On the Meaning of “The Disinterested Spectator”

The ancient Greek sage Pythagoras of Samos — credited with coining the term ‘philosophy’, an idiom in ancient Greek meaning ‘love of wisdom’ (philia, friendship sophia, wisdom) — said that in the human condition there are three types of people, and that these types can be denoted by the analogy of the Olympic Games.

First, there are the merchants who come to the games to buy and sell goods and money-lenders to facilitate gambling. Second, there are the athletes themselves, the ones playing in the games. Third, there are those who come to simply watch the games — the spectators. Pythagoras called these three
(i) lovers of gain, (ii) lovers of honor, and (iii) lovers of wisdom, respectively. It should come as no surprise that the latter represents the philosophers, the lovers of wisdom.

Pythagoras. Line engraving by D. Cunego (1782).

There seems to be a fourth type, however; one which modern reckonings of this Pythagorean legend leave out. For merely watching the games is not sufficient to pinpoint the particular mark of the true philosopher. In the lowest seats of the stadium are the so-called ‘fans’, those who sit closest to the field and are heavily invested in the games the athletes are playing. But then there are those who sit further back and higher up in the stadium: that is to say they neither participate in the games, like the athletes; nor are they emotionally invested in, or affected by the outcome of, the games, like the fans; nor do they profit financially or otherwise by the games’ existence, like the merchants and money-lenders. This fourth type, then, is the truly ‘disinterested’ spectator, and it is this type which is the proper analogue of the philosopher.

We say that the athletes are those who simply live their lives with no thought of what transcends it; their infatuation is absolute. The fans — one might call them the ‘interested’ spectators — have some sense of what is beyond merely ‘going through the motions’. ‘Interest’ is the key term here, for these are the people who, having some sense of what is beyond mere life-as-lived, still retain an infatuation of sorts insofar as they invest their emotions by fanaticism (whence we derive the term ‘fan’); their money by gambling; and their pride by association with their preferred athletes. Who wins, and who loses, matters a great deal to them. Now the fans do have an advantage over the athletes in that they possess at least some sense of life beyond mere toil — i.e., though ‘infatuated’, they are never the less ‘spectators’. On the other hand, the athletes have an advantage over the fans insofar as, by playing the games with the vigor of their whole being, they haven’t the opportunities to corrupt themselves by the vices which come along with knowledge of The System and, there by, how to exploit it. A good example of this aspect at play is in the endless deals transacted between the fans with the money-lenders (i.e., loan sharks) who take advantage of the fans’ greed or, in many cases, addictions.

The ‘disinterested spectator’, however, distances himself and therefore suffers none of these drawbacks. He is only there to ‘theorize’ the games — to contemplate them, to observe human behavior, and to enjoy the knowledge of the essence of the whole of all that which he surveys. Carrying the metaphor further we might say that the disinterested spectator sees how the games exist, not only in the relations being carried out within the stadium, but in relation to the larger world outside of it as well. Seeing, as he does, the wide world beyond the stadium walls, the disinterested spectator is able to theorize not only the games but also that world — horizonally and vertically, as it were — in which the games take place; and, seeing the games in their true context, is therefore the only one in any position to assess their true value.