Are Martial Arts Necessary For Agathos? (Part 1)

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.

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