The Virtues Acquired Through Physical Training

Dear Reader,

In a previous post, I discussed why Charlotte Mason, in her third book, says that children need physical training. The short answer is that they need to be able to do whatever God calls them to and also that physical discipline should carry over into discipline in other areas of life. Last time, I stuck to the idea behind it all. This time I would like to look at the specific characteristics that Charlotte sees arising from physical training. They are: subjection to authority, self-restraint, self-control in emergencies, self-discipline, including self-discipline in bodily habits, alertness, quick perception, stimulating ideas, fortitude, courage, service, prudence and chastity. It is quite a list, isn’t it? Hard to believe that all that could come from something like a PE class. (Of course, in reality, one probably needs something more rigorous and regular than most PE classes to get this kind of training; think instead of the kind of preparation and practice it takes to run a marathon or to compete in a demanding sport.)

Because we do have such a long list of habits to consider, I am going to go through these pretty quickly:

Subjection to authority — Charlotte says of this:

“It is well that a child should be taught to keep under his body and bring it into subjection, first, to the authority of his parents and, later, to the authority of his own will; and always, because no less than this is due, to the divine Authority.” (p. 104)

Imagine a football player and how he accedes to the will of his coach in training, even when it is hard, even when he thinks it is beyond his limits. The idea is that if he can submit himself in this way to authority in one area of life, he will more easily do so in other areas, submitting himself to his parents and his God. It is about not letting one’s desires run wild but about being able to tame and control them.

Self-restraint — Charlotte here seems to be talking about not indulging. The child who flops down in front of a TV and eats Cheetos all afternoon would be the antithesis of what she expects. She even cautions against “lounging in an arm-chair with a novel in the intervals between engagements which are, in fact, amusements” (p. 105) though I think most of us would view novel-reading as a good use of time. (I wonder if the “novel” of Charlotte’s day is not the living book we imagine but more like what we would call “trashy novels” or even “beach reading” today; anyone have any insight on this?)

Self-control in emergencies — Did you ever see Gone with the Wind? Do you remember when Melanie was giving birth and the slave girl completely freaks out an screams and is useless? I always hated her in that scene; I want to slap her silly whenever I see it. I do think there is a lot of value in teaching kids to tough it out and not get squeamish about every little thing. We have never put up with scaredy cats at vaccine time around here (it helps that my one daughter has type 1 diabetes and gets multiple shots a day). I think parents set a lot of the tone for such things. I wish I had been more like other parents I now see that when their toddler falls just say, “You’re okay, get up” instead of being sympathetic and thereby encouraging whininess. I like this quote from Charlotte as well:

“‘If you are vexed, don’t show it,’ is usually quite safe teaching, because every kind of fretfulness, impatience, resentfulness, nervous irritability generally, grows with expression and passes away under self-control. It is worth while to remember that the physical signs promote mental state just as much as the mental state causes the physical signs.” (p. 105)

Sometimes just pretending you are tough can make you tough and get you through the rough times.

Self-discipline and self-discipline in bodily habits — Charlotte includes here things like not being messy or clumsy, being neat and prompt, and even using polite manners. Really if one can force oneself to do 30 push ups (or 3 for some of us), why cannot one also have the discipline to watch one’s elbows and not spill or to make one’s bed every day?

Alertness — Charlotte speaks here of being alert in particular to the opportunities to help others, to open a  door or carry a parcel and other such things.

Quick Perception — This is similar but is more about noticing details as one goes through one’s day. I admit for some of these I don’t particularly see how physical training aids in their development but Charlotte seems to be delving into habit training in a more general way. There is still a connection between habit training and physical training.

Stimulating ideas — This is not a habit itself but the observation that a “habit becomes morally binding in proportion to the inspiring power of the idea which underlies it” (p. 110). In other words, a habit based on an idea is much more powerful and lasting than a mere habit which comes from repetition only without a reason behind it.

Fortitude — Here again we are on something where I can see a clear connection to physical discipline. Certainly to play a foot ball game or to run a race requires this. Charlotte speaks of the “amazing amount of steady effort” (p. 110) which a boy can exert in a game or sport and connects this to the fortitude he may need to sit through a visit to the dentist.

Courage and service — Charlotte herself has not much to say on these and I think they rather speak for themselves. Suffice it to say that service is the service we render unto others for which alertness makes us ready.

Prudence — Charlotte says that “courage without prudence is recklessness” (p. 111). She speaks mostly here of hygiene, that is, the wise or prudent care of one’s body. I imagine the line of thought is that if I need to be in peak shape to perform physically, I must care for my body as best as I can in terms of cleansing it, not allowing infections and the like to develop.

Chastity — Even modern studies have noted that girls who play sports are more like to remain chaste. For girls at least, using one’s body seems to lead to respecting one’s body and not wasting it in immoral ways. I wonder if there are similar studies on boys since it seems the stereotype is that athletes can take whatever they like, including females.

Those are the particular virtues and habits which Charlotte here connects to physical training. I think I have one more post in me on this section in which I will discuss what makes a hero and who our heroes are.

Until next time


4 responses to this post.

  1. Such sound explanations – which all strengthen my resolve to maintain and introduce new good habits in our lives at homeschool.


  2. I think it depends upon the P.E. teacher. I had a terrible P.E. teacher in junior high and wasn’t at all motivated by her. I had a fabulous P.E. teacher in high school. He graded us by daily effort (to get an A for the day we had to run 2 miles and do X number of a couple of calisthenics) and by improvement from the beginning to the middle to the end of the school year. Even the “non-athletes” could earn an A. He also started a 100 mile club and a 200 mile club for running. It was one of my proudest days when my sister and I sneaked ahead of the hares in our school over a three day weekend, running 8 miles a day in the face of a heavy snowfall, so that we could be the first to earn the golden 200 mile T-shirt before the jocks. Instead of humiliating the non-athletic, he inspired us to achieve beyond what we thought we could ever achieve.


    • I completely agree that not all PE teachers or classes are going to be what they should or could be. Personally, I always hated PE so it feels kind of funny to post in favor of it. I do tend to think that pursuing some particular goal, perhaps preparing for a race or a competition in something, is likely to build the kind of perseverence and character more than a general class. It sounds like your high school teacher did a great job of motivating you all though.


  3. […] reminds me actually of some of the topics that came up when we discussed the “unconsidered aspects of physical training.” Charlotte had said in that section that physical training makes heroes, but we saw that too often […]


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