Monday, March 17, 2008

The Pursuit of Excellence

The other day, when I shared a comment made by Lewis Lapham about steroids in baseball, it seems a couple of people took him (and me) seriously. I don't think Lapham was advocating a complete surrender of rules, but merely mocking our society's double (and triple) standards about better living through chemistry. I believe the idea of just letting the drug culture take root in professional sports is a terrible one. In the latest issue of The New Republic, Leon R. Kass and Eric Cohen contribute a long essay about "the adulteration of American sports." It's too solemn by half, perhaps, but I think they're essentially right, and I thought I'd share two passages I liked:
In athletics, as in so many other human activities, superior performance is generally attained through training and practice. One gets to run faster by running; one builds up endurance by enduring; one increases one's strength by using it on ever-increasing burdens. Likewise with the complex specific skills of the game--hitting, fielding, and throwing the baseball. The capacity to be improved is improved by using it; the deed to be perfected is perfected by doing it. In many cases, of course, no amount of practice can overcome one's limited natural endowments: nature dispenses her unequal gifts with little regard for any abstract principle of "fairness." Yet however mysterious the source and the distribution of each person's natural potential, the individual's cultivation of his natural endowments is intelligible. As agents and as spectators, we can understand the connection between effort and improvement, between activity and experience, between work and result. We appreciate self-achieved excellence because it flows from and manifests the presence of an active, excellence-seeking self.
A game comprises more than competing moves calculated for, or justified solely, by the result. Consider the best human chess player playing against a chess-playing computer--an outstanding human being facing off against an outstanding human artifact. Are man and machine really "playing chess"? On one level, they are indeed playing the same game, making intelligible moves according to the same rules. Yet the computer "plays" the game rather differently--with no uncertainty, no nervousness, no sweaty palms, no active mind, and, most crucially, with no desires or hopes regarding future success. The computer's way of "playing" is really a kind of simulation--the product of genuine human achievement, to be sure, but not the real thing: playing chess. By building computers that "play" perfect chess, we change the meaning of the activity itself, reorienting the very character of our aspiration from becoming great chess players to producing the best-executed game of chess.


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