Philosophy from the Mind of a Fighter
Pythagoras was a boxer. Plato was a wrestler. Xenophon was a soldier. Marcus Aurelius directed armies. There is a rich history of philosophers who were also fighters– or perhaps fighters who were also philosophers. And these two seemingly disparate endeavors have much more in common than most people realize. When people think of philosophy, they often conjure images of frail intellectuals discussing lofty ideals and contemplating nigh incomprehensible trivialities with like minded men. When people think of fighters, they often imagine brutish lugs thrashing at one another with neither thought nor civility. Both of these stereotypes are false. Philosophers have been some of the most brash, combative men in history; and I have personally known fighters who are absolutely brilliantly intellectual and incomparably kind. The truth is that neither philosophy nor fighting is really what most people believe them to be, and that these two concepts share a great deal more in common than most would realize.
As a martial arts instructor, I sometimes find myself waxing poetic with my students on the philosophy and theory behind a seemingly simple attack. I can demonstrate the physical mechanics of the technique in exquisite detail in less than a minute, but describing the utility and purpose and goal of the technique can often take longer than the short time which my class covers. Similarly, in philosophy, there is a great deal of difference between defending a proposition and truly understanding what makes for a good argument. My martial skills have benefited immensely from my love for philosophy, but today I will discuss the things which philosophy can learn from fighting.
1. Strength and Speed cannot substitute for Technique.
This is one of the most important lessons my students can learn about martial arts, whether we’re talking about boxing, wrestling, or jiu-jitsu. Proper technique provides inordinately more benefit than being either strong or fast. I’ve watched a 90-pound, teenaged girl absolutely trounce a 170-pound, adult man because she knew how to properly perform her attacks and defenses, while he did not.
Similarly, in philosophy, it does not matter how many propositions you make, nor how forcefully you present them, if your argument is ill-formed. One hundred fallacies loudly bellowed will not bear the argumentative force of a single, well-stated proposition.
2. Don’t expect to finish the fight with your first attack.
No boxer steps into the ring expecting to knock his opponent out with the first punch he throws. Nor does a wrestler expect that the very first double-leg he shoots in a match will score a takedown. Nor does a jiu-jitsu player expect that the first submission he attempts will lead to the tap-out. Each of these fighters expects that his opponent will try to defend these attacks, and will often be successful in fending off the loss– at least, temporarily. Fighters don’t simply lob a single attack out while hoping for the best. They plan out combinations of attacks, each one serving to strengthen all the attacks that follow.
A philosopher can’t hinge the entirety of his philosophy on a single position. Arguments need to be combined into a cohesive whole, all working together towards a single goal. Your first argument is unlikely to be the knockout that persuades your audience, but a succession of powerful attacks joined one after another becomes difficult to defend against.
3. Anticipate your opponent’s reactions to plan your counter.
Concentrating solely on one’s own strategy is only half the game. Replying to an opponent’s tactical responses forms the other half. In order to link the two, a fighter tries to anticipate his opponent’s likely reactions to a given attack. If I try to secure an armbar from my guard, my opponent might stack into me to keep his arm bent, or he might try to pull his elbow free, or he might try to reposition himself along my side, et cetera. If I do not plan for these responses, they are much more likely to succeed. But if I anticipate such reactions, I can plan my next possible attacks before I have even begun the first.
Just so in philosophy. If I engage in an argument having thoroughly considered how my opposition might counter-argue, I will be more prepared to deal with his response. The further down the line I can plan my offense, the stronger my position becomes. Philosophy, just as in chess and martial arts, is best pursued when thinking several moves ahead.
4. Position before Submission.
This is undoubtedly the most oft repeated mantra in all of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. You can go to pretty much any BJJ school in the world, and all the students will have heard this simple phrase repeated over and over and over since they first set foot on the mat. This simple principle states that attempting to attack your opponent before you have really secured your own footing is a plainly bad idea. You often end up fouling yourself up, in the attempt, and are left with neither a good position nor the submission attack that you desired.
This is just as imperative in philosophy. No amount of attacking an opponent’s position will prove fruitful if your own arguments are faulty. Attempting to be too aggressively offensive when your own foundation is weak will all-too-often lead to your being toppled.
5. Spar regularly.
No fighter has ever gotten to be a good fighter without actually putting his attacks and strategies into play against another fighter doing the same. A martial artist can drill the same attack 10,000 times, but he cannot truly learn all the strengths and weaknesses of that technique without trying it against a live opponent. There are some moves that I have been training for years– moves that I can drill with perfect form and technique– which I have not ever been able to apply successfully against a live training partner. There are other very important attacks and positions and principles which I have never drilled, and only discovered by sparring live.
Philosophy is no different. A philosophy cannot be properly strengthened in isolation. It must be pitted against other, competing philosophies in order to truly be refined. If one attempts to develop his philosophy without ever engaging his opposition in debate and dialectic, he will find that his position is far too weak when it comes to a real fight.
Thank you very much for your write. I like both philosophy and boxing and have found inspiring your words 🙂
I didn’t know that some of the greatest philosopher were fighters too, so thanks for it also. I have searched and seems that Pythagoras the boxer was a different man than Pythagoras the philosopher. May it be?
Unfortunately, quite a bit about Pythagoras’ life remains unknown. The earliest extant biographies we have of his life came from about 800 years after he lived. One of these later works links him to the boxer, Pythagoras, but it is true that modern historians do not place a huge amount of confidence in this.
Fine, I understand.
Thank you for your help!
See you on the blog!