Archive for February, 2012

Are Martial Arts Necessary For Agathos? (Part 2)

Posted in Agathos with tags , , on February 16, 2012 by Joe Callahan

As I discussed in my previous post, if things “martial” include the personal as well as the institutional (military, law enforcement, etc) then is the personal capacity for self-defense a requirement for Agathos, a good and worthy state of being? I don’t live in the world of Bronze Age warrior-aristocrats. I haven’t been challenged to single combat for possession of my Toyota. Most of us reading this aren’t confronted with violent threats in our daily lives. For many of us the last exposure was a schoolyard scuffle or some youthful chest puffing in a bar. If something bad happens we generally pick up the phone expecting some professional responder to deal with it. Usually that is the correct course.

But what about that one moment out of a long, largely uneventful life when things gets ugly and the cavalry won’t be arriving in time?

The problem with discussing physical violence, even in a philosophical context, is that our culture is deeply weird about it. It evokes strong emotions and lots and lots of fantasy. Even the most well-meaning discussions usually end up in either dismissive, righteous shudders of distaste or dubious proclamations of bad-assery. Some of us tell ourselves we are too “evolved” for such brutishness. Some of us tell ourselves that we are Conan incarnate. Neither illusion is very useful.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time discussing the nature of interpersonal violence. Its a complex topic. Other people write about it at length who have far greater expertise and experience. The dynamics and the psychological and biological impact have been well covered. I’d strongly recommend having a look at the work of Rory Miller, a martial artist and law enforcement officer. I evaluated my own training in a very different light after considering what he had to say. For my purposes here there is a key point to consider. You will only respond to that rare, perhaps singular, violent incident to the degree and manner in which you have prepared for it.

Considering the life-altering impact that one event might have on your survival, your physical and emotional sense of dignity, your ability to be a self-reliant individual, it must have relevance to the state of Agathos.

A couple of arguments could be made against this. One, the likelihood of such an event is very small. Despite the possible impact, the low risk doesn’t justify the time and effort to practice sets of martial skills. Also, the Greek tradition that brought us Agathos later embraced the idea that externals may injure the body but cannot truly harm our character. When Socrates was tried and condemned to death he didn’t reveal hidden kung fu master skills and kick his way out of Athens. He drank the hemlock because the loss of life was less important then demonstrating commitment to his principles. Stoics like Epictetus repeated this message. Consequently some may argue that martial skill is a contradiction to a rational and detached philosophical life.

Maybe I find the time and energy worth it because I just enjoy martial practice? I was reading Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. I was struck by his observation that as skill proficiency develops, less mental focus and energy is required to perform. There may be an initial time and energy investment but once those skills are acquired it would seem that maintenance is not quite the energy sink one might assume. In the case of martial skills there is a base level of practice and physical conditioning required but that same level of conditioning is needed for health and vitality regardless. As I’ve written previously, a worthy life includes the physical to the degree our bodies permit.

Its worth remembering that the same Socrates who submitted to execution also fought in the phalanx. During the retreat from the defeat at Delium he gained a reputation for a cool head in battle. He may have believed that externals could not truly do him harm while his character remained intact but he was not a pacifist either. Miller, whose work I mentioned, uses the term “monkey dance” which I see as describing the effect of pathe, the passions, in escalating violent encounters. Its a good descriptive term. Ego, rage, fear, the desire for recognition and status all play a part in driving confrontational behaviors that often seem outside of our control. The behaviors that fuel conflict can often be instinctive, even unconscious. That’s a very different matter than a considered personal policy regarding defense of oneself, family, home, community. It is wisdom to realize you and your character can’t really be harmed by externals. That realization does not require meekly succumbing to abuse or being utterly passive. When we read the Homeric epics we see the earliest Agathoi driven very much by the passions. The whole Trojan War is arguably one big “monkey dance”. The proto-ethics at the root of western culture grew out of powerful primal drives. I think it is valuable to recognize this and refine such impulses but there is little value in denying their existence within ourselves. Martial training has the potential to help in this effort of refinement. It can be a powerful tool for perceiving things as they really are, including oneself.

So, allowing for subjective personal preference, my conclusion is that martial training is at least valuable for the cultivation of Agathos if not a necessity.

What should the current day Agathos learn? Most of us only have so many hours in the day to devote to such things. Some thoughts on that next time.