Sports in Utopia: On The Grasshopper by Bernard Suits

Visions of Utopia?
Visions of Utopia?

Under Review: The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia by Bernard Suits (University of Toronto Press, 1978, 178 pages)

Just as an enthusiastic reader can make their way through a lifetime of books without ever once consulting a single text on literary theory, most sports enthusiasts will cheer their way through a lifetime of games and races without ever knowing that there is such a genre of study called Philosophy of Sport. Of course, you don’t need even a passing acquaintance with Philosophy of Sport in order to feel the intoxicating adrenaline of watching or playing in a great game. But when Philosophy of Sport is useful—and it is useful in the same way that literary theory is useful—is when you want a very thorough answer to the question: “What, exactly, is going on here?”

What is the nature of the collaborative relationship between opponents (read: between writer and reader), and how does that make games (narratives) possible? Why are we so universally compelled to participate in sports (literary works), as non-essential as they are to human survival?

The Grasshopper is a book-length Philosophy of Sport allegory, published in the seventies by Canadian professor of philosophy Bernard Suits. The most obvious reason that The Grasshopper remains in print is Suits’ decision to transform what could have been dry treatise into a self-conscious, fourth-wall-busting, alternate-dimension Aesop’s Fable.

In it we meet The Grasshopper, “a working Utopian whose time has not yet come,” a skeleton of a character borrowed from Aesop himself. For the majority of Suits’ book, Grasshopper engages in vigorous conversation with one of his disciples, cheekily named Skepticus, as they attempt to arrive at a precise definition of what a game is.

At the risk of mangling Suits’ definition by truncating it: Grasshopper and Skepticus conclude that a game is a voluntarily inefficient means of arriving at a self-contained end. To use the game of basketball as an example: the goal of basketball is to put a basketball through your team’s orange metal circle. But by itself putting a basketball through an orange metal circle has no constructive purpose in our broader lives; in this way the goal of the game of basketball, as with the goals of all games, is totally arbitrary.

As humans we have many efficient means of putting a basketball through an orange metal circle. The team could position a ladder right next to the basket and send one player to the top of the ladder to drop the ball through the hoop ad infinitum, while the other members of the team block the opponent from reaching the ladder. Suits would contend (and most would probably agree) that this ladder-using team is, despite their proficiency at putting the ball through the orange metal circle, not actually playing the game of basketball.

To play the game of basketball, a team and its players must all agree to predetermined, inefficient means of getting the ball through the hoop: players agree to dribble the ball whenever they possess it, they agree to allow the other team to shoot free throws when a referee calls a foul, they agree to bring no ladders onto the court, et cetera. It is these inefficient ways of putting the ball through the metal circle, Suits contends, that actually makes a basketball game.

The construction of this definition is established so that Suits, speaking as The Grasshopper, may entirely flabbergast both Skepticus and his reading audience with a concluding vision of Utopia. (So, spoiler alert from here on out, I suppose.) The Grasshopper posits that, in a truly Utopian society, a version of the world where every material need is easily and instantly met—by an army of docile robots, the Grasshopper suggests—all that humans would do is play games.

In The Grasshopper’s Utopia, one hundred percent of the human population does not flock to basketball arenas or baseball stadiums (although of course plenty would). The Grasshopper proposes that, in Utopia, even activities like carpentry would in fact become games. Suits’ example: if a person who loves carpentry wanted to build a house in a society where a house could be instantly built, they would probably still build a house with their hands, so great is their love of carpentry.

But this action would suddenly fall under Suits’ definition of games. In Utopia everybody already has a house—building another one serves as productive a purpose as putting a basketball through an orange metal circle. And, what’s more, the enthusiastic carpenter would be voluntarily choosing an inefficient way to arrive at that final destination. The docile robots could immediately build a house, but the carpenter is insisting, by personally hammering every last nail, on performing the equivalent of dribbling down the basketball court.

Even the arts, Suits-as-Grasshopper contends, would no longer be necessary in Utopia:

Art has a subject matter which consists in the actions and passions of men: with human aspirations and frustrations, hopes and fears, triumphs and tragedies, with flaws of character, moral dilemmas, joy and sorrow. But it would seem that none of these necessary ingredients of art could exist in Utopia.

Perhaps you don’t buy this Utopic argument. That’s okay; at this rate, we won’t be able to test out Suits’ theory in this world anytime soon, anyway. But do consider: maybe that joy we feel in the middle of a good game—or in the middle of a good book—is a shadow of the fulfilling, non-striving directionlessness that being in a real Utopia would bring.

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