08/10/2010 07:59 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Interview With A Philosopher - The Bicycle Lane: Lance, Life, and True Success

I recently caught up with Greg Bassham--a former student of mine at Notre Dame and now a philosophy professor at King's College (PA), as well as an author of several popular books. Greg and co-author Chris Krall recently wrote an essay titled "Lance Armstrong and True Success" for the soon-to-be-released book, Cycling--Philosophy for Everyone: A Philosophical Tour de Force (Wiley, 2010), edited by Jesus Ilundain Agurruza and Michael W. Austin. Greg's own latest book, The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy, is due out in September. In this conversation, it's about the bike.

Tom: Hi, Greg. Tell us about Cycling--Philosophy for Everyone. What connects the bicycle to philosophy?

Greg: Oh, there are tons of connections. Cycling provides food for reflection in all sorts of directions--aesthetic, environmental, ethical, and kinesthetic. Cycling itself is a beautiful thing. The seamless symbiosis of bike and rider is beautiful to watch or experience. And the bike itself is a thing of beauty--both physically attractive, and a marvel of aesthetically pleasing technology. For me, the whole mental side of cycling also naturally invites philosophical reflection. When do we ever feel so free, so full of joie de vivre, as when we're on a bike? When do we ever feel so much a part of the landscape, such oneness with earth and sky?

Tom: Well, I suppose a Manhattan bike messenger might have a slightly different perspective, often feeling more of a sense of oneness with bumper and asphalt.

Greg: Indeed, and things can be quite different for a track cyclist. But we can focus on more ordinary touring or recreational cycling. Then we can avoid most of the bruises.

Tom: You mentioned the environmental benefits of cycling. Do you really think cycling can make a difference, especially in America?

Greg: It will be slow. Practically everything in the U.S. has been built around the car. But it's not hard to see the benefits of trading cars for eco-friendly bikes. I was in Amsterdam recently, one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world. It's amazing how much more livable a city can be when it is structured around cyclists and pedestrians rather than noisy cars and trucks belching fumes. And of course the health benefits of cycling are obvious.

Tom: You've always had a glow of good health. But tell me about your own contribution to the Cycling book.

Greg: It's on Lance Armstrong and the notion of success. What is success? How can it be achieved? What have the great thinkers said about success? What's the true metric of success, and how does Lance in particular measure up by those standards?

Tom: Even in light of the new doping accusations, it would be hard for anyone to argue that Lance hasn't had tremendous personal success along many dimensions of his life. He's got some huge accomplishments: against-all-odds cancer survivor, seven-time Tour de France winner, international celebrity, and founder of one of the most successful cancer-fund-raising organizations in the world. So by any reasonable measure, Lance has certainly been extremely successful.

Greg: Yes, it seems like an absolute no-brainer to look at him as a paradigm of success. But it's interesting. When you consult the great classical thinkers--philosophers like Plato, Epicurus, Seneca, and Thomas Aquinas--you see that most of them thought of success in basically one-dimensional terms. The Greek philosopher Epicurus, for instance, thought that nobody could be successful unless his or her life was filled with pleasure. The Roman philosopher Seneca thought that virtue--having a good moral character--was the only real measure of success. Aquinas believed that only deeply religious people could be a success. And so on. It really wasn't until modern times that it became widely accepted that success can take many different forms, and that there wasn't any single cookie-cutter pattern.

Tom: So how do you define success?

Greg: I'm not sure it can be defined. But I really like the so-called 3-D approach you propose in Philosophy for Dummies.

Tom: Thanks, and no special glasses are required.

Greg: So much the better. I'm convinced, as you are, that success isn't a matter of money, fame, power, or status. Those are just public markers of outer success that can often mask real personal failures. True success is a combination of inner growth and positive outer achievement. As you formulate it in the 3-D's, real success is achieved when a person discovers their positive talents, develops the most meaningful and beneficial of those talents, and deploys them into the world for the good of others as well as himself. Success in that sense can take many different forms. But the common denominator is always inner growth and outer achievement.

Tom:I'm gratified that you find those categories of mine helpful. I knew it wasn't only dummies who read Philosophy for Dummies. So how does Lance stack up in terms of the 3-D's of Success?

Greg: Extremely well. Lance didn't have an easy childhood. He struggled and he worked hard to discover and develop his talents. Few people, I would imagine, have worked harder to develop their innate gifts. And of course Lance's accomplishments are tremendous. He's inspired millions through his achievements on the bike, in his books, and with his fight against cancer. Probably no athlete in history has raised more money for good causes than he has.

Tom: As you know, there's now a federal investigation into charges that he used performance-enhancing drugs, and not just during his relationships with Sheryl Crow and Kate Hudson. Several people, including his former teammate Floyd Landis, have accused him of doping and lying about it. What if those charges are true? Would that significantly detract from his success? And would this make it especially ironic that he once won "The Thrift Drug Triple Crown of Cycling"?

Greg: To quote the ancients, "You crack me up, Socrates." And, certainly, there's no question about the consequences you allude to. As we both know and have already mentioned, success isn't simply about money, fame, power, or status. There's an inner dimension of personal growth that ultimately matters more than any outward achievement. Let's hope that Lance has been true to that. If not, then despite his undeniable achievements, he would not be quite the pure and tremendous success many of us have taken him for.

Tom: I guess we'll see.

Greg: Or, maybe not. These sorts of charges are hard to prove. In the end, maybe only Lance and his maker will know how successful he really was.

Tom: I'm just glad that you and a few other contemporary philosophers are focusing on these issues of life success. We all need more guidance in practical matters than most philosophers of the past century have wanted to provide.

Greg: I benefit tremendously from these researches myself, and I'm also glad to see more of us taking on these topics.

Tom: I guess philosophy goes in cycles, too. Thanks for your time, Greg.

Greg: It's always a fun ride to talk with you, Tom.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
We’re basically your best friend… with better taste.