Archive for January, 2012

Are Martial Arts Necessary For Agathos? (Part 1)

Posted in Agathos, Homeric, Philosophy with tags , , , , on January 22, 2012 by Joe Callahan

When I began writing about a personal exploration of the concept of Agathos I automatically included references to the martial arts. For instance, it seemed an obvious choice to put a link to the Chinese martial arts school where I study. A number of my articles have made reference to things martial. There are some good reasons on a personal level for me to make this connection, but how relevant is it to Agathos as most people might live it today?

The earliest conceptions of Agathos come from the Homeric epics. The stories center around warriors and martial virtues. In their world it would have been difficult (if not suicidal) for Agathoi to claim their societal role without martial skill.  Someone would just do them in and take all their stuff.  Warfare and who participated in it changed and broadened through Greek and Roman history but the idea of the virtuous man remained connected to the martial. But as we find our own way to Agathos, the good and the worthy, the connection may seem less clear. American society has never been exactly pacifistic and the military-industrial complex has been in high gear this last decade. Nevertheless, its not uncommon for someone to live what is considered a “successful” life without ever learning how to throw a punch much less prepare themselves for a war. Considerable numbers of people will say that is a good thing and, agree or disagree, their arguments are not unreasonable.

The question of the martial in Agathos opens a proverbial can of worms. It’s a complicated topic. For starters it requires a definition of terms before a response can be seriously considered. What do we mean when we talk about things “martial”?

Theoretically, a group of people practicing Tai Chi in a park are engaging in a martial activity. So is someone sitting in front of a radar screen on board an aircraft carrier. In the strictest sense of the word a martial activity is that which is conducted for purposes of warfare (belonging to Mars, god of war). I’ve never found that a particularly useful definition as the nature of warfare has shifted dramatically over time. What was considered warfare in one age and/or culture would be considered something quite different by a modern professionalized nation-state military, probably banditry if not terrorism. This is addressed in part by some current thinking on warfare “generations”. Its interesting stuff but outside the scope of this discussion.

The Chinese martial art I practice still contains a few traces of pre-gunpowder military arts in the weapon forms. But most of the practice comes from monastic traditions, a very different community. Their purpose was not to be an instrument of what Clausewitz would call “the continuation of policy by other means”.  I think its fair to say that while warfare calls upon martial virtues it doesn’t automatically follow that martial virtues are only present in modern professionalized warfare.

If we allow that martial skills and virtues include non-military or non-law enforcement pursuits then what are we talking about?

The objective of any martial art is doing some degree of injury to another person. We can dress it up and talk about being a peaceful warrior and seeking enlightenment and blending with the universe and all that. If your art doesn’t teach some effective ways to punch, kick, choke, restrain, chop, stab and/or shoot an uncooperative foe then you are taking dancing lessons or an exercise class. That’s just reality. What matters to the pursuit of Agathos, a life that is noble and worthy, is knowing when it is right to do these unpleasant things. By right I mean what is just. Legality is always important for obvious reasons but the two aren’t always identical with regard to one’s philosophy. It’s wise to be self-aware about where you stand on both issues.

So really we are considering a personal, rather than institutional, relationship to physical violence and the state of Agathos. Its clear why the Agathoi of old had a personal and highly enthusiastic relationship to close-up physical violence. Do I, as someone seeking to be Agathos in a modern day context, need to have that personal capacity for doing harm? If so, what meaning does it hold? If not, then what replaces it as the best way of displaying Arete, excellence and skill?

More on those questions in part two.

Exercise Without Excellence?

Posted in Agathos, arete, Homeric with tags , , , on January 16, 2012 by Joe Callahan

A new study has been hitting the news. A hormone has been isolated that mimics some of the fat burning and muscle building effects of exercise. I’m sure I’m hugely over-simplifying or not explaining it correctly but you can see more details here and here.

Obviously I think its a very good thing if this discovery creates new drugs that deal with serious illness. I especially think it would be fantastic, as suggested in some articles, if this helps with muscle wasting illnesses. I’ve watched the effects of such illness over time and it strikes me as a particularly crappy hand to be dealt in life.

What makes me stop and think and make a sour face is the statement that this could lead to an “exercise drug”. Apparently that’s a good thing. So let’s say you can pop a pill one day and it is the equivalent of a solid workout, a practice session at some active sport or a long hike in the hills. You can sit on your butt and watch reality TV or play a video game and let that happy hormone do its work. You’ll be sipping a latte and twittering while staying fit and toned. Paradise, right?

But what about Arete? Arete, defined as excellence, is fundamental to Agathos. Arete is how one displays Agathos in the concrete world of action. In the Homeric epics there are references to the Arete of different activities. There is Arete in feats of arms, horse taming, running, strategy, giving speeches, even managing a household. These all involve DOING something. Can there be an Arete of pill popping?

If I can get buff by downing EXERSOR (you just know they’ll name it something like that and side effects will include dizziness and testicular combustion) how does that shape me as a creature within nature? I’ve spoken about Askesis, the training of the self through exposure to trial. If we figure out ways to give our body the look of excellence without being shaped by the experience of getting there then is it really that valuable?

Look, I don’t love exercise any more than the next guy. Working out and pushing physical limits requires, well, effort. I’m not one of these people that wakes up energetic and radiant in the morning eager for my daily endorphine rush. Actually I find people like that kind of annoying. I’ve had my share of slips into slothdom. But I do believe in the value of what physical experience within the world, in contact with our natural selves, gives us. No pill can replicate that.

Yes, I’m jumping the gun here. Nobody has put a pill like this on the market……yet. Maybe I’m being a Luddite and there are lots of positives to consider. But I can’t help but wonder what sort of people we become without struggle. We are defined by our scars as surely as our pleasures. Nobody who just pops an exercise pill will have any good battle stories to tell.