James V. Schall, S. J.


The Greek philosopher Aristotle (d. 322 B. C.) remarked that play or sport is the closest thing most human beings come to contemplation, to the highest of human activities. Sport perhaps lacks the "seriousness" of contemplating the highest things, yet it contains a liberty and a joy of its own that can only be had if we seriously engage in the play before us.


Play, by demanding all of our energies and skill to perform either badly or well, takes us out of ourselves. We are at our best when we are looking at something besides ourselves. The best way to catch the meaning of ourselves as physical beings endowed with bodies is to watch those of our kind exerting themselves in the highest of athletic skills, to become hushed as the challenge unfolds, to cheer the play and the winner, to know that good players also lose, to see the spirit suffuse the flesh.


Aristotle knew of the Olympic Games and their religious and exemplary overtones concerning human limits and human beauty. He meant that play was something for its own sake, something that need not exist, something that was free. But still play was put into being in order to reveal the excellence and limits of the condition of man in his earthly human form when he is striving to be his best. The kinds of games that exist -- the contest games, the vertigo games, the games of chance, and the imitation games -- each reveal a different side of human excellence.


The closest most people come to pure contemplation is in the beholding of a good game, in being fascinated with the play, the strategy, the uncertainty of its results. We are enthralled by absoluteness of the game, by the time of the game, which is a time outside of the normal day-to-day time. The game we watch itself takes us outside of ourselves and concentrates our attention on something that, like ourselves, need not exist at all, yet in existing holds our complete focus and interest. The game must have an absolute structure of rules, space, and judges or referees who guarantee that the game be what it is, that it be played in its own justice and its own time.


Games themselves are wholly contained worlds that imitate the play, the dance of the cosmos -- something that itself need not exist but which, none the less, because it does exist, reflects the order out of the nothingness from which it came. The game does not symbolize the chaos but the order of things. And the game signifies the energy, the talent, the peak of human existence in an order of its own possibility, the wonder that it exists at all in its physical excellence, itself a sign of its spiritual depths.


The game, the sport is worthwhile playing for its own sake. Yet, this thing that is worthwhile doing -- the race, the championship, the vault, the goal -- stands out against the dullness of ordinary things as light and glory. This light or glory is not merely of itself but it reflects something that exists at all, something that reflects a higher origin of all things, including human things.


In The Laws (d. 347 B.C.), when he finally describes our human lives at their highest, Plato remarks that we should "live out our days playing at certain games -- sacrificing, singing, and dancing...." The seriousness of sports takes us to the seriousness of what is. "Play Ball!" "Let the Games go on!" These are the cries of those who realize that the only way to know the wonder of life itself is to live it, to engage in it, in its own order and its own time with the seriousness of joy that shows forth the excellence that is ours as we play.



Other essays on sports and play:

1) "On Playing," in The Praise of 'Sons of Bitches': On the Worship of God by Fallen Men;
2) "On the Seriousness of Sports," Vital Speeches, XLIX (February 15, 1983), [also in Another Sort of Learning];
3) "On Spiritual and Physical Exercises," in The Distinctiveness of Christianity;
4) "On Walking and Jogging," U.S. Catholic, 49 (June, 1979), 18-21;
5) "On Wasting the Best Years of Our Lives," Vital Speeches, LIX (January, 1993), 179-82;
6) "Ludere Est Contemplari: On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs," The American Benedictine Review, 44 (March, 1993), 99-111; 7) "Aspects of a Theology of Play," The Catholic World, 212 (November, 1970), 69-73.

The two short books Play on: From Games to Celebrations and Far Too Easily Pleased: A Theory of Play, Contemplation, and Festivity indicate the basic approach and give further bibliography on these topics.