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Belief in a “healthy mind, healthy body” is as relevant to twenty-first-century honors students as it was to their ancient counterparts. The ancient Greek athlete and the honors student-athlete both share the dedication and discipline needed to excel, and our culture still finds praiseworthy those who exhibit excellence in both mind and body. At the University of Nevada Las Vegas, the library is sponsoring a poster series promoting literacy by featuring student-athletes reading their favorite books. An honors college student athlete will be featured in the near future, a symbol of distinction somewhat akin to Myron’s Discobolos (Discus Thrower).
Yet we should examine the phrase in its literary context. The line comes from the Satires of the Roman poet Juvenal, known for his biting and bitter verses about the foibles and injustices of life during the Pax Romana. In his tenth Satire, Juvenal ponders the correct use of prayer—not for wealth, power, or revenge, but for a sound mind in a sound body (10.356). However, considering Juvenal’s cynical views, he might also be commenting on the rarity of a sound mind in a sound body. One thing is certain: Juvenal was not discussing the scholar-athlete.
Although mens sana in corpore sano is a Latin phrase, it evokes in our culture the Classical Greek ideal of the scholar-athlete. As the perfect combination of brains and brawn, the idealized image was held up for emulation by founders of the modern Olympics (Young, 22). Many in the nineteenth century considered the ancient Greek athlete with a mixture of awe and nostalgia, mistakenly viewing the Archaic and Classical ages of Greece as times of harmony between mind and body, when the gymnasium was a place to study philosophy and when Plato wrestled and competed at the games.