I recently read this really good and thoughtful article about Stoicism in modern football as a philosophy that explains the success of the best managers and enjoyed the heck out of it, but also felt that it maybe didn’t quite capture the essence of that school of thought as applied to football. While I’m not smart or educated enough to really provide a complete rebuttal, I’d like to discuss a couple of thoughts I had on the subject.
For those who haven’t read the article (and again, please go read it), the gist is that a manager or a player who controls every variable they can will be the best prepared for match day, and that figuring out how best to control as many of those variables as humanly possible is the main job of the soccer person. That’s a tough premise to argue; the less time you have to spend thinking about your next action, the more quickly and/or effectively you can perform that action. While there will still be unforeseen events that must be addressed as they arise, the Stoic maximizes their chances of overcoming them by ensuring that they don’t get caught up in all the stuff they could have prepped for. This isn’t a revolutionary idea, although Edd Norval explains it as elegantly as anyone out there.
I guess my objection here comes in the characterization of this sort of preparation, this intentional addressing of every possible obstacle, as a uniquely Stoic endeavor. Epictetus, the founder of the Stoic school of thought, wrote in his Discourses 1.15.2, “Philosophy does not propose to secure for a man any external thing. If it did philosophy would be allowing something which is not within its province.” If you prefer a slightly pithier summation, try Bertrand Russell’s characterization in (the not entirely reliable for all things but pretty dang good for our purposes here) A History of Western Philosophy, “Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature.”
The central tenet, then, is that a true Stoic’s triumph of will is to fit their desires to the context of the larger world, bending with its vicissitudes rather than overcoming them. Sure, this means that you have to prepare yourself for those vicissitudes, but it’s not so much about overcoming as accepting.
That strikes me as not super helpful for an athlete. After all, the general narrative that all athletes try to put forth is that they must overcome adversity through talent and hard work and a singular drive to win. Admitting that, in the face of overwhelming odds, that they’d rather go ahead and accept defeat, moving on to the next encounter, runs against that deeply ingrained worldview. Instead of bending to the outside circumstances, the athlete wants to grab them and squeeze until they de- or re-form into a shape that the athlete wants.
I guess my point, then, is that this philosophy, when viewed through the lens of its originators and earliest adherents (and if we want to get into how the later Hellenes and the Romans changed it, I’m totally game to follow up on that), probably isn’t how soccer players need to think. The obsessive preparation of mind and body (and let’s not even get into the Cartesian stuff here, so bear with me) isn’t really the foundation of Stoicism; rather, it’s that you have to accept what’s coming to you, and that practice makes it easier to do that. You still have to acknowledge your lack of control over the world. The idea that players are at their best when they play without the fear or pain of mistakes, without thought entirely, and in a state of emotionless bliss, is a lot more Epicurean than Stoic, and those were the two major and oppositional schools of Western philosophy for a few centuries.
That said, can you imagine a more perfect cosmology for the fan? You prepare yourself for every outcome, rehearsing it in your mind, so that when it comes, you can react intelligently and without having your whole damn week ruined. Your goal is an almost zen-like acceptance of the result on the pitch, backed up by the mental preparation for that result. You’ve hashed out every emotion that you’ll feel for those 90 minutes, ensuring that you won’t get so carried away that you, say, smash your screen. You won’t have to get Very Mad Online and say things that you wouldn’t otherwise say. Basically, you can remain human despite your favorite team losing.
Not that any of this applies to any of us here, of course. After all, we’re really more Epicurean than anything. We support Fiorentina because we believe in avoiding pain and fear, and that tends to work out really well for us. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the Viola play AS Roma, Napoli, and Inter Milan in the next month and I need to go breathe into a paper bag for a few hours so I can handle that as any good Stoic would.
Seems like ages since Fiorentina was tipped to sign Inter’s Roberto Gagliardini on loan, but it’s been less than a week. Sic transit gloria trasferiae.
The Viola goalkeeping unit received quite a shakeup with the loan of Bartłomiej Drągowski to Empoli for the rest of the year, with Pietro Terracciano coming the other way. Catch up on all the details here.
We’ve heard various conflicting reports about whether or not Marko Pjaca is heading to Genoa, so we probably have to wait until 1 February to know for sure how this will shake out.
Here is our full coverage of that bonkers Chievo Verona match.
Another day, another departure for a once-hyped prospect. This time, it’s Abdou Diakhate moving on to Parma.
Young loanees Michele Cerofolini and Luca Mosti have left Cosenza and Arezzo, respectively, and will spend the rest of the year at Bisceglie in Serie C.
It sure sounds like Valentin Eysseric is the odd man out in the Viola winger rotation, and it’s no surprise that there’s a reasonably robust market for him, according to the rumors.
The Viola have added another exciting young midfielder to the roster. Meet Szymon Żurkowski, who will spend the rest of the year with Górnik Zabrze before linking up with his new mates this summer.
It’s always fun to catch up with the four players who are on the Viola books but plying their trades outside of Italy.
We’re wrapping up our (over)long running project to sort out Fiorentina’s greatest-ever XI, and the final spot is up for grabs as a wild card. Choose wisely.
Are you more of a Stoic fan or an Epicurean fan?
This poll is closed
Stoic by default, as a real Epicurean wouldn’t make themselves suffer through being a Viola fan
Stoic by choice, as I genuinely enjoy trying to figure out how everything will go wrong at any given moment.
Epicurean by default, as I don’t like eating beans. No, seriously, that’s a thing that they did. Look it up.
Epicurean by choice, as I’ve finally perfected how to not tear my hair out by the roots when Cholito’s first touch takes him out the Franchi’s parking lot for some lampredotto. I’ve even learned to enjoy it.
Comment of the week
This is usually space for jocularity, but Mike-R brought up something a little bit more sobering. Here is the link (it’s in Italian because the English version doesn’t have any real info) if you want to follow through.
That’s it for this week, folks. Put the phone down and just walk around for half an hour or so when you get the chance.