Fighting and Philosophy

Let me recommend to you Gordon Marino's recent essay in the New York Times, "Boxing Lessons"  and his earlier essay "The Socratic Art of Boxing," published originally in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Marino, an ex-boxer and presently a Kierkegaard scholar, teaches philosophy and trains student boxers at St Olaf's College in Minnesota.  He argues that a life of fight-clubbing and fisticuffs may be conducive to the good life.  He blames the current objections to the martial arts to European culture's separation of the body and the soul:
Western philosophy, even before Descartes’ influential case for a mind-body dualism, has been dismissive of the body. Plato — even though he competed as a wrestler — and most of the sages who followed him, taught us to think of our arms and legs as nothing but a poor carriage for the mind.  In “Phaedo,” Plato presents his teacher Socrates on his deathbed as a sort of Mr. Spock yearning to be free from the shackles of the flesh so he can really begin thinking seriously. In this account, the body gives rise to desires that will not listen to reason and that becloud our ability to think clearly.
It's worth noting that the Asians never suffered from such quaint ideas, if I can trust the TV series Kung Fu, that is.  The longstanding dualist assumption also accounts for European and American Christians' disapproval of sex, tempered by a gradual acceptance of sex in marriage and only for the sake of procreation, an institution and pursuit St Paul actively discouraged and Jesus never exemplified.  In the late middle ages, the Scholastics (Christian Neo-Platonists) got this notion from, they thought, Plato (highly unlikely, given the man's fondness for ephebes--he was entirely in favor of eros that could be sublimated into high ideals, a practice more easily achieved through the love of transiently beautiful young men than through a wife, who, presumably, saddled one down forever), and the church-men's high valuation of the institution of monogamous marriage they took, unacknowledged, from the pagan Roman virtues of pietas, duty to gods, family, and state.

Marino goes on to suggest that, after the Enlightenment, perhaps due to contact with Eastern concepts of holism, Western philosophy began to take steps to correct this false assumption about the nature of our humanity:
Hegel suggests that it is in mortal combat with the other, and ultimately in our willingness to give up our lives, that we rise to a higher level of freedom and consciousness. If Hegel is correct, the lofty image that the warrior holds in our society has something to do with the fact that in her willingness to sacrifice her own life, she has escaped the otherwise universal choke hold of death anxiety. Boxing can be seen as a stylized version of Hegel’s proverbial trial by battle and as such affords new possibilities of freedom and selfhood.
Boxing, as well as wrestling and mixed martial arts, "makes people feel more at home in themselves, and so less defensive and perhaps less aggressive."  Our responses to fear and anger determine the kinds of people we become.  Marino takes Freud and Aristotle as authorities on the negative impact of these emotions if left bottled up inside.  An interest in the preservation and care of the body is just one step away from the preservation and care of the soul, if, that is, the two are even distinguishable, which, as a philosophical materialist, I doubt.

Aristotle's (and, by the way, Confucius') concept of praxis (or "practice") involves the use of bodily actions as a way to shape and improve the human being in his or her entirety.  Learning to live well and behave properly, through self-discipline, is the path to self-knowledge and self-actualization.  The indispensable key to moral and ethical conduct is courage.  Handling oneself on a mat, in a ring, or in the parking lot behind the bar, is "practice" in the essential arts of self-awareness (of one's strengths and weaknesses) and courage.

Marino, again:
“Know thyself” was the Socratic dictum, but Tyler Durden, the protagonist in the movie “Fight Club,” asks, "How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?" Although trainers of the bruising art wince at the notion that boxing equals fighting, there can be no doubt that boxing throws you up against yourself in revealing ways. Take a left hook to the body or a trip to the canvas, and you soon find out whether you are the kind of person who will ever get up.
"If violence is defined as purposefully hurting another person," Marino argues, in defense against boxing's detractors, "then I [have] seen enough of that in the philosophical arena to last a lifetime."  Indeed, I have sensed more malice in gossipy "prayer requests" at a Wednesday night prayer meeting at church than I ever sensed in the fighting men I have known in my life:  soldiers, wrestlers, and (if they count too) fencers, mainly.

The purging (cathartic) effect of a good fight is worth any number of psychotherapy sessions.  This was my experience in my own troubled youth anyway.  Not that I have anything to say against psychotherapy for those for whom it works.  It just never did work for me as well as a push and a shove and a wildly thrown punch with another hot, sweaty, and nervous body.


  1. Western culture is very good at compartmentalizing things, and it's to our detriment. To fix that, there have been countless books, wellness movements, etc over the last 40 or so years, encouraging holistic approaches to diet, health, spirituality, etc. It only makes sense to encompass physicality/conflict as well; after all it's part of our heritage/instinct. Still, I haven't considered this question until now, with this posting. Growing up I hated gym class and competitive sports. Today at age 54 I still avoid team sports, but I yearn to get into a ring or on a mat. The desire has never been greater. Why? My wanting to get pushed/tested? To push back? To get humiliated - or score - in front of a crowd? This blog entry provokes me to think about these questions finally, and try to put some personal responses together. And now I really need to find a mat and someone to roll around with/on/under.


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