Gyms, the wellness orthodoxy, and the virtues of ill health

At the gym, 1573
At the gym, 1573

Passing the local gym today, I paused to peer in at what strikes me as a bizarre, hellish, scene.

Passing the local gym today, I paused to peer in at what always strikes me as a bizarre, not to say hellish, scene.

Weightlifters, 1573

Weightlifters, 1573

Hundreds of intense figures, lined up on identical machines, were frantically treadmilling, pulling levers or earnestly striding on the spot. None of them seemed to be doing anything that a good walk, jog or bicycle ride wouldn’t accomplish more pleasantly – yet gym membership has become essential. Gyms are voguish, thriving, cool. To be seen actively caring for one’s body, taking one’s fitness seriously, is a notable feature of modern society.

According to a recent book, The Wellness Syndrome, “wellness has become an ideology”. The contemporary “biomorality”, as its authors term it, views a healthy, happy, mindful person as morally good, while an unhealthy, unhappy, brainfogged person is to be viewed as an “obscene deviant”.

A new act of parliament, the Care Act, obliges local councils to promote “individual wellbeing”. Students at certain American universities apparently sign up to “wellness contracts”.

There is actually nothing very new about this, except how widespread, even obsessive, it has become. That glimpse through the Madeira Drive plate glass, for example, reminds me of the illustrations to Hieronymus Mercurialis’s De Arte Gymnastica (1573). People were torturing themselves into fitness centuries ago.

Going back even further, there is a passage in Plato’s The Republic in which Socrates, dissing medicine, says it is disgraceful to require a doctor when one’s inappropriate lifestyle has caused the body to become “infested with winds and humours, like marsh gas in a stagnant pool”. In the good old days, he snorts, people had no use for “the modern coddling treatment of disease”.

The rot started, apparently, with one Herodicus, a gymnastic master who lost his health and became a chronic invalid. Instead of either shaking the thing off or dying quickly, like a true Greek, this blockhead spent the rest of his life enslaved by his illness, “with no hope of a cure and no time for anything but doctoring himself”. Herodicus only reached old age by means of what Socrates sneeringly calls “a prolonged death struggle”.

Nobody in a well-ordered society, scoffs Socrates (and some current government ministers appear to concur), should have leisure to “spend all his life being ill”. Medicine, as founded by the mythical Asclepius, was meant for the benefit of otherwise fit and productive people with some passing ailment, so they could return to work. It was not designed to be “wasted on someone who could not live in his ordinary round of duties and was consequently useless to himself and to society”.

No NHS, then, in the Republic, and no sickness benefit. Those controversial Atos assessments would take on an altogether more sinister implication. If you were not as iron-fit as Socrates, you would be condemned. People like me – chronically unwell for half my life – or like the ever multiplying numbers of those with disabling diseases, would be carted off to some place of eugenic elimination.

For an alternative to this “wellness” orthodoxy, this Socratic “biomorality”, I turn to more insightful authorities. Virginia Woolf, in her essay On Being Ill, argues for the transformative effect of illness, of “the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed”. Susan Sontag claims we all hold “dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick”.

André Gide goes further, maintaining health to be “a state of mediocrity in everything. Cease looking on disease as a deficiency; rather, it is something additional.” The Romanian thinker E.M.Cioran agrees: “The healthy are not real. They have everything except their being – which is uniquely conferred by uncertain health.”