Sunday, 4 March 2012


Seems like a lot of blogs are discussing philosophy these days. The word Stotan has been popping up here and there for a while now, which I suppose is reasonable given the man who coined the term, Percy Cerutty, published his ideas back in the 1950s and 60s. This post has no overreaching goal save to discuss what I think about his philosophy as far as I understand it.

Stotanism, as I have learned, is a combination of Stoic and Spartan philosophy. I was intrigued how these two philosophies were combined and why Cerutty decided to do so. This piece inspired me to try writing out my own philosophy on running (for a later post), which I will the 'cookbook philosophy'.

Cerutty certainly has some credentials to his name. He is known as the precursor to the more famous coach Arthur Lydiard, introducing some of the same ideas including 100+ mile training weeks, long runs over 20 miles and maintaining exercise in a natural environment. He was pioneer in the world of endurance sport.

Not uncommon for the era, his early years were sickly; he was in fact too ill to serve in the Great War. In his younger days he aspired to be like Arthur Newton, who had won a bronze in both the 1904 Olympic steeplechase and marathon. Cerutty focused on the mile but his times were inadequate, never bettering a 4:32 performance. Health problems often plagued him at competitions. After deeming his running career over he took up work as a civil servant. Unfortunately his health did not improve, and he took to smoking. Eventually a personal crisis culminated in 1939 to a nervous breakdown that required six months of hospitalization. Vowing to turn his life around at 43, he built himself rigorously into a new man. Eating healthier, quitting smoking, reading, and running more and more, eventually beyond 100 miles a week, he was healthier than ever, both mentally and physically. Soon he was winning distance races and setting state records in ultra distances of 50 miles and beyond. It was fortunate he had time to discover his hidden talent for long-distance events, unfortunate he had first tried to emulate Newton on his short-distance success.

His personal story of triumph soon gathered him a cult following. Like a man on a mission, he actively recruited a core following of local young athletes dedicated to his cause. In a few years he had coached John Landy to a bronze in the 1956 Olympics, Herb Elliott to a 3:35 1500m win at the 1960 Rome Olympics, and Betty Cuthbert to a 400m gold at the 1964 Olympics. He finished his coaching career in 1969 at the age of 74, retiring to his home in Australia before passing away six years later. Herb Elliott, who is now a successful businessman, gave an retrospective interview about Cerutty. It was clear from what he shared that his coach shared some special kind of charisma:
[He] had the magnificent ability which very few people have got, some of the great speakers in history I guess, Winston Churchill had it, I guess King had it, I guess maybe to some extent, JFK. He just had the ability to transfix you with words, and lift you 20 feet into the air. I mean he had a wonderful eloquence, an inspiring eloquence about him. But I don't think that was what appealed to me so much as he seemed to be more interested in using your sport to develop you into a better human being, than he did in using your sport to become a world champion. I mean he somehow or other put your sport into a much larger context than just running around in circles faster than anybody else.
Did Cerutty simply pass on 'secret' training techniques to his proteges? I found this later quote particularly revealing:
I never had doubt about him, no. But I used to ignore some of the things that he said to me. There would be times where he would say something that was insightful for me, and it seemed to me to be genius. Then there'd be other times where he would say something, which I would think was ridiculous. But that never bothered me, I just ignored it. And so I was fortunate I guess, that I was able to select those things that he had to give me which helped me, and I was able to reject those things which I didn't think would help me. And so our relationship went on and on and on for years. Some of his other athletes found that sometimes he would say something one day that was in conflict with what he might have said a week ago, and they found that disturbing and lost faith and moved on. But we worked because I sieved what he told me and took what I wanted and didn't take the rest.
So intelligent athletes don't necessarily do everything their coaches tell them. Were Cerutty's teachings as much about inspiration as information? I had to smile when I read the following in Cerutty's online biography:
Elliott, his greatest pupil, absorbed all the Cerutty teachings.
Regardless, it's his philosophy I'm interested about here. Cerutty's aim for young athletes was to train their minds as much as their bodies. Between his six months in hospital and the days of high mileage and race winning he must have had much time to think. Training the mind is important; that moment of quitting can be as mental as it is physical. Keeping positive is a huge component. Having said that, physical training remains still the very important other half; optimism alone will set records no better than it will land planes.

Cerutty was viewed -even in his own time- as eccentric, which reveals itself in his Stotan philosophy shown later below. Given the monumental effort it takes to changes people's behavioral patterns it's fair that it may have taken an eccentric to break the mold (which at that time was an over-emphasis on interval training). He was also anti-science due to the (probable) charlatans who treated his earlier arthritis (since it cleared up, perhaps it was gout?). In his youth, medical science was in its infancy but by his coaching years vaccines, insulin, knowledge of microbes (i.e. pasteurization) and even DNA were better understood. But dietary knowledge was by then still poor (baby formula issues, DDT, use of fibre etc.), so his insistence on 'natural' foods was perhaps warranted.

Back to his general thinking, I wanted to find something about the two philosophies he combined in his own teachings: Stoicism and Spartanism. I found in Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities by Paul Cartledge outlines the Spartan ways. Most of what we know about Sparta is as much myth as history (as recorded by Herodotus) dating between the mid seventh to fourth century B.C. As Cartledge writes
For the Spartans is was deeds, not words, that counted, which is part of the explanation why our written evidence for Spartan history is so scanty... Sparta's laws were deliberately left unwritten.
As to their ethic,
They organized their whole style of life around the demands of battle-readiness.
Spartans owned slaves, dubbed 'Helots', and because of their xenophobia treated them poorly enough that revolts were a perpetual issue. Spartans were all about ranks, and used athletics as a means to sort the strong from the weak. It was their basis for the right to vote and promotions:
The years between 18 and 20...involved the near adults 'going wild' living off the land -and their wits- individually...and, as a kind of manhood test, killing any Helots they might encounter... 
Spartans also saw themselves as the descendants from gods; their athletics attempted to mimic their bronze images:
A particularly influential Spartan invention: the practice by adolescent and adult males taking [to] athletic or other physical exercise stark naked...anointing themselves liberally with olive oil...[for the purpose of accentuating musculature]
None of what I read here was particularly surprising. As impressive as living like a Spartan sounds like it is questionable to ally oneself too closely to such an ancient, divisive, mythic, and xenophobic way of life.

The second book I found, complementary to the first, was for a modern take of Stocism titled Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind by Nancy Sherman. She reminded me there were in fact two eras of Stoicism: the Roman and the earlier Greek one. She focuses on the more popular Roman period; I assume Cerutty meant to align himself with the Roman group.

Her first chapter sets the context of what we perceive Stoicism to be (boldface mine):
Americans have become a culture obsessed with excessive eating but also, paradoxically, with physical fitness and the demands of fashioning a hard, strong body. Here I suggest that the stripped-down life of military endurance offers something of a model of discipline and control. The view seems Stoic, but ancient Stoics view bodily health and vigor as indifferents, not valuable in their own right or fully within our control. Stoic doctrines force the questions of how we are to live with the fragility of our bodies, what efforts we are to put into their adornment and sculpture, and what attitudes we are to take when our bodies fail us
Indeed, my earlier post regarding Seneca outlined his view of constant exercise -eating, sweating, groaning- akin to that of a 'dyspeptic'. Seneca also insists one should not turn into a bookworm (does this contrast with Cerutty's ideas). Not all Stoics agreed with Seneca (note the plural of the 'doctrines'), but therein lies the danger of generalizing.

The gentleness I found empathized in the Stoic (Seneca) doctrine, even towards 'lowly' slaves, is almost diametrically opposed to the brute-force Spartan meritocracy. Stoics were certainly not to be found wrestling naked, searching for some physical ideal, nor killing their servants for sport. Was Cerutty accepting that these two distinct philosophies may co-exist?

Stoics did not deny the acceptance of good fortune... should it befall you. Hence if one is born rich, the money should be embraced and wisely utlilized, not shunned. I assume the same could be said for athletic talent. Conversely you are no less a person for lacking these attributes.  Most of what the Spartans did on a daily basis is lost to the sands of time. Given philosophy is often concerned with the (interesting) aspects of daily living, there is much leeway on the front of defining a Spartan 'philosophy'.

So does Cerutty pull it off the merger? It's a long quote, but here is Cerutty's definition of a Stotan, as quoted from Why Die? by Graem Sims (passage borrowed from here. Hopefully unaltered from the book...)
A Stotan is one who hardens, strengthens, toughens and beautifies the body by consistent habits and regular exercises, which are consciously and irrevocably made part of the life plan of the individual, as well as consciously determining that the mind will be cultivated upon such abstractions as purity, beauty and logic. Erudition, in as complete a degree as possible shall be the lifelong aim: Truth, in relation to all aspects of life, the unending search.

Stotans will, by virtue of their philosophy, be nature lovers, with a respect and appreciation of all evolved or created things. They will appreciate the sanctity of creative effort both in themselves and in others. They will strive to understand the significance implied by reality, will be able to discern the real from the spurious, and see no anomaly in nudity, either in body or mind. But neither will they cast pearls before swine.
I interrupt, but so far it seems he mostly on the side of the Spartans (nudity, beautifying the body, purity). Since Spartans liked not to read so much, this is where Stoicism fits in (erudition), though reading isn't a thing per se until you read something that improves your thinking. The truth is out there, but be warned some truths can still contradict each other, just like the following true sentence. The previous sentence is false. Damn you Godel. He continues,
Stotans, for all the reasons that their philosophy stands for (viz: hardness, toughness, unswerving devotion to an ideal), would look upon the sea (or mountains) as their pristine element and endeavour to associate themselves with their primeval source by immersing themselves at least once per month in all seasons of the year. No practice is disposed to toughen, both the body and the morale, more than this.

Stotans believe that neither the body nor the mind can be maintained at a high pitch of efficiency unless sufficient and regular rest is obtained, and aim at a daily average of of 8 hours sleep. Stotans, also, will not be found in social places after midnight. Stotans shall so regulate their lives that at the end of a period, varying with the intensity of effort, each shall realize that they have attained, without conscious striving, to a state of knowledge, and a position of leadership within the community. It is axiomatic that only the pure can understand purity, only the cultivated appreciate beauty, and only the strong truly measure their strength. Therefore, only the self-disciplined can command genuine respect.

Cerutty is about to go into a list of important Stotic traits. He already listed a few I agree with like sleeping for 8 hours (or do I...?), showing leadership skills, and the harshness of nature. Unfortunately these are not skills which can be claimed special to Stotanism. Regular sleep, just like regular eating habits, are more common sense than a philosophy. Philosophy should avoid the trivial. Does any advocate irregular sleep, a poor diet, mental ignorance, or loss of basic fitness? Axiomatic indeed.

A program shall be aimed at which shall be designed to [train each Stotan]:

(a)… to withstand physical hardship, to accomplish feats of strength and endurance, to understand orderliness, and the true meaning of intelligence.

(b) To know himself as an organism and a personality

(c) To emerge, eventually emancipated, from all dogmas, creeds, and beliefs, as well as worldly and unworldly hopes and fears.

(d) To habitually function upon the highest planes of thought and physical effort.

(e) To place the objective of an alert, informed intelligence, and a perfected body, as primary in Life. And to arrive at the conclusion that all else will follow on.

(f) To learn that on this basis, the whole world, and all that it has to offer, opens out as a vision, splendid, normal and realizable.

(g) To understand that Past, Futures, Fates, Fears, Death, Selfishness, Egoism, Pride, Envy, Hate and Prejudice can be replaced by Intelligence that controls emotion, dominates destiny, manifests completeness and exults in Life.

(h) To understand that, in actuality, evolved man is a King, but without the trappings. That Kingship is his right and his destiny. That we can make ourselves, in time, all that we would. That we honour real men but are subservient to none.

In addition, Stotans shall train themselves to withstand, stoically, personal criticism, also, scepticism as the necessity or wisdom of such a Way of Life. In this regard, Stotans soon learn that they command knowledge, experience and ability not available to the prejudiced, the ignorant or the slothful.

Also, having embarked upon the Stotan Way of Life, like the Spartans, one must go through with it to the end. There is no giving up throughout life. The first pre-requisite for a Stotan is tenacity. The next is to understand that his loyalties are towards making the most of the material that is his, to the expansion, or at least the manifestation of the Life Force, and a constant identification of himself with his Life Force through his Way of Life.

To live this Way of Life is hard. It is not for weaklings. It is the Way that is travelled by all the truly great ones. It requires strenuous effort of body and mind.
Cerutty writes as though on a pedestal, which ought to make these points sound very powerful when spoken, and it sounds like he was a convincing guy. The capitalization of words like King, Way of Life, Fears gives this a biblical tone, also the arbitrary divisions and the use of 'pearls before swine'. Like the bible, these passages are wide open to interpretation (Life Force? Know yourself as an organism? Highest planes of thought? Point (g) has me completely baffled). A later statement would make for uncomfortable occasions; referring to the 'weakling' comment, intelligent philosophies are not meant to be so exclusionary. He asks followers to be Stoic in withstanding criticism, but does that mean to also ignore advice from a non-Stotan? To sum up, he honors 'real men' and makes a specific comparison to the Spartans. His alliances are clear.

I have no conclusion, as there is never a conclusion to philosophy. Just constant practice and refinement, and this doctrine needs some more. It seems to me Cerutty was an inspirational figure but those nearest to him picked and chose what to listen to. Long, relaxed runs (watching the scenery pass by), practising on soft soil rather than a hard track or a road was likely his best advice. Hill runs were part of his method of training too. The rest to me looks like hubris.

There is no such thing as advice, only regrets (my quote).

One final point on embracing nature. I disagree that nature is always beautiful, just waiting there to 'test' us like some obstacle course. To be in tune with the outdoors of  nature means death-struggle to the bitter end. In most climates we cannot 'naturally' survive. Claiming a week-long camp trip is 'getting in touch with nature' is false. The most advanced sports equipment is purchased for expeditions into nature. The same people would likely refuse to spend a night on the streets of their own city, a comparatively safer environment than true wilderness. Living outdoors is still done by some African tribes but their weather is warmer yet still their death rate is uncomfortably high. People like having access to doctors and medicine.

From Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel regarding the attempted north-south crossing of Australia in the 19th century by the explorers Burke and Willis
Setting out with six camels packing food enough for three months, [they] ran out of provisions while in the desert north of Menindee...Despite their big advantage over the Aborigines in possessing guns with which to hunt, Burke and Willis starved, collapsed, and died within a month after the Aborigines departure.
Away from other people, the earth is a harsh mistress. Anecdotally, I read that some US marines sent off during the WWII pacific campaign expected to find a tropical paradise awaiting them. To their dismay they found island jungles themselves were hell on earth; constant rain, cholera, mosquitoes and mud (read Max Hasting's All Hell Let Loose). We run best in the elements, true, but to thrive, not just survive, we need a safe route, a comfy home and soft bed at the end of the day. Kenyans too.

Werner Herzog on jungle life, months into shooting Fitzcarraldo, a thousand miles from any major city:

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