The Ancient Greek philosophers not only wrote about martial arts: they practiced them as well. What motivated them, and how did it fit into their worldview? Andreas Kinneging, Professor of Philosophy of Law at Leiden University helps us answer these questions.
When speaking about the Greeks and violence we have to begin with Homer, says Professor Kinneging. Homer devotes an entire book in his Iliad to athletics. Spear throwing, horse-riding and so on. Hunting is also a sport. In fact, it is the most important. Hunting is referred to in the Odyssey: Odysseus is recognised by his people by a hunting injury on his leg. Hunting is a preparation for war. Sport in general is as well. “That’s why there are group sports: they are collaborative. Then there are individual sports: javelin, boxing, wrestling. A third category is equestrian sports. All of these are important for war, and so sports has always been connected to warfare. This is very clear.”
WAR AND PEACE
A further question, which follows from what has been said above, Kinneging reasons, is the relation between war and peace. If one wants peace, one has to prepare for war. One must be willing to wage war if one wants peace and liberty. There can be no peace and freedom if one is not prepared to defend the home and one’s community. In this sense there must be an awareness of a certain structure of reality: namely, there is always the threat of chaos knocking at the door. You have to have virtues in order to establish order on top of chaos. One of the primary virtues is courage (Greek: andreia). The chaotic, the underworld, is what we fear. You need corporal virtues as well: strength, cooperation, endurance, the ability to handle injuries, and to get up when you fall. You also need obedience. All of this is found in sports and athletic training. Athleticism is excellent preparation for fighting, which is a prerequisite to keeping chaos at bay.
The capacity to fight successfully is the father of everything. This has been forgotten, adds the professor. It has fallen into oblivion in the West. We speak of the soldier and of the citizen, but this is a false dichotomy which is completely untenable. The professionalisation of warfare leads to unmanly citizens, who cannot defend their peace and freedom. Hence, it was a very important insight of the Greeks, that we need to prepare for war to safeguard our peace. We have to study the Greeks, because in many respects Greek philosophy is the most realistic philosophy we have.
The capacity to fight successfully is the father of everything. This has been forgotten.
THE MODERN WORLD
Moreover, the modern world has lost the sense of the connection between body and soul. We have to regain this body-soul connection. The virtues we need in war are also needed in peace to establish the working of the state (Greek: polis). We need these virtues to establish the right order in the soul even more. Therefore, to pursue the transcendentals – the True, the Good, and the Beautiful – virtue is needed. Through athletics we see this truth clearly, on a fundamental level. Courage, for example, is a quality of the soul, not the body. But we can see it in practice through sports. Endurance, self-control, moderation and so on are also a part of this. Justice as well. Athletics is a training in justice, good sportsmanship and gentleman virtue. This is yet another thing lost to the modern West. But not entirely. There is always the possibility of perversion, especially in professional sports. When sport becomes too much influenced by money and fame there is a possibility, a likelihood even, that people cheat. Justice is lost then. We need to regain it; the Greeks knew it and the East has retained it.
Gymnastics trains the soul – or at least it should do so. Sport is character building, not body shaping.
Professor Kinneging is a Platonist. We turn to the Father of Western philosophy and look at what he says about sports. Plato criticises the wrestlers in the early books of his Republic (Greek: Politeia). “All they do is sleep all day. They are useless for everything except wrestling. That’s not the guardians we need. We need athletes who can do long marches and do without water for four days, for example. And who can stay awake for four days.” Endurance and courage is shown in such circumstances. “These are the true athletes. True athletes are not sumo wrestlers, who are useless for everything except sumo wrestling. Plato is very clear in book 2-3 of Republic.” Some people read Plato as saying gymnastics (Greek: gymnastiké, meaning athletic exercise) is for the body while music (Greek: musiké) for soul – this is not true. “Gymnastis is for the soul as well. Plato is very explicit about this. Gymnastics trains the soul – or at least it should do so. Sport is character building, not body shaping.”
ARISTOCRACY OF THE SOUL
The ancient Latin adage of mens sana in corpore sano is one to be retained. We find it in ancient Roman, Greek, and Eastern thought. Gymnastics are as important as music, Kinneging reminds us. It is amazing how people manage to read Plato and manage to forget this truth immediately. “Music and philosophy are not understood without gymnastics. Realism is the obvious way of living one would think, but we often live in fantasy and hubris. We need to touch down in reality. And there is no better touch down than sports. Sports is a clear mirror showing you what you can and what youcannot do. When you lose against someone stronger, you know where you stand. You know your place. All of a sudden you understand what it means for someone to be better than someone else. You realise someone is better than you. You understand also the difference between you and the tactics employed better. You learn about aristocracy. The only good regime in the soul and in society is aristocracy, defined as therule of the best.”
Professor Kinneging has recently published the book Invisible Measure: The Archaeology of Good and Evil (Dutch: De Onzichtbare Maat: Archeologie van Goed en Kwaad), which will be translated into English.
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