8 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 31

Ancient & modern

What should men pray for? The Roman satirist Juvenal (writing c. Al) 120) famously answered mens sana in copore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body'. One wonders what he would have made of today's men and women in search of the corpus sanum, lurching along the fumefilled roadsides in their huge fluorescent trainers, chatting earnestly into the bottles of water clenched to their ears. Good health, largely a matter of pot luck in the ancient world, was very highly valued. If you survived birth, childhood and disease and could enjoy a respectable diet, you could count yourself pretty fortunate. In such a world anything that could do you good was to be recommended, and exercise was high on doctors' priorities. The Roman doctor Celsus (1st century AD), for example, divided the population into the weak (the large portion of townspeople and almost all who are fond of literature') and those who were healthy, vigorous and their own master. The former group should take care not to overexert themselves, but should take some light exercise, 'enough to make them sweat'. The latter need be under no rules, but should aim to lead a varied life in town, country and farm, with a little sailing and hunting thrown in.

The philosopher-millionaire Seneca (AD 1-65), one-time adviser to Nero, did not deny the value of exercise, but argued that without mental health the body 'though very powerful, is strong only as that of a madman or lunatic is strong'. Fitness fanatics unfitted themselves for real study, dulled the edge of their sensibilities and (worst of all) had to take orders from ghastly fitness-trainers, whose high ambition in life was sweating and drinking. But the mind required training day and night, though a change now and again — a little walking or riding—was beneficial. We should limit the flesh and give free rein to the spirit, Seneca says. Our aim should be a self-contained, self-confident mind, which disdains everything that the mob prays for or Fortune can bestow, and seeks true, lasting happiness. This, unlike physical health, which is always liable to relapse, will not fail: 'the mind, once healthy, is healthy for good and all'.

One wonders what Juvenal would say today, as he viewed a (by his standards) incredibly long-lived, healthy and wellfed population, with an NHS on stand-by to cater to the slightest physical disability. As he looked at all the perfectly healthy lunatics pointlessly pounding the pavements, he would surely conclude that the greater the desire for a healthy body, the less healthy the mind.

Peter Jones