by John Ziegler

It is noted by philosophical sociologists, concerned as they are with the very nature of human society, that there is an analogy to be drawn between 'levels' of life in the individual person and levels to be distinguished in the life of society.

In the life of the individual person, the first level of life, that which is required in order that a living thing live and maintain its integrity, is the 'vegetative' level. Thus in the individual member of the human species there must be maintenance as individual (nutrition and growth), and maintenance of species (generation). Corresponding to this in civil society is likewise that without which its integrity as society cannot be maintained.

Society is association of human persons for a common end. At its first level is the 'body economic', that without which no society can be, and which permeates society.

First level

Consider this 'body economic': men see that it is advantageous to swap things. In that way, by each obtaining by exchange the thing he wants, both parties obtain value.

Note that BOTH get value, and it is this mutual attraction to value which induces the exchange. Both benefit - otherwise there would only be the anti-social act of appropriation. The whole economic order in society consists of man as exchanger. Now, exchanges, requiring association for a common end, at the same time free each from necessity to be his own universal provider. That is, the minimum of association for mutual benefit is had, thereby establishing society at its minimum level.

Since association for common end is the very constitutive reason of society, then the requirement for societal 'health' is readiness to associate for a common end; and this readiness is civic friendship. Note that friendship is something reciprocal, and this reciprocity together makes it be social.

Second level

Secondly, there is the level of sensitive life in the individual person. Corresponding in society to this is what might be called the 'body recreative'. Just as recreation promotes health in the individual person for the sake of personal good, so recreation as it is social promotes a healthy society for the sake of the common good.

The analogy should not be pushed to literal correspondence. The notion here is that of pursuit socially of the benefit of social health, which health as we have seen is readiness to associate for the common good. Social health is promoted by recreation as it is social (as indeed it is promoted, although less directly, by economic life). Thus, an Olympic Games, just as a local cricket match, should turn rivalries and even aggressions to social benefit.

Third level

Thirdly, in the individual person there is the level of intellective life. Just as it is here that the personal good, namely happiness, of each is pursued in the highest (that is, intellectual) way, so corresponding to it is the highest level of civil society.

Now, in the individual, there is the intellect put to practical ends (the 'practical intellect') and the intellect contemplating (the 'speculative intellect'). The practical intellect orders actions to the end of contemplation.

Corresponding to these in civil society there are the 'body politic', whose common good is the good order of society, and the 'body cultural', whose common good is happiness of each, in the intellectual order, as it is pursued socially. So the body cultural comprises not only musical societies and the like, but the highest societal life in general. Note too that the Church is situated at the apex of this.

The body recreative

But let us think of the place of the body recreative, which corresponds in the individual person to sensitive life. In the individual, well developed sensitive life - part of good physical health - is naturally required for good operation of intellective life, and recreation in the individual promotes this good health. And so we may think that it is the place of the body recreative to promote civic friendship in the social sphere, while promoting corporeal health in the individual.

Now, it is often noted that an occasion which brings people together in a concerted effort greatly promotes civic friendship, as when people fight a bush fire together, or raise a barn as do the farming Amish of Pennsylvania. Furthermore, when people have striven against one another, both having acted honourably, their mutual respect is evident: and even in war this is not unknown. (And that is why 'cheating' in sport is universally condemned.)

Civic friendship resulting from those occasions is principally from joyful co-operation for a common end, and in a less direct way, from 'healthy' rivalry promoting mutual respect.

To take a narrow view of recreation (because there is more than physical exercise to recreation in the individual, and more to social recreation than sport), we may however consider games as they are social. Sport, one may think, is a deliberate imitating of such occasions, so that in a similar way the body recreative might promote civic friendship.

If that is true, then it constitutes a basis for considering the social value of games. Accordingly there would be categories as follows:

On this basis, recreations of the first category would be per se the most valuable socially; next, those of the others in order.

Further, recreations vary in so far as they engage more or less of human powers and habits, as some require little more than physical effort and others require more human qualities. In addition to that, recreations range in their suitability to different interests and temperaments. Thus those categories, which are reasons of classification of sport, with these variations, give a large range of possible (reasonable) sports.


Perhaps, in the light of that, we can see some examples: (A given recreation, being principally of one category, may well have elements of others.)

Principally in the first and most socially beneficial category are team sports against an opposing team, such as cricket (as requiring many human qualities) and the codes of football.

Exhibiting the second category are team recreations without a (human) opponent, such as mountaineering or caving. To be accounted similarly, although outside the order of recreation, is the benefit to social cohesion of communally achieving any common goal, whether gaining a benefit (raising a barn) or repelling an evil (fighting a fire).

The third category is of non-team recreations with an where each contends against the others in contests of all kinds - more physical such as athletics, more humanly demanding such as match play in golf.

The fourth category is had when the solitary person is pitted against no human opponent. Here the direct social aspect is least (whatever the benefit to the individual), being had from the respect of others. (Indirectly, mutual love of such a recreation by its practitioners is not only social in principle, but together renders it more cultural than sportive; this is also the case with those who appreciate the 'finer points' of games, whether participating or not). Of this category are on the one hand the performance of difficult feats respected by everyone, as climbing mountains or breaking an athletic record, and on the other such things as surf riding or skiing, even amateur astronomy or gardening, appreciated by the few.

Regarding amateurism and professionalism in sport, it is sufficient to note that to the extent that a player of sport excels and has opportunity and desire to play a great deal, then it is only reasonable to earn a living by doing so. The danger of this is that greed, valuing gain for its own sake, as in any walk of life, may ruin the intention. And this applies also to placing winning above playing.

What of 'spectator sports', where many participate only vicariously? No doubt the spectator, although only in a secondary way, himself contributes to co-operation and to healthy rivalry. Hence, the same categories apply, although secondarily. But since the spectator does not himself contend, the limits on co-operation and rivalry in him owe more to his will than to the natural limit due to sporting prowess.

It is interesting that the modern Olympic Games places emphasis upon the third category, although indeed by reason of promoting factional ('national') rivalries it has an element of the first. Nevertheless, its promoters seem to aim more at having spectators than participants. One wonders whether its undoubted social benefits can long continue to be had.

Note that to the extent that social discord results from sport, as happened with chariot race factions in the late Roman empire, and as happens today with the 'soccer hooligans', then to that extent sport is anti-social: but that is to the same extent that it is a blight upon sport itself. (We may reflect that among us much that passes as 'party politics' is a similar discord.)

Thus it is clear how ultimately it is the common good which determines the reasonable limits of sport.


John Ziegler is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted December 2000. It was published in Universitas, No. 8 (2000).
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