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Martial Arts and the Heart of Civilisation by Karl-Gustel Wärnberg

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Martial Arts and the Heart of Civilisation

Photo: NTB Scanpix, CC BY NC SA

Perhaps you associate martial arts with barbarism. The glorification of violence, bloodshed elevated to a spectacle, and bruised combatants surely leads the mind more readily to barbarian hordes and a past of warring tribes. St. Augustine famously condemned gladiatorial extravaganzas as barbaric and immoral. Looking more closely at martial arts, however, it becomes clear that they have aimed to serve as civilising phenomena, rather than outlets for our barbaric urges. 

Turning to our own civilisation, we find numerous examples of martial arts and references to bloodsports. In fact, boxing—the archetype of western combat sports alongside wrestling—is said to have originated with none other than the god Apollo. According to Philostratus the Elder, Apollo defeated Phorbas in a boxing bout, and Herodotus stated that Apollo stood victorious in the first Olympic Games against his brother Ares. Another form of ancient Greek martial arts was pankration, a fusion of boxing and wrestling. Hercules is said to have used this form of combat to fight the Nemean lion while Theseus used it to fight the Minotaur. 

“Hercules and the Nemean Lion,” an early 17th century bronze statue on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The literary canon of Western civilisation can be said to commence with Homer and his Iliad and Odyssey. In book 23 of the Iliad, the funeral of Patroclus involves funeral games, including boxing. Epeus, son of Panopeus and defined as a “skilled boxer” claims: “I am the best boxer of all here present, and none can beat me.” Introducing this scene, Homer characterises boxing as a “painful art.”

Doubtlessly, combat sports were on the mind of the Ancients, as is further evidenced by the fact that many of the greatest minds take to boxing or wrestling as examples of philosophical principles. Plato mentions boxing in six of his dialogues and wrestling in thirteen. In the Laws, he uses pankration, boxing, and wrestling as examples of the taught and the untaught and compares it to those who are well-trained for war. Aristotle turns to boxing to exemplify the failures of a one-size-fits-all mentality in education. A good “professor of boxing,” he writes, does not impose the same fighting style to all his students. Plotinus, too, in the sixth Ennead, uses boxing to specify what he means by qualities. Reasoning is a power of man qua man, but boxing is not. Therefore, rationality is a natural possession, whereas boxing is a quality. He could surely have used many other examples, yet he followed in the footsteps of his masters and referenced martial arts.

Outside of the Western tradition, martial arts holds a key place in civilisation. Some of the oldest martial arts hail from Japan, China, and India. Often, different schools or styles will compete as to the authenticity and antiquity of their pedigree. More often still, the truth is veiled behind the mist of time. Common to all claims to ancient origins is a belief that there is wisdom passed down through the ages that only combatants engaged in special techniques are privy to. There is also a sense that there should be a way of proving efficiency in battle and effectiveness of style. The more ancient a martial art, surely the more efficient. So goes the reasoning. In recent years, with the advent of Mixed Martial Arts under the auspice of companies such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) this theory has fallen foul to the principle of verification. Here the mystery in which varying art forms are shrouded is rendered obsolete: if you can’t defend yourself, it doesn’t matter how old your style is. Despite recent developments of the sport, which have become organised, regulated and invited spectators on a global scale, the roots of martial art are visible, albeit slightly blurred.

Originally, combat sports were connected to myth and warfare. If one wasn’t able to go to armed war one must at least be able to prove strength through unarmed combat. Philostratus wrote of the development of boxing in Sparta, stating that it “was a discovery of the Lacedaemonians, and Polydeuces was the best at it and for this reason the poets sang of him in this event. The ancient Lacedaemonians boxed for the following reason: they had no helmets, nor did they think it proper to their native land to fight in helmets.” In other words, boxing was developed (on this account at least) to harden one’s body and face in order to endure physical punishment, while keeping the face free of helmets and relying on shields instead. Yet, Philostratus adds, the Spartans “quit boxing and the pankration as well, because these contests are decided by one opponent acknowledging defeat and this might give an excuse for her detractors to accuse Sparta of a lack of spirit.” 

While the connection between bloodsport and warfare clearly exists, then, it has been obscured due to a long time of peace. The recent war in Ukraine, however, showed us how some of Ukraine’s—and the world’s—best boxers, such as the Klitschko brothers, Usyk, and Lomachenko remained in their home country to fight if needs be. When we watch martial arts, the connection to warfare is clear, as the aim is still to subdue an opponent, with the added proviso that injuries (especially long-term ones) are avoided as far as possible. Fans will still chant songs about going to war with their favoured combatant and fighters speak of eliminating their opponent. Much of this is spectacle to sell ‘pay-per-views,’ the preferred mode of pay television used by many combat sports promotions. 

Behind the history of martial arts, the myths, and connection to warfare, many life lessons have been gleaned through centuries of fighting. Plato used gymnastics as a form of teaching readers that there is an ‘invisible measure’ which guides us. There is right and wrong, for these are not subjective criteria. We see this clearly when we approach physical exercise, where one realises a measure exists both outside ourselves and within our own body. Raise this one level of abstraction when considering virtues, and we can see that we are capable of doing good things, but we can also choose to act against the good. There is a measure which exists and which should guide our actions, but it takes years of effort and practice to attain both the knowledge and the practical skill to employ it. 

Fighting teaches us a lot about ourselves. A person who has never entered a combat situation has little possibility to know how he or she would act in such a situation. One learns how one handles being nervous, how to deal with fear and pain. There are other ways of doing this, but fighting cuts to the core of human existence by having accompanied us since the conception of humankind. It touches a deep-seated drive to prove ourselves stronger than others and to protect our kin, yet through martial arts we also learn to hone these skills and temper our temperament. 

The dawn of Western civilisation carried a strong focus on martial arts. In a world where war often lurked around the corner, it was paramount that one should be able to defend oneself. In our times, war again haunts our continent. It may be time to rediscover our martial roots. Alongside a sense of self-preservation, many other life lessons can be acquired in the gym, such as courage and perseverance. A well-rounded human being must care for both body and soul. All the same, as an ancient and currently pressing saying goes: si vis pacem, para bellum—if you want peace, prepare for war.

Karl-Gustel Wärnberg holds an M.A. in the History of Science and Ideas from Uppsala University. He is the editor-in-chief of Fighter Magazine, Sweden’s oldest martial arts magazine.