line first." What does the class think of the conclusions that Reid draws from the text? What alternative interpretations could we suggest? In addressing these questions, encourage students to carefully consider the following:

  • Does Odysseus' victory support the idea technical losers might be moral victors, or does it suggest that the technical winner is always the most worthy competitor? What are the implications for Reid's argument?
  • What evidence from the text supports Reid's claim that Athena favored Odysseus because he had aretê?
  • Does Odysseus prove his virtue by praying to Athena, or does Athena prove Odysseus' virtue by answering his prayer?
  • What is the class' first impression: were Odysseus' tactics fair? Do the spectators seem to think that his tactics were fair? Does Ajax think it's fair?
  • How does Ajax know about Athena's role in the race? How would the story be different if Ajax had not figured our what happened?
  • Does Ajax agree with Reid's account of the reasons why Odysseus won?
  • Does the speech of Antilokhos at the end argue for or against Reid's interpretation of Odysseus' victory?
  • The passage from the Iliad is a clear illustration of the ancient Greek belief that athletic champions won because they were favored by the gods. How might this belief add or detract from the educational value of sports?
Activity 5. Losing in ancient Greece

Throughout her article, Reid maintains that it would be possible and desirable to recreate the virtue-centered athletic culture of ancient Greece in modern schools. She suggests that we should try to emulate the ancient Greek attitude towards winning and losing. But is our modern athletic culture really compatible with that of the ancient Greeks? In answering this question, students should read an English translation of Pindar's Eighth Pythian Ode, poem written in 446 BCE in honor of a famous wrestler named Aristomenes of Aegina. Share with your students the background information on Pindar provided in Preparing to Teach this Lesson. Then direct your students to strophe 5 of the Ode and have a volunteer read the short passage aloud. This part of the poem describes the fate of the competitors who were defeated by Aristomenes, the hero of the Ode. After reading the passage, discuss:

  • What is Pindar's general attitude towards victory and defeat? Is there anything redeeming in loss?
  • What would Pindar have thought of the common maxim: "It's not whether you win or lose; it's how you play the game?"
  • To what extent would Pindar's description of losers be culturally acceptable in the context of modern high school athletics? Would a modern coach be delighted or disappointed to hear athletes talk about their competitors in this way?
  • Reid contends that the association of virtue and victory often leads us to admire the competitor who technically lost. Why might the association of virtue and victory have the opposite effect?
Activity 6: What philosophy has to do with sports

Students may be surprised to find that the authority most often cited throughout Reid's essay is Plato, a philosopher. At first, there might not seem to be anything particularly "philosophical" about the idea that sports promotes the qualities that help us succeed in all areas of life. But when we say that the Greeks included sport in education to promote virtue or excellence, we are not really doing justice to the full significance of the Greek term aretê. The word aretê is often translated as virtue, but aretê was much more to the ancient Greeks than a generic term denoting "good qualities." Aretê stood at the center of the ancient Greeks' entire philosophical system, and it is impossible to fully understand the meaning of aretê without understanding the basic philosophy of Plato and his student Aristotle.

After Plato outlined what came to be known as the four cardinal virtues, his student Aristotle tried to develop a system that relates the virtues to a particular conception of what it means to be human. No philosopher is as closely associated with the Greek concept of aretê as Aristotle. If desired, begin this activity by sharing with students selected background and biographical information on Aristotle (384-322 BCE) from the Wikipedia online encyclopedia.

Aristotle's most famous contributions are classified in the branch of philosophy known as "ethics." When students think about ethics, they are likely to think first of tough moral dilemmas such as, "Under what circumstances is it OK to tell a lie?" or "Can we take the life of one innocent person to save the lives of a hundred innocent people?" But to the ancient Greeks, the real important ethical questions were far more basic than these. Ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle believed that we study ethics not just to know how we ought to act in a moral crisis, but to know more generally what it means for a human being to be happy and fulfilled. Thus, the ancient Greek philosophers did not begin their ethical inquiries by asking, "What are we supposed to do in a given scenario?" Instead, they began by asking "What habits and character traits represent the best in a human being?"

This philosophical approach is commonly known as virtue ethics, and it is sharply contrasted with the two other major philosophical methods: deontology and utilitarianism. Deontologists try to articulate the duties that should govern our actions and utilitarians try to analyze the consequences of our actions. Virtue ethicists, by contrast, are less interested in actions than in character traits. The three different approaches to moral philosophy might all agree that people generally shouldn't lie, but they might give very different reasons for that principle. Deontologists might say that we have a duty to tell the truth, utilitarians might say that good results come of telling the truth, while virtue ethicists would simply say that honesty is a trait that makes us better, happier human beings. The virtue ethicist is not concerned with the act of telling the truth but with the character of a person who habitually feels compelled to tell the truth. After introducing the three basic approaches to ethics and discussing some examples, you may direct students to the Wikipedia article on virtue ethics, a link from EpistemeLinks. You may also present material from the ETHICS section of the article on Aristotle from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

In reviewing these articles with the class, be sure to highlight the role of the ancient Greeks—and Aristotle especially—in promulgating virtue ethics. You may want to discuss Aristotle's theory that every virtue represents a "Golden Mean" between two opposite vices. For example "courage" marks a virtuous middle ground between cowardice and recklessness. Courage, cowardice, and recklessness all relate to a person's emotional experience of fear. Cowardice shows an excess of fear, recklessness shows a deficiency of fear, and courage—the golden mean—describes just the right amount of fear. Can students think of any "good" qualities that do not seem to fit this theory? How might Aristotle respond to these?

It is important to note that aretê can be ascribed to entities other than human beings. In the entry on aretê in the Free Online Dictionary of Philosophy, students will find two examples: a guitar's aretê lies in its ability to produce harmonious music and a hammer's aretê lies in its ability to drive in a nail. So a thing's aretê lies in its ability to fulfill its intended function. But what is a human being's intended function? For the ancient Greeks, this was the all-important philosophical question. Aristotle believed that we cannot begin to think about how people ought to act until we have answered the question, "What is distinctive about a human being?" Aristotle's virtue ethics, in contrast with deontology and utilitarianism, is an effort to conceptualize an ideal human being. So to have aretê is to make a habit of emulating the ideal human being.

It is now easy to see why teachers of virtue ethics have had such a strong interest in the educational value of sports. Ancient Greek athletics, like classical Greek philosophy, affirmed the possibility of drawing nearer and nearer to an idealized human form. Aretê is achieved not by choosing the correct actions at discrete moments in time, but by acquiring good habits through diligent practice. The same is often said of athletic competition.

We have now seen how Aristotle's virtue ethics can justify the inclusion of sports in an educational program. Is it possible to construct a utilitarian or a deontological argument in favor of high school sports? Remember that a utilitarian ethicist would support varsity sports only if maintaining an athletic program in high schools has beneficial consequences for the whole society. And recall that a deontological ethicist would insist upon high school athletics only if he or she believed that staying physically fit and learning to compete is a duty. Which approach to ethics (virtue, utilitarian, deontological) offers the best justification for high school sports?


Ask students to imagine that they have read the following news item in their local paper: In response to a budget crisis, the School Board is prepared to vote to save money by dramatically curtailing the athletic program in the high schools. The Board has not yet decided which or how many sports will be cut. The Board is also considering a proposal to cut the budget for high school programs in foreign languages or music. A spokesperson for the Board has said that before the vote on this issue, the Board members hope to receive input from the general public.Instruct students to draft a letter to the School Board addressing the proposed cut to the sports budget. Where applicable, students should cite the arguments made by Reid in "Sport, Education, and the Meaning of Victory." Students should state what they believe to be the goals of high school athletic programs and should discuss the relevance of those goals to the educational mission of high schools. Students should engage the arguments discussed in this lesson to explain why athletics is more or less central to education than foreign languages or music. Finally, students should suggest which sports should be eliminated from the athletic program first and which should be retained for their educational value.

Extending The Lesson

This lesson indicates that the study of ancient Greek sport gives us a fresh perspective on the bedrock ideals that characterized Greek civilization. Though the Greek appreciation for sports has persisted, the underlying worldview that gives sport its meaning has surely shifted. The Olympic games—which remake an ancient Greek tradition in the image of modern European culture—offer a particularly clear window on the continuity and evolution of the philosophy of sport. EDSITEment marked the 2004 Summer Games in Athens with a Monthly Feature comparing and contrasting the cultural underpinnings of the ancient and modern Olympics. To learn more about what sports can teach us about culture and philosophy, please refer to the EDSITEment Feature entitled When the Games Were Held at Olympia.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • Foreign Language > Ancient > Other
  • History and Social Studies > World
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Philosophy
  • History and Social Studies > Place
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • Literature and Language Arts
  • Art and Culture
  • Foreign Language
  • Analysis
  • Historical analysis
  • Poetry analysis
  • Visual analysis
  • Jeremy Golubcow-Teglasi, Yale University (New Haven, CT)

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