We begin with play. Two quite different models can be summoned to represent it. The first is offered by Heraclitus, and then embraced by Nietzsche centuries later.
“Lifetime (aiôn) is a child playing (pais paizôn) […] the kingdom is in the hands of a child.”
Oblivious to serious concerns, (young) children spontaneously move forward with no goal in mind. Unburdened by rules or structure, interested in whatever comes their way, laughing and fueled by imagination, immersed in the present and free from regret or anxiety, children just play. As such, the pais paizôn exemplifies the Heraclitean worldview, one which is bereft of stable purpose or configuration, and which is best imaged by the flow of a river into which no one can step twice. Nietzsche explains:
“In this world only play, play as artists and children engage in it, exhibits coming-to be and passing away, structuring and destroying, without any moral additive, in forever equal innocence.”
At play, aiming to achieve nothing (“innocent”), the child symbolizes a world in which there is no stable reality, no being, no telos… only becoming. Nietzsche elaborates on Heraclitus’ behalf:
“I see nothing other than Becoming. Be not deceived. It is the fault of your myopia, not of the nature of things, if you believe you see land somewhere in the ocean of coming-to-be and passing away. You use names for things as though they rigidly, persistently endured; yet even the stream into which you step a second time is not the one you stepped into before.”
Nietzsche acknowledges that this essential Heraclitean thought – everything flows, nothing, not even the dear self, abides – can lead to despair.
“The everlasting and exclusive coming-to-be […] which constantly acts and comes-to-be but never is […] is a terrible, paralyzing thought. Its impact on men can most nearly be likened to the sensation during an earthquake when one’s loses one’s familiar confidence in a firmly grounded earth.”
Nonetheless, it is possible, he thinks, to transform the potentially paralyzing thought of radical becoming “into its opposite, into sublimity and the feeling of blessed astonishment.” And this is precisely what the pais paizôn does. Amazed by the world, active and alive, released from the burden of a formulated life plan, the child just plays. No surprise, then, that the first of Zarathustra’s speeches begins thus:
“Of three metamorphoses of the spirit I tell you: how the spirit becomes a camel; and the camel, a lion; and the lion, finally, a child.”
After bearing the burdens of its own culture (camel), and then destroying the values that structure it (lion), the spirit reaches its greatest height.
“But say, my brothers, what can the child do that even the lion could not do? Why must the preying lion still become a child? The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a play (ein Spiel), a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred ‘Yes.’”
For Nietzsche, then, the pais paizôn represents both Heraclitean Becoming as well as the most affirmative human response to Becoming. Insofar as the child is counted as paradigmatically playful, this is the worldview lurking behind it.
The second paradigm is the adult at play. Typically this means playing games tightly structured by rules, which in turn establish precisely what is missing in the play of a child: an end, goal or telos. Athletes, for example, compete for a prize and so strive to win. To do so they must play by the rules. In basketball two points are awarded when the ball goes through the hoop, and players are not allowed to use their feet to kick the ball. In football one point is given when the ball goes into the goal, and players are not allowed to handle the ball. (By contrast, a child with a ball feels free to use hands or feet or nose to move it.) Such games have strict spatial and temporal boundaries. A basketball game lasts for 48 minutes and its court is 94 feet long and 50 feet wide. Such constraints are required in order for the game to take place. For they establish what counts as victory, and thereby make it possible for the athletes to compete against each other.
The temporal and spatial limitations of an athletic competition are artificial, and they create a play-world whose meaning is entirely insular. A basketball hoop is placed precisely 10 feet above the floor. While it could not be 100 feet, since that would be beyond the capacity of a player to reach it, it could just as well be 9 or 11. A football game lasts 90 minutes. It could not last 900, for this would be beyond human endurance. But it could be 85. In short, the rules of a game, and therefore the telos they constitute, are not only artificial but (relatively) arbitrary. They generate a self-contained space in which certain physical movements are allowed and others are forbidden. As a result, a game can look absurd to an external observer. Why should grown men and women strive so intensely to put a ball through a hoop that just happens to be 10 feet above the floor? Why shouldn’t they be allowed to kick it? Why should they care so much about scoring more points than their opponents after exactly 48 minutes of play? After all, doing so has no meaning or value outside of the strictly conventional, and radically temporary, arena in which the athlete competes.
For this reason, the overwhelming majority of athletes – those who are “amateurs” (from the Latin amare) and play neither for riches nor fame but simply for “love” of the game – quickly forget the results of a competition. And this discloses the extraordinary feature of athletic play. Within the confined space and time of the play-world, athletes – from the Greek athlon, “prize” – struggle passionately. They “agonize” – from the Greek agôn, “contest” – for they are entirely concentrated on winning. In this sense, they are serious. But the telos of their sometimes furious activity is not serious. Putting a ball through a hoop that just happens to be 10 feet above the floor has no significance outside of the enclosures of the play-world. For this reason, then, taking it seriously is absurd. And yet taking it seriously, at least while they are playing, is precisely what athletes must do. In short, this second paradigm is a blend of seriousness and play. And the result is precarious. The temptation to take the game too seriously – to cheat or hurt the opponent, or to risk injury to oneself – is ever present. After all, victory is the telos. So too may the athlete be tempted to dismiss the outcome as meaningless and so unworthy of concentrated effort. After all, victory is determined by an arbitrary conglomeration of rules. But the athlete who does not try to win is not really playing the game. For the goal is victory and so the athlete, however unserious the goal may actually be, must seriously compete.
The following sections of this paper will argue for this thesis: for Plato the athlete, not the child, is the paradigm of play. And this he valorizes. Indeed, for Plato serious play is the model of human beings at their best. By contrast, Aristotle is dismissive of play in either of its paradigmatic manifestations.