Recently a discussion emerged on the interwebs about the possibility that Paul Robinson had renamed a Fred Nicole problem in Rocklands South Africa. Originally called Black Eagle, Paul had appeared to propose the new name "Bleagle" to reflect the new status of the problem, on which crucial holds had broken. Among the most vocal critics of this step was Jamie Emerson who asked hypothetically what exactly constituted a boulder problem and by association, who had the right to define and name it. Shortly afterward, Paul explained that no he hadn't renamed it and the affair died down, as these things do. But the more interesting question came earlier in Jamie's blog, " So how are we to understand our sport if we haven’t or don’t define what it is exactly that we are doing? I would argue that we have, in some sense, but this is so rarely discussed that I thought it would be interesting to do so here."
Now to me the renaming controversy was not interesting per se, and defining starts, sequences, etc. has merit but ultimately threatens to sink into arbitrary positions that beg for contradiction.But the topic did awaken a question regarding purpose in climbing. The question is, in its essence, what are we doing when we try to climb something? On the surface this seems idiotic to ask at all, a kind of question that only a philosopher could ask, yet in some ways the fact that such a question seems ridiculous applies perfectly to a ridiculous game like bouldering or climbing in general. In other words, by climbing we are arguing that climbing seeks to achieve something. What, we might ask ourselves, is it exactly and what actions are justified in the process?
The philosopher Aristotle proposes in the Nicomachean Ethics that all human actions aim at some good, and that the ultimate purpose of human effort is ultimately a state of flourishing, called eudaimonia in Greek. I tend to agree with Aristotle's vision of human purpose and find it helpful in understanding the general drift of human behavior. So what state of flourishing is fostered by climbing? Well some might argue that physical exercise is the benefit, that a "good workout" is a good reason to boulder or climb. Others might argue that we climb to seek new challenges or push the boundaries of the possible. A few might do it as a career. Aristotle rightly asks, "And then what?" What are the purposes of exercise, or money, or the belief in progression of difficulty? What problem is being solved by these actions? Again the idea of flourishing emerges, that we aim for some state of happiness that humans are destined for by their nature. A closer look at the idea of flourishing reveals a preoccupation with qualities perhaps best summed up under the terms reason and virtue. For Aristotle, humans flourish when they develop virtue in conjunction with their unique human ability to reason. So to Aristotle, climbing would have no important purpose if it did not foster human excellence through the exercise of reason and the development of virtue. And I think most climbers would, if pressed on the issue, tend to support the idea that climbing, as opposed to say, stealing cars, is relatively virtuous. It relies upon character traits (virtues) such as courage, prudence, generosity, honesty, etc. Physical and mental health seem to stem from the activity for many. So far so good.
Yet I think there is something deeper, and Aristotle points at this as well. He argues that the highest form of living is ultimately that of contemplation, of the exercise of reason in understanding the world, and that ultimately all other modes of existence are incomplete. Now climbing seems far removed from such high-minded ideals but I would argue otherwise. In other words, climbing asks of its participants to participate in a game that continually forces the habit of asking "What is the right thing to do?" This can be in the form of problem solving, as in how to do a move. It can also be in the situation of getting out of danger safely. And it can be in the form of acting ethically toward the environment and one's fellow climbers. At every turn, whether the climber recognizes it or not, the opportunity arises to consider one's actions and whether they result in virtue and flourishing or the opposite. And the most interesting part is that the game is not merely a game in the end, it is real in terms of the ultimate effects on the players.
So for instance, claiming an ascent that one has not actually done results not in happiness but uncertainty in one's own ability and suspicion that others may know the truth. Chipping holds implies not exercising the virtue of prudence and courage in admitting one's limits. And so on. What is interesting about Aristotle in this discussion is that he is relatively flexible, admitting that we all find our way to virtue individually, according to our abilities and situation in life. Using the virtues as guides, we aim for appropriate responses to challenges in life. Thus we learn by doing and in doing we develop our ethical and reasoning capacities.
For me, climbing is a marvelous way to move in the world, to discover things about the world, to discover new questions about the world, especially questions about myself and my understanding of the world. The actual minutiae, as in bouldering,, whether one has dabbed on a problem, or started on the "wrong" holds, or stashed pads, all point to a bigger issue (or problem, if you will), namely have I become a better person through my thoughts and actions? And as in climbing itself, the process is a slow one, marked by errors, retreats, and uncertainty, but always with the hope of genuine understanding as the ultimate end.