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Plato Said Knock You Out

The philosophical value of martial arts.

Plato was a fighter. This is not a metaphor. The historian Diogenes Laërtius tells us that Platon, meaning "broad-shouldered," was the philosopher’s wrestling nickname. As a prominent aristocrat, Plato was known for his pedigree and youthful poetry but also for his physique: the muscles of a gifted grappler, who reportedly competed at the Isthmian Games.

And for all his wariness of the body and its wayward desires, Plato also recommended wrestling for the youth. In his dialogue Laws, he celebrated the benefits of stand-up grappling. This had a straightforward military use, developing “strength and health” for the battlefield. But it also cultivated character if “practiced with a gallant spirit.” The overall impression is that physical virtues encourage psychological excellence: perseverance, courage, and perhaps a greater sense of autonomy.

Plato also believed that martial arts were training in what might be called ethical competition. He pointed out that athlete Iccus of Tarentum put sport before sex. “Such was his passion for victory, his pride in his calling, the combined fortitude and self-command of his character, that,” wrote Plato, “he never once came near a woman, or a boy either, all the time he was in training.” This outlook, argued Plato, might easily move from wrestling school to public life. You think winning a grappling match is a buzz? Think of victory over your own lust and delusion. “If they achieve it,” says the Athenian, “we shall tell them, their life will be bliss; if they fail, the very reverse.”

This is an important precedent. Whatever criticisms we might have of Plato’s philosophy, he remains fundamental to the Western intellectual tradition. When he wrote that much of philosophy was just "footnotes to Plato," Alfred North Whitehead was not quipping blithely. In so many areas of intellectual life—from aesthetics and metaphysics to ethics and governance—today’s thinkers are still reflecting on issues first raised by Plato. And often, they are doing so within scholarly traditions that grew out of, or against, Platonism. As Bryan Magee puts it in his Confessions of a Philosopher:

"No philosophy before or since has had so great an influence, except arguably that of Aristotle; and since Aristotle was a pupil of Plato, Plato can even claim some of the credit for that."

So at the very beginnings of Western philosophy, we have martial arts: not simply as a hobby but as a moral and political policy. Was Plato…unphilosophical?

One popular portrait of martial artists is as bloody-minded hoodlums with bloodier knuckles: the cage-fighting athletes who provoke so much tut-tutting from conservatives and liberals alike. But evidence suggests that this is simply a stereotype. While research on martial arts is still in its early stages, several studies report that practicing martial arts in a respectful, safe environment can actually make us less thuggish. For example, Kroll and Crenshaw, in Contemporary Psychology of Sport, report that karate practitioners were more self-sufficient and self-controlled than footballers. Lamarre and Nosanchuck, in Perceptual and Motor Skills, use longitudinal data to argue that this is more than selection bias: Judo does not simply appeal to a virtuous temperament—it helps to encourage it. Nosanchuck and MacNeil, in Aggressive Behaviour, showed that this continued even for students who no longer studied: the higher their belt rank, the lower their aggression.

Nosanchuk and MacNeil speculate that there are three reasons for this: Role models to demonstrate civility and care, meditative forms to balance the violence, and regular nods to ethical principles. So-called "power sports"—football, for example—that lack one or more of these traits have the opposite effect. Endresen and Olweus, in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, revealed a correlation between kids’ power sports and aggression.

Importantly, martial arts schools that encourage better behaviour need not be clumsy or mystical. Judo, for example, combines combat efficiency with a very modern philosophy, developed by Jigoro Kano, who was one of Japan’s educational modernisers. The vital traits are the combination of morally defensible authority, reflection, and controlled, cooperative violence—and there is no evidence that this only works in Asian or pacifist martial arts.

So the data cautiously confirms what many pugilists and grapplers already suspect and what Plato argued in the fourth century: The martial arts can help us to become more dangerous and more virtuous. As I put it in How to Think About Exercise:

The point is not to deny the more aggressive urges, but to give them a safe place to flourish. This weds impulse to achievement, and does so in an environment of relative safety. A punch in the karate school might have the same force and accuracy as a punch in a bar, but the former is thrown collaboratively, whereas the latter is an act of malice.

Put simply, exercise at its most virtuous is an enterprise of honesty: accepting the more destructive urges, and socializing them for the greater good.

But there is more philosophy in fighting than this psychological training. Most obviously, many of the well-known Asian martial arts are linked to schools of thought: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shinto in the Japanese styles, for example. The Confucian virtues are necessary for keeping a school together: the mutual trust and respect required to fight safely but with commitment. Shinto beliefs can be found in ideas like kime in karate: a certain purity of consciousness required to commit to techniques. And there is also a strong Zen component: the loss of egotism achieved in regular practice (and the odd foot to the face). This is without discussing the Western martial arts like fencing or boxing, which have their own codes of ritual, belief, and value.

The martial arts also offer curious case studies for contemporary philosophy. In short: they give the reflective mind a workout. For example, the movements of a fighter are often thoughtless but reasonable. I might not consciously plan to dodge, feint, and punch, but it makes a great deal of sense to do so. How does this fit with more cognitive theories of rationality? And where exactly is the "I" when I forget myself sparring? Martial arts can also provide a conundrum for utilitarianism. As philosopher Steve Bein has argued, many full-contact fighters actually prefer the more painful pursuits, and research suggests that the meaning of these changes the perception of each block and blow. Suddenly the simplifying hedonism that defines "utility" is more complicated.

These are only a few examples, but the point is clear: Philosophy and the martial arts can enjoy rewarding relationships. Learning to fight (and not to fight) can be excellent for Plato’s “strength and health” but can also develop the virtues that philosophers, East and West, have defended. Martial arts have also matured within rich philosophical traditions, and illuminate the to-and-fro between ideas and practice and between cultures over the centuries. And finally, martial arts can challenge scholars with puzzles in ethics, aesthetics, and philosophy of mind.

The point is not that every brute is an honorary classicist or that a black belt or golden gloves victory must make us righteous. The point is that Plato’s ancient precedent might rightfully occasion a little surprise. Physical violence and intellectual ambition seem radically at odds. Yet they cannot only coexist but also complement one another. To paraphrase Nietzsche, perhaps we might gainfully learn to philosophize with a hammer fist.

This essay was first published, in a slightly different form, in New Philosopher magazine.

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