Try balancing romantic understanding with classic understanding

Vegeta Romantic and Classic on Anthony Mychal

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig talks about the divide between romantic understanding and classic understanding.

Romantic understanding

The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. “Art” when it is opposed to “Science” is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience. In the northern European cultures the romantic mode is usually associated with femininity, but this is certainly not a necessary association.

Classic understanding

The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws-which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behavior. In the European cultures it is primarily a masculine mode and the fields of science, law and medicine are unattractive to women largely for this reason. Although motorcycle riding is romantic, motorcycle maintenance is purely classic. The dirt, the grease, the mastery of underlying form required all give it such a negative romantic appeal that women never go near it.

My interpretation goes…

  • Romantic = feelings, meaning, art—an aesthetic mind.
  • Classic = math, science, facts—a technical mind.

The body world is dominated by classic feedback.  Counting calories. Weighing food. Number of sets. Number of reps. Total weight lifted. Percentages. Macros.

Where’s the romantic? How did the lift feel? Are you mentally locked into training? Are you actually appreciating and tasting your food, or are you eating while watching TV? Are you artfully crafting your dinner plate?

You can’t appreciate the body through a numerical lens. You’ll never see the mystical beauty of your pink, squishy, nasty guts and the magic fat loss, muscle building, and performance spells they cast.

And most people don’t have the appreciation.

We don’t understand how lucky we are to have a vessel filled with such vim at our fingertips.

Instead of trying to get people to see their body’s beauty both inside and out, we feed people the idea they're just another number.

Eat this many calories. Do this many sets, this many reps. Numbers, numbers, numbers. Your Power Level is less than 9000…!!

So take a second and step back from your classically dominated life. What are you missing by seeing everything as just another game of numbers?

A blend is probably best.

  • A mathematician that appreciates the beauty in numbers.
  • An artist that appreciates precision in geometry.
  • A philosopher that uses the pursuit of Good and True as a trampoline for new ideas.

But maybe valuing the aesthetics of things can solve problems…? Because, unless you come from a martial arts background, you're probably up to your eyeballs in classic understanding.

Maybe the obesity problem is easier solved with romantic feedback? Maybe people would eat a 500 calorie meal over a 1000 calorie meal if the 500 calorie meal was presented better? Because people do value food presentation…a lot. Just like they value how expensive they perceive a food to be.

The list of these unconscious psychological food triggers is long, and I probably shouldn’t be using the word “people.” I’m not above the law. (If this stuff interests you, check out Mindless Eating.)

I dare you to spend a week in romantic land. Present your food on special plates with garnishes. Have someone load the plates on the barbell for you so that you don’t know how much you’re lifting.

Charlie Francis, Olympic sprint coach, used to say something along the lines of looks right, flies right. If something being done looks athletic, it’s probably going to make you athletic.

What are the aesthetics of food? With other types of training?

It’s worth considering.

And maybe, with that consideration, misery will turn into miracle.

Maybe the idea of getting fat will be praised instead of vilified. Because it’s a special ability. Humans have the unconscious smarts to say “This is important…but I don’t need it now. Later…I’ll save it for later.”

And we don't even have to Level Up for this. It's stock.

To be in charge of something that powerful?

And living in a time, place,  and culture that allows you to think about these things in your free time?

Now that’s a gift.

What are you going to do with it?

Trying to lose fat, build muscle, and build a body you’re proud of?

Maybe you’re a little lost right now.

Maybe you don’t have much motivation.

Maybe you don’t what program or diet to use.

I don’t know…

But what I do know is this:

Everything you need is inside of you.

You’re capable of more than know.

You just have to open your eyes.

My weekly column can help.

Just a small little honest note from me sent every Sunday.

Unless I’m hungover.

And then it comes Monday.

What I’m trying to say is that it’ll come Monday.

(These weekly columns don’t get posted to the site.)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ash October 16, 2014, 4:32 am

    Hi Ant,

    I love your geeky take on fitness, nutrition and philosophy. Like you I’m a compulsive reader, and tend to start many books or essays (mostly no-fiction, but with notable exceptions), before finishing what I’m currently reading.

    To be very brief, I think the aesthetic aspect in the process of ‘knowing’ (epistemology), has been long overlooked and disregarded in modern living, roughly congruous with industrialisation; when science and technology became largely one and the same, while simultaneously co-opted by our economic imperatives. And constituting the driving idea of ‘progress’ as the chief means of fulfillment of our ‘future’. Advertising is full of promises about an imagined future better than today, continually, without stopping to understand the conditions that are in play, now. Progress is the catch cry, but generally speaking, few people question what that actually means or is.

    It is a fact that our bodies live in constant sensory and on-going contact with the world, and in a constant, unceasing, process of inward/outward exchange with its environment. The visible boundaries that we take to be absolute, are nothing of the sort. The ‘percept’ in scientific discourse at large is treated as if we are not part of the picture; the body as total abstraction. It is an aesthetic ‘sense’ (that need not be ‘relative’, indeed it can overcome the subjective obstacles in our current methods of objective reasoning), that provides the insight and means to properly understand our relationship to the world and others.

    Including, very importantly, our food and eating habits as they largely stand in the world today, fostered as it has been by 20th century market forces and industrial imperatives.

    • Anthony October 16, 2014, 5:57 pm

      A lot of habits come from the same. What we silently interpret as good/bad rewarding/punishing comfortable/uncomfortable — it’s the big question of how much free will do we actually have?

  • Ash October 17, 2014, 6:41 am

    As I’m sure you appreciate, this is a very big and contentious question. And I also appreciate the point you’re making by posing it; the points you draw from Mindless Eating, are definitely informative, and tell us an answer of sorts: not very much, if any!

    I would guesstimate that currently in modern philosophical discourse, arguments against free will hold sway, especially given the strong emphasis on physicalism etc. Without laying out a treatise or anything, this is not my view. We have free will, that it lies at the very core of our nature, but we don’t exercise it by default. It is something won, bit by bit, through self-development, examination and awareness, disentangling layers of external influence that would normally shape our habits of acting and thinking, from the social and personal psychological domains, and also constrained by our physical-sensory limitations.

    Anyway, I think you make a very important point here, that it’s not just numbers and figures; an aesthetic (romantic) element is equally important (if not, more important in the sense that as a ‘sense’ it has the capacity to intimately guide how we apply facts and figures).

    Thanks again Ant for your work, it’s definitely helped me with my training!

    Best regards,


    • Anthony October 25, 2014, 3:15 pm

      The idea of questioning free will is a deep one, but the examples given don’t really show the deep side of the argument that can be made. Females rooming together in a sorority end up calibrating their menstrual cycle AROUND the dominant female, etc…

      And you can even ask: do you really have free will if you don’t exercise it by default? Is it like muscle strength? Something that can be GAINED with training, but not something that just magically appears? And if that’s the case, are you really “born” with IT or merely the capacity to adopt it? And if that’s the case, is it really FREE?

      But the former, the evolutionary biology examples, run amok and are interesting. I suggest looking into them. They’ll make you QUESTION things, and that’s the important part, methinks.

  • ash October 29, 2014, 9:18 am

    Hi Ant,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Awesome. Like before, I don’t want to lay down a treatise (and that’s not to imply some complete and static view on my part), and in fact a lot of this is what I’m currently milling over as possible directions for post-grad study in philosophy. But, the questions you pose are doozies; excellent grist for the mill. And yes, totally with you on questioning… finding the right questions is as important, more so, than the answers they may yield. Dare I say it is an art, involving a degree of the aesthetic (romantic)? No concept or ‘thing’ stands alone, in isolation, without *relations* that make them just so. By their very presence, they continually imply something further…..

    Another ‘related’ question: Can we say definitively, that the universe does not allow novelty?

    On a different note, this mixture of the contemplative, rational, and experiential exploration of the body and its responses to nutrition and training (whatever that training or nutrition may be), to me, is a bit like a 21st century form of alchemy. Looking forward to more of you comments and observations from the bleeding edge 🙂

    Best regards,


    • Anthony November 5, 2014, 12:46 am

      Funny you mention the word alchemy. Was one I was going to use a long time ago.

      As for the novelty bit: you have me here. It’s not something I’ve thought about much.

  • Tracy April 22, 2015, 1:28 pm

    Just found your site via Nerd Fitness, and have been devouring your stuff. Love it.

    Small nitpick – women living together don’t sync their menstrual cycles. It’s a very romantic myth (rah-rah-ovarian-sisterhood), but it is a myth, based on some highly criticized studies that have not been replicated since. Chance dictates that some women’s cycles will overlap at some point, but there’s no actual syncing up, even among married lesbian couples.

    Now that’s out of the way, I really appreciate this. It’s so easy to be sucked in to the classical understanding with weight training, and forget about the romantic/mindfulness aspect. This was a good reminder to me to pay attention to more than just how much weight I added this session, and focus on more than getting to a goal in my tracking spreadsheet.

    And I had to laugh, because as much as I enjoyed Persig’s book, his little bursts of sexism really pissed me off: Romantic understanding is associated with femininity but no no, it doesn’t have to be, men have it too and it’s good and right; classical understanding is associated with masculinity, and it so totes is just for us guys & that’s why women don’t become doctors and hate icky greasy stuff. Just so. 😉

    • Anthony April 25, 2015, 2:48 pm

      Yeah, I got Martha McClintocked.

      It’s easy to criticize. But the book was PUBLISHED in the 70’s. He grew up in an entirely different world with entirely different opinions. T