I am not a gym-bunny. I am probably the opposite of a gym-bunny. A sofa-slug, rather. Likewise, philosophy and I have never really seen inner eye to inner eye. To begin with, I’m okay with it, searching for the meaning of life et al, but then I get so overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities of Why We Are Here and the general impossibility of finding a satisfactory answer that I tend to give up completely and go eat a doughnut. So, naturally, when I came across Diego Melero’s class on ‘Filosofía Política en el Gimnasio’ (Political Philosophy in the Gymnasium) at cultural centre Belleza y Felicidad, I laughed out loud. What would come next? Ice skating and quantum mechanics? Learn Chinese as you walk the dog? Nothing could have been further from my idea of fun, or indeed, sanity. Melero too must have anticipated responses like mine, as he includes on the announcement ‘No es una broma’ (‘This is not a joke’).
Belleza y Felicidad is a small cultural centre on the corner of Fransisco Acuña de Figueroa y Guardia Vieja. The sign is faded, and the windows need cleaning, but inside is colourful and full of interesting knick-knacks. In the main sala there are music shows, poetry readings, birthday parties, celebrations. An artistic library takes up one wall, while a small gallery at the back hosts an exhibit dedicated to the artist Feliciano Centurión. Melero’s class takes place in the downstairs room, where one wall is covered with a rather beautiful mural based around a tree carved from the cracked plaster.
Melero, 47, is a sociology graduate, who has also studied art and design. Today he defines himself as artist, sociologist and part time personal trainer. He gives classes on sociology that concentrate on its connection to contemporary art, and has always been interested in the balance between the two disciplines – ‘exercising the corporal muscles along with the cerebral’.
The title is inspired by the Marquis de Sade’s ‘La Philosophie dans le Boudoir’, and is part of a set of discussion series that Melero has been running since 2002: previous series include ‘Té político’ (Political Tea) and ‘Chocolate Sociológico’ (Sociological Chocolate). ‘La filosofía política en el gimnasio’ has been running since April of this year, and has a core of five students who
come to the classes every week. Every month they choose a different philosopher to read and talk about during the class; they started with a reading of Plato’s ‘Republic’ and then moved on to Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’. At the moment they are reading Marx-Engel’s ‘Communist Party Manifesto’, concentrating on the rise of the social classes and economic philosophy.
The class starts with calf lifts, and as we feel the burn, Melero brings up the subject of the Turkish threats to attack the Kurdish rebels. He likes to base the discussions in the class on everyday topics, to take the broader ideas of political and economic philosophy and apply them to everyday life. He and his students discuss the newspapers and then bring in the ideas from the readings they have been doing. This is useful, especially for beginners, who might not have such a firm grasp on the texts as the other students. Still ever so slightly peculiar to be doing arm raises while chatting about Cristina’s inevitable rise to power, but at least slightly less vapid than discussing soap operas while half-heartedly ‘jogging’ on a treadmill.
We used weights made of water bottles – deceptively heavy, I’ll have you know, press-ups for the chest muscles and the triceps, and leg lifts. Melero occasionally combines the weight exercises with a quick run around the block. Mercifully he chose not to do that on the day that I went – this sofa-slug is not a runner, no way, no how.
Melero prefers to use classical music to accompany his classes. He finds that many of his students have difficulty with technique and less frenetic music helps them to concentrate on this aspect. Indeed, I found the soft strains of Bach a rather lovely, if slightly incongruous, accompaniment to my third round of press-ups. He is a good teacher, always checking that his students are exercising correctly and offering plenty of encouragement; I’ll admit I found his Spanish a little fast at first but once asked to slow down slightly it was much easier.
At this point, a word of warning. If you are not up to scratch with Spanish, this may not be the class for you. Exercise-wise, it is perfectly do-able, even for a committed sofa-slug like myself; and even those of an intermediate level of Spanish will find the class accessible, but concentration is needed. Try to read a newspaper before you go, so you are aware at least of something other than Argentina’s performance in the rugby world cup. I found the class accessible, even for someone with relatively limited Spanish ‘philosophical’ vocabulary, like myself.
For all my original shirking, the concept is not as random as it sounds. For the ancient Greeks, the gymnasium was not just a place to develop the bodily muscles, athletes had to study mathematics and philosophy as well. Melero has a point – a healthy body does mean a healthy mind – how many times have you felt intellectually sluggish at the same time that you feel none-too-perfect physically? Many people find a quick run, a bit of swimming, or simply a walk round the block can help clear the head, release endorphins and ready the mind for more stimulating activity.
Ezequiel Romero, 34, is a writer and artist who regularly attends the classes. He appreciates the chance he gets to combine intellectual activity with physical. He says that since he started attending the classes in April “I’ve found a power that I’ve never known before… it’s more than a class for me, it’s a process. The power of the body aligned with a power of thought.” He started the classes when he quit smoking and wanted to “change my view of the world”.
I confess I am inclined to think there is something ever so slightly indulgent about sitting around discussing philosophy when there is money to be earned, food to be put on the table, wars to be fought. This class at least maintains some sort of balance. Maybe you’re not saving the world while you work your glutes, but you’re doing something proactive, indeed, active, while becoming more aware of the world and the way it works. Exercise for the body and mind? You betcha.