Aristotle, Matt Reynolds, and the Origins of Voluntary Hardship
By: Karl Schudt, BLOC
The phrase “voluntary hardship” has become the unofficial motto of Barbell Logic, but the concept is not new.
Aristotle and Matt Reynolds
Matt Reynolds and Scott Hambrick have been recording podcasts about barbell training, whiskey, and lots of other things. It’s called Barbell Logic, and it’s worth a listen. They talk to each other and to interesting people about lifting, but also about life and the connections between the two. Both are of the conviction that barbell training is good for you, not just because it makes you stronger, but because it makes you a better person. Squats are a “peril simulator,” as Scott Hambrick puts it, and the act of getting under the barbell multiple times a week and squatting a weight that is actually difficult is something that builds character.
In fact, the podcast has as one of its taglines that they are exploring “the refining power of voluntary hardship.” Barbells are not the only thing that makes you better. Other things that are similarly hard can be good for you as well, and probably ought to be chosen.
The Refining Power of Voluntary Hardship
This idea is not without some controversy. People are understandably offended at the idea that one can choose something difficult, and that this somehow builds character.
Is it real hardship?
After all, if you can choose the hardship, is it really hardship? Your experience of vacationing in the rain forest by choice is not the same thing as being drafted and dropped into a jungle with an M-16. Maybe you are roughing it, sleeping in a tent, even hunting for your food. But it’s not the same. You can always leave your vacation if it gets difficult, but being drafted allows no such choice. Is it really the case that the hardship which is chosen is the same as that which is forced upon us?
Clearly it isn’t. No one says that it is. Bearing up under a non-chosen difficulty requires one to figure out a way to deal with the bad situation. This is the rationale behind stoicism, where the practitioner learns to control that which he or she can control, namely, the attitude and response to a difficult situation, not necessarily the difficult situation. There’s a place for this, and having been through a very difficult situation that you didn’t choose will remake your character in profound ways.
But what if you aren’t ever put in such a situation? Are you out of luck? Are you doomed to being a person of weak character? I hope not, because not everyone gets a chance to have tough situations thrust upon them, and also because the character-building non-voluntary situations suck. Is there a way to mimic the difficult situations and gain some benefit, even though such situations are voluntary? Reynolds and Hambrick think there is, and in order to understand what they are getting at, we need to look back to the Greeks.
Aristotle on happiness
Aristotle is the inventor of ethics as a science, and is the first person to think rigorously about right and wrong from a rational standpoint1. He relates everything in his thought to the telos, the goal or end of human activity. If you want the end, you choose appropriate means to get it. Want to get strong? Lift barbells. Want to bake a cake? Get the ingredients and turn the oven on. The end determines what means are appropriate and should be chosen.
The goal of human life, according to Aristotle, is happiness. He doesn’t mean by this the happy smiley face that we typically think of, but flourishing, doing well. His classic statement of it is:
“human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete.”2
There are a few things to note here. Happiness is an activity, not a state of being. If you aren’t doing anything, if you are sitting in your parents’ basement eating cheetohs and surfing for porn, you aren’t really happy. It’s because you aren’t really doing anything. Sorry.
Happiness is also in accordance with virtue. Virtues are not Sunday School or Boy Scout virtues, but mean something very specific. A virtue is an excellence (arete in Greek) that makes you into a good example of whatever you are. Sharpness is a virtue of a knife, since it makes the knife a good knife. It makes the knife better able to achieve its end or telos, cutting stuff. A good flute player has virtues of musicianship, of pitch and rhythm, without which he or she can’t be good.
For Aristotle, there are two kinds of virtues, because we are creatures of both mind and appetite. There are intellectual virtues, having to do with our ability to understand, to see connections, to make arguments, or to express ourselves, and there are moral virtues which have to do with our passions, the things that happen to us. Temperance, for example, is a virtue having to do with hunger and sex and drink, things that we are passionate about. No matter how smart you are, if you lack temperance, you’re not going to do very well.
You need both kinds of virtue.
How do you get virtues?
How can you become virtuous? For the intellectual virtues, you go to school, or you read and think and talk about thinking with other people. For the moral virtues think about becoming strong. You do the activities that strong people do. At the beginning, you aren’t very good at it. You lack the virtue, and you lack the habits that make you get it. Part of the Novice Linear Progression is habit acquisition, getting you to be the sort of person who always gets your training in. This is why you shouldn’t miss training sessions, especially at the beginning of your training career. It’s also exactly how you become virtuous. Aristotle says:
“the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. . . . men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”3
You start when you aren’t virtuous, you pretend that you are virtuous, and eventually you become virtuous. In other words, you choose voluntary hardship. I have been pretending to be a good deadlifter for a long time, and slowly I am becoming that which I imitate. If you are a coward, you become courageous by doing things that are hard for you. Rather than selling your house and moving when you find a spider in the bathroom, you deal with it yourself, even if you don’t like doing it. The process of doing difficult things makes you able to do difficult things. If you are intemperate, you become temperate by counting your macros. It’s hard at first, but you “embrace the suck” so that you can do it more easily in the future.
Voluntary Hardship redux
I think the proper way to understand “the refining power of voluntary hardship” is not as grown men playing at being commandos, but as a very ancient and well-respected way of looking at character development. You can remake yourself, to some extent, by choosing to do the things that you don’t want to do. It won’t be easy (thus “hardship”), but it can be chosen (“voluntary”). Reynolds is an Aristotelian, even if he’s never read the Nichomachean Ethics.
1 Socrates and Plato think about right and wrong a lot too, but Plato doesn’t present us with a fully worked-out doctrine. He probably does this on purpose. Join Online Great Books to learn more.
2 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, I.7, trans. by W. D. Ross.
3 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, II.1, trans. by W. D. Ross.