Boxing Pythagoras

Philosophy from the mind of a fighter

Archive for the category “Martial Arts”

Never step onto the road without your weapons

Let a man never stir on his road a step
without his weapons of war;
for unsure is the knowing when need shall arise
of a spear on the way without.

-Hávamál 38

Though I do agree with the literal interpretation of this passage, there is far more wisdom in it than the bare surface reading would suggest. This is a proverb of preparedness. While the terms “weapons of war” and “spear” certainly carry their obvious meaning, they also stand as metaphors for any tool which might aid one in a struggle. This applies just as much to knowledge and wisdom as to weaponry; it refers to planning one’s finances as much as planning for a fight; it’s as applicable to a good pair of boots just as much as to a spear.

Now, obviously, one cannot be prepared for all situations at all times, but the more one considers his own preparedness, the better he will be when necessities arise. Personally, I find this passage to be extremely poignant with respect to one’s understanding of his own philosophy. As someone who engages in conversation and debate rather frequently over the subject, I have found myself often calling on some esoteric body of trivial knowledge which many people would wonder that I had bothered to learn in the first place: the incredible examples of Corvid intelligence, the strange implications of a particular grammatical construction in ancient Greek, the intricate symmetries of the openings in a game of Go, and many other beautiful– but peculiar– bits of knowledge. These are all things which a person could well live without knowing, and yet each of them has been incredibly useful to me in philosophical discussions on subjects which are seemingly unrelated to those bodies of knowledge.

I have never in my adult life been in a fight outside of the parameters of my martial arts. And yet, my Jiu-Jitsu training has been immensely useful in many other aspects of my life. Though the passage explicitly mentions “weapons of war,” the need of a spear does not necessarily refer to a martial need. Yes, a spear can be used for war. But it can also provide food. It can steady a weary tread. It can lever a wheel out of the mud. It can perform any number of tasks beyond its primary intention. The same is true for all weaponry, whether made of wood and steel or knowledge and wisdom. Never step onto the road without your weapons.

Euclid and the Sword

I have written, often, about one of my personal heroes from history, Euclid of Alexandria, who wrote a textbook called Elements which would serve as the foundation for all Western mathematics for 2000 years. You may recall that, outside of his name and a list of his writings, we know almost nothing about Euclid. We know nothing of his birth, or his schooling, or his politics. We don’t know if he traveled extensively or if he was relatively sedentary. We don’t know if he was tall, short, fat, skinny, handsome, or ugly. However, one thing we do know is that Euclid’s work, though purely mathematical, bore a tremendous influence on a wide variety of fields of knowledge.

Euclid’s Elements set out to prove the whole of mathematics deductively from very simple definitions, axioms, and postulates. Deductive logic provided a sound and absolute basis by which mathematics operated for every man, whether rich or poor, high-born or peasant, male or female, famous or obscure. During the 16th and 17th Centuries, this strong foundation became lauded and sought after by philosophers, who began attempting to provide all philosophy with the rigor one found in the Elements. The appeal was obvious: if one could deductively prove his philosophical system, in the manner that Euclid had proved his geometry, then one would be left with incontrovertible conclusions to questions which had previously been highly disputed. Such extremely notable philosophers as Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza, amongst countless others, attempted to replicate the Definitions-Postulates-Proofs format Euclid had employed in order to settle questions of morality and ethics and governance.

Martial philosophy was no less affected, in that period. The sword and swordplay, especially, underwent a dramatic evolution during that same time. Just as Hobbes and Spinoza attempted to replicate Euclid for ethics, fencing masters similarly moved toward a more rigorous and geometric approach towards understanding combat. And, in my opinion, they were far more  successful in that endeavor than the philosophers had been.

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The Story of My Rationalism

My parents– like all parents– love to tell stories, bragging about me to their friends. One of their favorites comes from my early childhood. When I was just four or five years old, my Sunday School teacher came to my parents flummoxed, after a particular day of church. She pulled them aside and apologized, telling them that I had asked a lot of questions that she could not answer. In fact, she had never even thought about many of my questions before then. If Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel were the first people, who did Cain think was going to kill him after he had been caught in his crime? Who lived in the land of Nod and how did they get there? If there were no people before Adam and Eve, didn’t that mean Cain married his own sister? I was young, but I loved to think and to learn, and the combination of these three things often brought me to places that my teachers had never even considered.

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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.

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