There’s someone I know who was influenced by the teacher who had the greatest influence on me, and who has read a lot of the same books that I have. Like me, he was not ever really interested in martial arts until the last few years. Without the two of us ever speaking about it, we became independently interested right around the same time. He says that the reason he wants to learn martial arts is because philosophical thought requires speaking about things that will be unsettling to the current regime, and so he doesn’t trust the authorities to protect him if he’s ever in danger. To me, that reads like the sort of self justification I discussed previously that attempts to recreate a line of thinking and lazily settles on something inadequate. He doesn’t care whether the explanation is a good one, because he can do martial arts training if he wants to and no one will stop him no matter how poor his articulation might be. And that’s fine. But I feel like there’s a missed opportunity there, because the actual line of reasoning that leads there can help us understand ourselves, and might end up being much better motivation.
There’s a part of me that wonders whether, if I can find an answer that satisfies me, I’ll have learned about my motivation not just for studying martial arts at some point in the future but also for studying languages, and improving my strength and fitness, and studying philosophy and economics. There are easy, good reasons for all of those things, but I think there’s also a deeper posture behind it all, something that has been really compelling to me, and it is frustrating how difficult it is to try to articulate it. I plan to do at least one more post on this topic after the present one. Perhaps all it will say is, “well that was a failed experiment, I’m no closer to expressing it all now than I was before,” but I really do want to try to pursue this line of thinking as far as I can now that I’ve started, to see if I can manage to turn up anything valuable.
In this post I will try to avoid the most easily dismissed reasons to study martial arts (“Martial arts can be good exercise, sure, but why not just go for a run?” “Martial arts let you participate in a venerable tradition, sure, but why not just go to church or get involved in politics or learn calligraphy?”).
Martial arts is self defence. We are lucky to have a state apparatus that keeps most of us safe, or at least safer than most people at most times through human history. Still, the state is not yet omniscient. There is a a gap between the things that deserve to be punished or prevented, and those that actually are successfully punished or prevented. Martial arts isn’t the only or even the best means of self defence, and it certainly isn’t infallible, but it’s really pretty good. The person who fails to train in martial arts isn’t to blame for suffering a hardship that might have been avoided, but the person who does train might have the good luck of successfully managing to avoid it.
There are also two interrelated benefits of martial arts: character and reputation. In terms of character, I’m not thinking so much of discipline or self-discipline, which is probably where our minds go first. I’m not saying you can’t learn self-discipline from martial arts (though my limited experience with them makes me doubtful that they are uniquely effective at imparting it), nor that I couldn’t stand to learn more self-discipline (though I’m overall pretty pleased with how far I’ve come so far!), but more just that when I examine my attraction to martial arts, that’s not the focus for me. Rather, I think it’s more about self-confidence, and self-confidence particularly in a small subset of situations. I like the idea of being sure of myself, or at least more sure of myself, when in the vicinity of a potentially dangerous person in a location where assistance might not be close at hand. I think that’s what it comes down to.
Reputation. Here again, I feel the need to nuance a bit. When we think of a reason a person might want to study martial arts for the sake of their reputation, our mind might go to, “He wants to be cool, he wants everyone to know or believe that he could beat them up.” This sounds not only superficial, but also a bit small-minded, to me. But I think there is something relatively close to that, which is more in line with what I find myself thinking. I wonder if a good way of speaking about it as the desire to be justly seen as capable. You want the sort of people who aren’t reasonable, who won’t be respectful and thoughtful, to know that in their arena you are capable, and you want those who rely on you to know as well that you are capable relative to such unreasonable people.
There’s community, too, but not just in the sense of spending time with other people. For me, part of the attraction is to spending time with those sorts of people who are drawn to martial arts. I feel like that is a type of person I probably don’t interact with all that much, which seems like a meaningful lack in my social world. I’m interested to remedy that lack, for some reason.
Further thoughts in another post before long!