When we look at the way society shapes tomorrow’s generation, it is often through communities of people that surround them and shows them what type of people they will become. Men find community in many ways through churches, workplaces, shared experiences, and in sporting clubs. Today, we will discuss the ancient Greek gym and and what it can teach men today.
During the 1st century, the gymnasium was a powerful place where men congregated to be challenged by others. The ancient Greek gyms were built to teach men in the arts of sport and philosophy. Getting together to fight and train in combatant sports offered men the opportunity to grow and in turn gain standing in society.
The earliest recorded examples of men’s gymnasiums can be traced to as early as 6th century BC. Scientists discovered these sites in ancient Olympia, Delphi, and Nemea.
The name gymnasium comes from the root of the Greek word “gymnos,”which is the same word for nudity. Every man trained in their chosen area of sport was completely nude, the idea of being open with no shame in Greek society. We no longer have nude gyms, but no doubt, men still struggle with being open with no shame in front of fellow peers.
A few years ago I had the privilege to travel to Greece and Turkey through seminary. As we traveled those vast countries, we visited many ancient sites. One was the ancient city of Sardis situated in Turkey. Upon arrival, we came across the old baths and gymnasium that men used to train in.
The tour guide said something to us that I still remember to this day. He said, “If Greek culture has taught us anything, it’s that men need to be chiseled and polished to find the masterpiece made of marble underneath.”
Our guide was referring to the two ways in which the Greeks would teach men: chiseled through the “palaestra,” or the large gym, and ideologically polished through the “didaskelion,” or the room for academic thought.
The spread of the Greek empire or Hellenization of that period championed the idea to teach men and bring out the best in them through debating and educating boys in philosophy. As one young scholar would stand to his feet, another would rebuttal him and so forth…
“Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men.” – Plato
Something powerful happens when two or more men get together and bounce ideas off of each other. The way that one small discussion can influence the psyche of a man goes beyond mere words. A good debate can shape tomorrow’s leaders.
How can we reignite this idea of a Greek gym today? I believe that it can be done through three practical things that we already have:
1. Train the body
All men, from the physically capable of us, to the bookish type that avoids sport at all costs, need physical interaction. Men need competition and interaction with other men on some level to train the body. Everyone has a mandate to care for their lives so that they can run this race and finish well. What could be greater than seeing the smile on a man that is happy with the body and life he has been given, and the small changes that take shape just from keeping healthy and active?
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25 ESV)
2. Teach the mind
If training the body and exercising is the core foundation the gyms offer, surely there is more that communities can foster in the minds of men today. Guys need mental interaction as well, and many want that stimulating conversation to grasp new concepts, ideas and values. This is why I’m a huge advocate of men finding mentors and people that can impart knowledge. The Greeks knew that with education of the mind came power.
For while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:8 ESV)
3. Tend to the spirit
A man’s spirit and character makes him unique. A man cannot lead successfully if his spirit is not mature enough to take him there first. What are we doing to foster maturity with today’s young guys? Men need strong upright examples to follow. We need to take a step back, look at our lives, and ask, “How can I lead others well with a spirit of excellence?”
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8 ESV)