Springbok rugby, a philosopher and the Bible


By Piet Boshoff

What would rugby, philosophy and the Bible have in common? Yet for all three it is about man and his happiness.

Each of the three has its own way of representing human happiness, representations that can be compared with each other.

In rugby, it is about the happiness that the team can bring to its supporters. The philosopher claims that he can refine the understanding of happiness, beyond the apparent happiness that sportsmen provide. The Bible again testifies to a happiness, a salvation that is not bound to external success, not to tangible well-being and not to human achievements.

kick off

On September 8, 2023, the editor of Image that millions of countrymen yearn for kindness, to hear “a piece of good news”. The people yearn “for excellence and the knowledge that we can be internationally competitive. Because the Goats embody who we actually want to be”. Dana Snyman joins in and his silent prayer becomes a way to get a grip on our defenselessness, an opportunity to be honest when the battle on the field is tied: “Please, Lord, we need it more than they do. Look what our country looks like” (Image, 9 September 2023).

Jean de Villiers, former Springbok captain, gives his experience from the horse’s mouth, his observation of the disappointment of the fans when the Boks could not secure the consolation of victory: “People get angry, but they don’t get angry because we did not lose. Nor about how we played. They get angry because we took their week’s happiness away from them.” (By, September 2, 2023, Image).

De Villiers is convinced that he and his teammates, should they win, can actually only be held responsible for a very modest piece of luck. So too much should never be expected of them.

A philosopher

Socrates (469-399 BC) appears for the first time in his seventy years before the court in Athens, to defend himself before the Council of five hundred men on the charge that he does not recognize the gods of the city and that with his attitude and behavior seduce the youth. To mitigate the prejudice built up against him that he boasted and gained the reputation of being “wise”, he explains that the Oracle of Delphi declared that no one was wiser than he.

This incomprehensible statement sent his life in a new direction, because he could not just accept it because he was so aware of his own ignorance. Socrates recounts to the Athenian court the anecdotes of his wanderings, which felt to him like almost Herculean tasks to prove the Oracle wrong by touching statesmen, opinion-forming poets and other fundies in all kinds of areas and that he came to the conclusion came that the Oracle just wanted to say: “Among you people, the wisest person is the one, like Socrates, who knows that he actually falls far short of wisdom” (23b; p. 53).

Along this path, Socrates could manage to be wise in a human way. The recognition of one’s own ignorance can lead to you becoming concerned “about insight and truth and about your soul, that it is in the best state” (29c; p. 68).

Socrates also makes it clear that he sees no chance of stopping his investigation and “no longer philosophizing” (29c; p. 68). He reckons that they should spare his life because he is useful to the city: “It is like when a large and thoroughbred horse, which has become somewhat sluggish due to its size, has to be jolted awake by a kind of horsefly. I am that kind of fly, it seems to me, that the god has put on the city’s neck that wakes you up and convinces you and kicks you out by attacking each one from all sides without stopping all day long. For you, Athenians, it will not be easy for someone like that to come again. If you then follow my advice, you will spare my life” (29e-30a; p. 70-71).

The court found Socrates guilty and, according to Athenian custom, he was requested to represent his punishment himself. He then bargained for something that matched his earnings. He plays the value of what he does against the contribution of the Olympic sportsmen: People who taste joy versus people who just look happy. For the encouraging work he does among the Athenians, he needs a lot of free time and it would help a lot if he could be cared for at state expense: “It would be the most beautiful gesture, Athenians, that such a man in the official building, the Prutaneion, may eat

Indeed, he has more merit than any of you who won an Olympic race on horseback, with a two-team or with a four-team chariot, because such a person only makes you look happy; I again that you taste joy. He doesn’t need maintenance either, but I do.” (36d-e; p. 82-83). However, Socrates’ proposal was not accepted and he was sentenced to death.

The Bible

The marriages that the returning exiles enter into with the wives of those in Canaan-dwelling peoples endanger the survival of God’s people. With the Babylonian exile, the tree of Israel was cut down, as it were, but with the return from the exile the stump grows again and the exploits and experience that the seed went through must be preserved.

With their marriages, however, these freedmen are now putting the existence of Israel at stake. As a sign of mourning, Ezra tears his clothes and plucks his hair from his head and beard. Thus he mourns the death of his people. The whole day he just stared wordlessly in front of him. At three o’clock it is time for the evening prayer and the people see him rising from his penance and directing him to the rebuilt temple, where the Lord lives.

After he had confessed their sin, he continued: “And now, for a short moment, there was grace from the Lord our God to let us freedmen remain, and to give us firmness in his holy territory, so that our eyes clarify and give us a little new life in our slavery” (Ezra 9:8). The grace becomes concrete in a “tent peg”, a fixed point on which a tent can be pitched, in the sanctuary. The hammered pen in the sanctuary indicates that the Lord binds Himself to a concrete place where He wants to meet people.

To think that He does not allow Himself to be bound in this way, but can always and everywhere be found, however, just as easily degenerates into the opposite that He is nowhere and never present anymore. With the commissioning of the temple, the danger that God can be dissolved into a pantheism is admittedly avoided. But now there is a new danger, namely that God will become the exclusive property of some within the four walls of the temple. Also the land, now nationally stamped, is seen as a guarantee for salvation: “so that you may be strong and enjoy the good of the land and leave it to your children forever” (Ezra 9:12).

It then boils down to the fact that the salvation, the happiness, the hope that is so measurable, tangible, presented as a condition cannot help but fall far short: it only lasts “a short moment”, a moment in the wind and give “a little new life”. The “bit” and the “temporary” of salvation cannot help but reach out for a solution beyond the limitation.

By tapping into man’s susceptibility to happiness, the Christian message brings nothing new to the table. The person who would come to faith does not have to leave his real self behind. Every man asks where he came from and where he is going, what he may hope for and what he must do; ask for happiness, joy, truth. And by asking this, he asks beyond himself, to God – even if he doesn’t know it.

And now the Bible humanly testifies to a happiness that is not visible in our successes nor in our wisdom. This salvation is the freedom to which Christ has freed us. This freedom is the freedom from the need to realize ourselves and to justify ourselves. Faith knows that nothing, neither our successes nor our failures, can separate us from the love of God. This salvation is not of the world, but is preached in the world and granted to us.

Supplementary bibliography

Boshoff PB 2023, Plato’s trilogy of dialogues from the last days of Socrates: Eutuphro, The Defense of Socrates and Crito translated from the Greek by Piet Boshoff. Academy: Pretoria.

Gunneweg AHJ 1985, Ezra (Commentary on the Old Testament Volume XIX 1). Mohn: G├╝tersloh.

  • Piet Boshoff is a research fellow in the Department of Old Testament Studies at the University of Pretoria.