Yesterday on my ride I experienced one of those existential moments - when I rode to a junction which gave me a choice of a long hard route or a shorter easier route, and didn’t know which way I’d choose until I actually turned. And being of a philosophical disposition (read “pretentious”) I got to thinking about philosophy and the art of unicycling…
Definitely, it’s an existentialist sport, because it constantly puts the rider in the position of making decisions, and living withthe consequences of those decisions. Will you go the long way or the short way, the hard way or the easy way, the new way or the well known way? Have you bitten off more than you can chew? Will your legs hold out? You’re committed to the descent… but was it a mistake? Will I attempt this drop? This is existential angst at the cutting edge.
Sartre said that you are your own project in the world; you are the sum of your decisions and actions, and we could say the same of the unicyclist during one particular ride, or in terms of a career which might develop into one of the various disciplines. My decision to take up unicycling ‘seriously’ was totally unexpected; I was looking on the internet for folding bicycles, when I followed a link. ‘Fate’ presented me with the stimulus, but the decision was mine - and I’ve surprised myself.
But there’s more to philosophy than all that French stuff.
Plato argued that everything has a ‘form’ - that a single perfect example of every item exists in ‘heaven’, or in the mind of God, and that all the things we see on earth are imperfect copies. That is why we have many different items we call ‘tables’ or ‘chairs’. They are different from each other, but they share something of the ‘form’ of the ideal table or chair in heaven.
Well, what are freestyle, MUNi, or trials if not attempts to get as near as possible to that perfect idea of what riding a unicycle should be? The perfect ride involves a smooth and controlled mount, a swift and balanced journey without hesitation or wobble, and no UPDs. The perfect jump takes off ‘just so’ and lands perfectly balanced. We never achieve that perfection, but it is the idea of a perfect freemount, a ride, a jump, a stunt, that we strive to emulate. Without the idea of a perfect side mount, I could never have set out to learn the sidemount. My sidemount isn’t perfect, but it is as close to that ideal as I can achieve.
And the Stoics? Surely unicyclists are Stoics? Seneca argued that the wise man enjoys what he has, but his happiness does not depend on it. The wise man can lose things that other men might value, yet remain contented, and self contained, and balanced in himself. Which must be why the unwise are so eager to point out that we’ve lost our back wheels, or handlebars, or crossbars, but we smile serenely, and continue, self contained, content with the remaining wheel and seat, and balanced in ourselves.
Their rivals were the Epicureans, who believed that the pleasure is the ultimate good. However ‘eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ is an unfair simplification, because they believed in the pursuit of pleasure through more worthy means. And remember the old man and lady who asked me why I rode, was it ‘just for fun’? Well, unicycling is something we do ‘just for fun’ - there is no doubt of that, but it can only be fun if we put the effort in,make the sacrifice of time, and mental and physical energy, to develop the skills and stamina we need. Unicycling is the pursuit of pleasure through self improvement: improvement of skill, strength, fitness, and the pleasure of sharing those skills and teaching others. We are Epicureans.
Finally, my signature line, which is a genuine quotation, shows that even Master Kong (Confucius is a Latinization of his name) was a unicyclist in his spare time.