RtO: The Inculcation of Wisdom and Virtue

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Each week, author and poet Y.S. Fing looks at the state of baseball, the movements of the game, the ebb and flow and soul of America’s pastime in Roaming the Outfield. This week: “The Inculcation of Wisdom and Virtue”

How can baseball inculcate wisdom and virtue? The better question might be: how can anything inculcate wisdom and virtue? We’ve examined some of Foucault’s ideas taken from this latter end of the Enlightenment. And we’ve looked recently at Sterne and Jefferson in the middle of this epoch. Let’s take a look at the beginning of the Enlightenment in Europe and see what we can see.

A combination of the reformation of the Catholic Church and the English Civil War in the Seventeenth Century introduced a previously unthinkable idea into British society–that neither religion, nor the king, are the final arbiters of wisdom and virtue. Power was beginning to devolve away from the centers and it would be up to individuals to define and create wisdom and virtue themselves as the early modern world began to take shape.

Few were as deeply perceptive and coherent in this awareness than John Locke, whose two books–Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises on Government–essentially laid the foundation for the new, enlightened, forms that inculcation of wisdom and virtue would take in English-speaking society.

But I’d rather look more closely at a personal and smaller scale set of writings that Locke produced not with society in mind, but the education of his friend’s son. He wrote the letters in 1683 and they were collected as a book, titled Some Thoughts Concerning Education, in 1694.
John Locke philosophy
One of the purposes of the Thoughts was to apply his theory, as expounded in Essay Concerning Human Understanding, that the mind is a tabula rasa, a clean slate upon which all experiences in life will have some influence. The tabula rasa introduced into western intellectual history the notion of an individual psychology, that each mind and body has requirements entirely its own which need fulfillment in order to develop properly. If, as Locke understood, individuals were developing apart from the reach of the government and the church, then, as Locke surmised, parents and communities would have to pay attention to how they educate their children.

To give a little perspective, Locke was not thinking of this question on the scale that Jefferson would 100 years later in America. Locke was telling an aristocratic man how to prepare his child to be a ruler in his country. But Jefferson saw that if it was good to prepare an aristocrat in this manner, then it would be good enough for the children of the United States. And this is how Locke summed up the purpose of education near the end of his Thoughts: “The great business of all is virtue and wisdom… Teach him to get mastery over his inclinations, and submit his appetite to reason. This being obtained, and by constant practice settled into habit, the hardest part of the task is over.”

Of course, studying languages and history, math and science are important, but few would argue that children learn best when they are doing things they enjoy. That’s why sports teach so much, and that’s why I put baseball into that realm of inculcating wisdom and virtue. All the successful players in Major League Baseball have “mastery over [their] inclinations” and have “submit[ted] [their] appetite to reason.” That is to say that the game has taught them to know that their “inclinations,” desires, wishes, and expectations are an impediment to developing wisdom and virtue. They know that they must “submit [their] appetite,” again, desires, wishes, and expectations, to reason in order to take up their daily challenges, and to let go of their inevitable mistakes and defeats.

For example if a baseball player is frustrated and he, like Ryan Mattheus (relief pitcher for the Washington Nationals), wishes that his day had gone better, he might want to smash something. But everybody who has been properly inculcated to wisdom and virtue, knows that punching a locker and breaking your hand won’t help you as a player, or the team either. The temperance of emotion is one of the great challenges of baseball, and only those who do temper their emotions can succeed.

Struggling players must learn to control their emotions.  (P. McDermott/Getty Images)

Struggling players must learn to control their emotions. (P. McDermott/Getty Images)

Because swinging a 30-ounce piece of rounded wood in order to hit a small round ball moving at 90-miles-per-hour is never anything less than a significant challenge. The odds are always against the batter. But that doesn’t make it easy for the pitcher. He has to control that 90-mph pitch, so the catcher can catch it and the batter miss it and not take a walk to first base for free. Every aspect of the game requires that the player shed the dreamy, flighty child within them, focus on the task at hand, and separate themselves from any expectation and emotion.

No player is to blame when the team losses, and no player is the only reason that the team has won. The players have to work together, even if their tasks are individuated. Being part of a striving social unit is the beginning of wisdom and virtue. Of course, a citizen can learn this in myriad ways in the modern world. But, to me, few sports demonstrate this actuality as regularly, with such clarity, as baseball. We can only do our best, and our best is always founded on wisdom and virtue.


Y.S Fing loves baseball the way that his parents wish he loved Catholicism.

One Comment

  1. Kathleen Gregg
    8 years ago

    I have been reading your series of articles with much enjoyment, even though I am not really a baseball fan. You pique my interest because your pieces do not dwell on boring (to me) statistics and technical analysis of the game. Instead, you comment on what really pulls people in as fans – the individual and collective struggle by the players to win, to rise above the mundane and to take their fans with them. As a fan of sports, other than baseball, I have felt the group euphoria in a stadium when my team has won a close game. All seems right with the world for a few glorious moments. Fans go to games hoping for that thrill. Players sweat, focus and strive for that thrill. So, I totally agree that sports (specifically baseball, here) apply to our broader sense of ourselves. And, the short philosophy lesson woven into each of your articles is just an added bonus!

One Trackback

  1. By Roaming the Outfield: Konomama on June 19, 2013 at 11:42 am

    […] the last entry, The Inculcation of Wisdom and Virtue, I wrote, “… the game requires that the player shed the dreamy, flighty child within […]