Living, the Game of

It is all too rare a pleasure to read modern philosophy, nowadays, on the meaning of life. And it is rarely pleasurable: shelves are burdened with banality, falsity, and inauthenticity of this sort. Mark Rowlands, in Running With The Pack, laudably takes on the most serious of subjects – and his is that rare work which warrants an inviting shelf.

The Philosophy of Sport, not least of Running, is seldom looked to for insights of importance; Rowlands appeals both directly and indirectly to the activity of long-distance running to offer an illuminating perspective on the meaning of life. Life is meaningful – it is worth living – only if there is value to be found therein. Rowlands finds this in running, in his loving relationships (canine, lupine, and ‘simian’), and in his intellectual pursuits. To be precise: these have, for him, intrinsic value – they are pursued for their own sake, and not in order to achieve any extraneous purpose. To intrinsically value running is to run only in order to run. And to do so is to be immersed in intrinsic value: to be in contact with ‘The Good’.

People run for all sorts of reasons: to get out of the house, the June/July beach-body deadline, because everyone else seems to be doing it. But running for such reasons does not enrich one’s life: it is as such work, not play. The kind of value that Rowlands prizes is that which we knew as children, that which ‘the body remembers’, but which is inevitably forgotten as our bodies and mind expand. We soon feel this loss: we taste the groundlessness and emptiness of our existence as “an aching in the bones and a sourness in the blood”. And it is only with this visceral absence that a full understanding is possible of the question (and its answer): what is the meaning of life?

It is in love, and intrinsically valuable activities, Rowlands tells us, that we are to find our redemption – in these lies the only hope of a satisfactory answer to that question. Searching for the right term, to experience these is to experience “Joy”: running with his beloved dogs is to be “immersed in a field of joy”. Yet this won’t quite answer the question, since any value in life must, we are told, outweigh the horror in life. We must ‘love our fate’: specifically the fact that “life will chew us up and spit us out…[and that] disappearance waits for all of us”. Perhaps we are simply too knowing, too post-modern, too Nietzschean, to believe any feel-good story we tell ourselves, but a story must be told nonetheless – and it is neither blind nor unrealistic to hope that we may simply no longer “care enough to wish that [our fate] were different”. Rowlands harbours this hope; his book constitutes an attempt to bolster it.

Legitimate objections, however, may well be raised to what he says towards that end. If a meaningful life is one full of ‘play’, then this is open only to the talented and/or the moneyed. In fact, the truth is worse: in order that some may play, the rest must work. Marx thought the solution to this problem lay in the – future and the – surplus of resources upon which humanity must ineluctably stumble; in the meantime, philosophers and sportsmen live the ‘Good life’ on the back of the toil of many. Still, it would be wrong to see this as a fault to which Rowlands is singularly culpable; he is, after all, (who isn’t?) just trying to make sense of his life, just trying to figure out how he should live. Perhaps we should renounce all of our inherited privilege in self-denying sacrifice – but I, for one, don’t plan on doing so.

Other qualms cannot be dismissed so easily. Is it really enough for something to be intrinsically valuable for it to be pursued not for any extraneous purpose? If I should pursue what is intrinsically valuable, then – if I rape in order to rape, murder to murder, and steal to steal – I am, it follows, obliged to pursue an execrable course. We cannot – this is the force of the objection – ignore the question: is this activity really intrinsically valuable? And at this question, our reasons give out – whether our credulity survives is the crux. Rowlands might also be accused of unhelpful conflation: not everything intrinsically valued is play. Writing, thinking, spending time with loved ones – these can be play, but they needn’t be, and it doesn’t help to group them together with, say, running.

Unblemished by these objections – and that which constitutes the lacuna of this review up to this point – are Rowlands’s lucid ruminations on the phenomenology of running. Three sequential phases, of a run, can be discerned: the Cartesian – the impression of a mind-body distinction, perceptible in such self-deceptions as ‘just one more mile, thighs’; the Humean – the dissolution of the self, a whirlwind of thoughts; and the Sartrean – the absence of the self, an awareness of the inertness of reasons. The third is the freedom of youth regained – though in quite what sense the ‘body remembers’, I’m not sure – and it is this kind of freedom which is of most importance. As Rowlands slugs round his first marathon, aged fourty eight, undertrained and exhausted, he realises – at around the 16-mile marker – that he has plenty of reasons to stop running, but that they nevertheless have no authority over him: and the implication is that it is this awareness of the gap between reasons and action which both evinces the intrinsic value of the activity, and allows one to more readily love one’s fate – in spite of reason.

In addition, Rowlands offers – what to my knowledge is – an original and plausible explanation of the phenomenology: rhythm and exhaustion are the key ingredients. Intelligent application of science is a recurrent feature of Rowlands’s writing, and this no more evident than in his exposition, and transference to running, of research on the effects of dance music and meditation on brain activity. These lucid passages alone make the book worth the shelf-space.

“[F]ind what is Good in life, love what is Good in life, surround yourself with it and hold on to it with all the strength you have”; – wisdom doesn’t come much more neatly packaged nor deftly delivered. Rowlands’s is not a new tale, but he tells it in a novel and salutarily prosaic fashion; it found a grateful audience in this reviewer at least, and I expect that I will not be alone in this.