Is Mens Sana in Corpore Sano a Concept Relevant to Honors Students?

By Wintrol, Kate | Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Is Mens Sana in Corpore Sano a Concept Relevant to Honors Students?


Wintrol, Kate, Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council


Belief in a "healthy mind, healthy body" is as relevant to twenty-first-century honors students as it was to their ancient counterparts. The ancient Greek athlete and the honors student-athlete both share the dedication and discipline needed to excel, and our culture still finds praiseworthy those who exhibit excellence in both mind and body. At the University of Nevada Las Vegas, the library is sponsoring a poster series promoting literacy by featuring student-athletes reading their favorite books. An honors college student athlete will be featured in the near future, a symbol of distinction somewhat akin to Myron's Discobolos (Discus Thrower).

Yet we should examine the phrase in its literary context. The line comes from the Satires of the Roman poet Juvenal, known for his biting and bitter verses about the foibles and injustices of life during the Pax Romana. In his tenth Satire, Juvenal ponders the correct use of prayer--not for wealth, power, or revenge, but for a sound mind in a sound body (10.356). However, considering Juvenal's cynical views, he might also be commenting on the rarity of a sound mind in a sound body. one thing is certain: Juvenal was not discussing the scholar-athlete.

Although mens sana in corpore sano is a Latin phrase, it evokes in our culture the Classical Greek ideal of the scholar-athlete. As the perfect combination of brains and brawn, the idealized image was held up for emulation by founders of the modern Olympics (Young, 22). Many in the nineteenth century considered the ancient Greek athlete with a mixture of awe and nostalgia, mistakenly viewing the Archaic and Classical ages of Greece as times of harmony between mind and body, when the gymnasium was a place to study philosophy and when Plato wrestled and competed at the games.

Athletic competition was an integral part of Greek society and identity. The Olympic games are traditionally thought to have begun in 776 BCE, just as Greece was climbing out of its Dark Ages. At nearly the same time, the first written accounts of the Iliad were published. In Book 23, Achilles organizes an athletic competition to honor his beloved fallen companion Patroclus. From the beginning of the epic, Achilles has been outside the community of warriors, but through athletics he restores his humanity and becomes reconciled to the community.

Ancient Greek society valued success and competition--on the battlefield, in the political arena, the courts and at the games--and awarded winners many accolades. The lyric poet Pindar is known for his poems exalting the accomplishments and skills of winning athletes. Success at the games meant more than simply being memorialized by words; triumphant athletes might receive cash prizes and free meals for life as well as see their image replicated in bronze or marble and placed prominently in the polis.

Such adulation also brought criticism. A contemporary of Pindar, poet and philosopher Xenophanes, proclaimed that "the current custom of honoring strength more than wisdom is neither proper nor just" (qtd. in Miller, 183). Later, the provocative playwright Euripides wrote his famous diatribe on the cult of athletes: "Of the thousands of evils which exist in Greece, there is no greater evil than the race of athletes. . . . What man has ever defended the city of his father's by winning a crown or wrestling well or running fast or throwing the discos far or planting an uppercut on the jaw of an opponent" (qtd. in Miller, 183).

Separated by more than two millennia, the modern college athlete receives both the exaltation and the fierce criticism of the ancient competitor. Like Greek athletics, college sports were once the realm of the elite. Individual and team sports began in the Ivy League schools. Richard Davies asserts that Yale invented football in the late nineteenth century (Davies, 66), and prior to World War II the biggest college weekend event was the Harvard-Yale football game. …

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