Sartrean Martial Arts

Martial Arts and Philosophy: Beating and Nothingness is a collection of essays edited by Australian martial arts Graham Priest and Damon A. Young. From the cover it totally looks like all those other martial arts books lining the shelves…you know the ones you pick up and flip through and toss back where you found them knowing that they were written by some tool who thinks he knows better and has discovered some great mystery. This title however, turned out to be nothing like that.  What makes this book refreshing and enjoyable  is it’s unique approach.  The editors and in fact all of the contributors to the work are philosophers, most of them professors of philosophy at major universities.  Also, they are most trained in Western Philosophical schools of thought.  They therefore contextualize their martial art experience as well as what they have learned of the mental, spiritual, and philosophical side of martial arts through physical practice and the written works of great martial artists and Buddhist and Taoist thinkers, within the context of Western philosophy; Plato, Socrates, Stoicism, Existentialism, Feminism, etc. (Etc. is a cop-out here…I’ve only read up through the chapter on feminism!).  Most of these Western philosophies are somewhat ingrained within us, at least conceptually if not by name, as 21st Century human beings and therefore, these writers take some of the most complex martial arts related concepts (what is mastery, who is a virtuous person, how do we treat others on and off the mat, what responsibility do we assume for our students and classmates as well as those we may fight against) and makes them far more approachable, understandable, as well as really  interesting from a comparative standpoint.

Existentialist Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche

For instance, so far, the section on existentialism has been my favorite.  In this section, the author discuss how martial arts practice can lead to a sense of fulfillment, the perception of living a meaningful life, and he contextualizes this within existentialist theory.  “Traditional martial arts,” he writes, “provide a framework for living a meaningful lie in a world that lacks objective meaning.  In other words, martial arts fit particularly well with the existentialist understanding of the human condition” (where existence and behavior are complete subjective – you are what you chose to be).  Human existence, according to Nietzsche (an early existentialist philosopher), was in and of itself meaningless.  There are no real values to look to in terms of determining our actions and really, he said, we have no essence beyond what we create ourselves.  “Like soldiers who are abandoned with no hope of victory, we can continue to fight, but our actions will not affect any final outcome.”  Sartre, another philosopher from this school, argued that even despite this, it is possible to live a life that is meaningful and fulfilling, since, necessarily, our existence precedes our essence.  We create ourselves through the choices we make and the actions we take and we are therefore, only fully human when we exercise the ability to define and redefine ourselves.  In other words, according to Sartre, we become fully human when we strive form self-improvement and transcendence.  What better way to fulfill this dual goal than through the practice of martial arts.  Martial arts provides us with constant opportunities for self improvement.  Just look at Master Pearson’s outline of the concept of self-reprimand.  Look at the framework of Hagsaeng Naebu even…it was established to provide us with a more direct or more intense path for the perfection of our bodies and minds – each meeting is an opportunity for the of us, under Master Pearson’s guidance,  to essentially recreate ourselves; to go beyond whatever our current understanding and abilities. The author, who is a Karate practicioner, concludes his chapter with words that resonated deeply with me and I think it would ring true for many martial artists out there in the world.  He writes…

“Perhaps the greatest value of the martial arts is that they provide a response to the absurdity of human existence [that our actions, in light of the cosmos, ultimately are meaningless, except of the meaning we create for them].  If I and the other students of martial arts did live in violent environments in which we could expect to be attacked by, or have to attack other human beings, then the use of tasers, pepper spray, and handguns might be more a part of our training.  Instead, in the dojo in which I train, the focus is on traditional empty hand skills.  We follow a traditional hierarchy and wear traditional uniforms.  Much of what we do is not obviously connected to contemporary life and cultre.  The fact that we spend years trying to improve and perfect a particular series of movements in a kata is really difficult to explain.  But, it is in its disconnectedness to anything but self-devvelopment that we find the true value of martial arts study.  While I’m not overly concerned about being attacked, I am concerned about living a fulfilling life.  I appreciate knowing that if I am in a self-defense situation, need to guard a nightclub door, or find myself in a brutal island tournament, I have the requisite skills.  But this is not why I have spent years studying Karate.  In the face of a world without meaning, I want to consciously and authentically make choices that cultivate, develop and refine my existence.  I study Karate because it provides a structure for this, and offers skills to aid this pursuit.  Martial arts in their highest form are concerned with self developement for its own sake.  Anyone who sees the human condition from an existentialist perspective, and commits himself or herself to pursuing perfection through the martial arts, does so in heroic defiance of the absurdity of life” (“Sparring with Emptiness” Kevin Krein).


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