Why Study the Martial Arts?

A Portrait of Adam Smith 1790
Adam Smith might be a saint of modern Economics, but he was far more than that.

This week, I was reading How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman (2001) and it got me thinking about why we study the martial arts. [I have studied them myself, starting at age 13 and up through much of my adulthood.]

In a discussion of Adam Smith (yes, I mean the founder of modern economics) and his fellows, Dr. Herman explains why Smith backed the idea of a citizen militia — as a counterbalance for the effects of living in a commercialized society. Adam Smith argued that when we live in a commercialized society, we lose touch with the more rough side of our nature.

And it’s true, in my experience. When we work office jobs that require high levels of cooperative effort, there is certainly something lost.

Culture and Human Nature

Cubicle land
This is not the land we were adapted for.

Since this is often a blog on human nature in Western culture — specifically the parts of human nature that come from our primate biology — I want to draw the link that Smith inferred all the way back in the 18th century. Culture and society do not always fulfill every aspect of ourselves. In fact, they suppress parts that make us play less well with others.

But, just as entertainment can provide safety valves for us, as primates, so too can hobbies. Many hobbies can be clearly defined by their links to such primate behavior. Gardening, camping, and combat simulations all provide ways for us to express parts of ourselves “lost” under modern specialization.

That such drives are still powerful are doubly proven by the fact that we actually spend vast amounts of money, time, and effort in studying these “old” forms of knowledge. Yet we have no true desire to fight, to live in the wilds, or to grow all of our own food.

Studying War for Peace of Mind

Two men practicing Tae Kwon Do
Reach out and touch someone — yourself.

So why do we study the martial arts? Perhaps because expressing that part of ourselves, and more so being recognized for it, connects us more deeply with who (and what) we are. That doesn’t mean we need to solve our problems by using them.

When we’re connected to these parts of ourselves, we become more confident in ourselves. We don’t use such training to prepare for being drafted as soldiers — we have formal military training for that.

But for those of us who live the everyday life of a commercialized society, some kind of training is necessary. Truth be told, we don’t study for utility’s sake. We study for peace of mind. Not the peace of mind that comes from meditation, but the kind that comes from discipline, yes, but also from being in touch with ourselves more completely.


The Metaphors of Genres

There’s a disconnect between our imagined humanity and the reality of being a primate. Many of the modern beliefs that we have are aspirational, rather than descriptive.

Whether it’s about the relationship between genders, different ethnic groups, the nature of human violence, or what-have-you, there are a whole variety of beliefs that we’d like to be true, and that we judge each other by.

But at the same time, these ideas (which are a good chunk of culture) are proscriptive rather than descriptive of human nature. Or to put it another way, these rules tell us how to get along, not what it means to be a person.

“Are You Not Entertained?”

Borghese Gladiator Mosaic
Let’s not think too hard what this all means for Roman entertainment choices.

The funny thing (though it isn’t all that funny) is how clear this all is when we look at the safety valves that exist in society and the escapist entertainment that we consume.

It just takes a different perspective for us to understand ourselves a bit better. We just need to take the idea that what we seek out as entertainment is somehow a metaphor for what we’re missing in real life.

That doesn’t mean that everyone who plays shooter games really wants to be some kind of mass murderer. But it might mean that we players, in our everyday lives, find it more necessary to avoid conflict than we instinctively would.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that we should listen to our instincts! It means that the everyday world we’re confronted with isn’t much like the one that we were evolved to exist in. Well, to coin a phrase, “no duh!”

The Detective Story

The theme of a detective story isn’t always that the good guys win in the end. To tell the truth, a lot of the protagonists aren’t particularly “good” people anyway. What is always true in stories that are true to the genre is that everything that happens, happens for a reason.

All detective stories have an underlying theme: no matter how messy things look, they all make sense in the end. Tony Hillerman. Agatha Christie. Heck, even Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series.

In detective stories, things make sense in the end. And that’s a far cry from our real world experience, where we’ll never know it all, see it all, or be able to piece it all together — in the real world, things often don’t make rational sense.

The Action Movie

In just about all action movies, being “right” is the reason that the main character wins. It doesn’t matter how many baddies stand against him or her, the truth of their claims are proof against the realities of tactics, numbers, and training.

Of course, “right makes might” is fantasy fulfillment in the most blatant way. How many times have we been in the right, only to lose out to a more eloquent (if wrong) argument, or more deft political maneuvering? And how frustrating is it that the world is terribly complicated, and problems can’t be solved just by killing them all away.

But we live lives where cooperation is more important than conflict. We work with people, we live with people, and we depend on people for all the necessities of life. Action movies let us dream of a world where it’s more important to be right than it is to get along.

The Romantic Comedy

If wanting, on some basic level, to kill all your problems away (and not acting on it!) makes the action movie genre appealing, then the opposite, the story about being loved in all your imperfection, is the basis of the Romantic Comedy.

To put it all in perspective, most romantic comedies are about someone connecting romantically with an “impossible” partner: the unpopular girl and the captain of the football team, the office clerk and the prince, the heir and the stuntwoman. We might say that the metaphor of the Romantic Comedy is that “love conquers all.”

Romantic love, as part of marriage, is a pretty new (and culturally constrained) idea. Historically, many marriages were as sexy as Wall Street mergers — and as carefully considered.

Are Bureaucrats a Necessary Evil, or Unsung Heroes?

” Excuse me, could I say something? I think we would all like this victory to go out to all the other guys, and I’m talking about the people in this city who are super good at their jobs but never get any credit. Like the lady in the DMV – that’s a rough job. “

We’ve all been to the DMV. We’ve all come face to face with faceless, ungraspable bureaucracy, where the person in front of you only has the authority to say “no.” But the truth is that bureaucrats, like lawyers and police officers, suffer from a terrible reputation that is often undeserved.

They’re frustrating because we don’t know the rules of the game. But their job is to enforce those rules. And without those rules, culture falls apart. Does that mean that every bureaucrat out there is a kindhearted individual? Heck no. But they are the human embodiments of a system that most days, keeps the food moving and the people fed and the kids educated and the transportation system working and the power on.

If we don’t know the rules of the game, that doesn’t mean it’s fixed. And they’re not usually the ones who made the rules and laws anyway. They give a face to faceless bureaucracy. And sometimes that means that we don’t see them as people.

The “Soulless” Bureaucrat

While we can imagine a world where people all choose to do the “right” thing, the reality is that most people, on most days, simply find it expedient to cut a few corners. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that there are seven billion human primates in the world, and we’re not really all that inclined to get along.

It’s easy for us to think about police officers and lawyers as enforcers of law. But there is another force in the rule of law: the quiet, often derided and underestimated bureaucrats. They are the ones who make sure that the “t”s are crossed and the “i”s dotted. While police might be the “hands” of law, and lawyers the “mind,” the solid “body” of governing relies on these people.

We often think of bureaucrats as powerless, and they show up in fiction as petty tyrants or, more rarely, kind guides. And often they are, indeed, personally powerless. But they are, at the same time, necessary cogs in the machine of governance. Every organization moves ahead on paperwork, and these are the masters of it.

Red Tape Is Better than Anarchy

When we think of everyday people as free-willed, freedom-loving, and out to accomplish great things, then the lowly bureaucrat is too easily seen as some kind of villain. But when we remember that all people are really territorial primates not always given to solving their problems for the greater good, we see the need for people who give their lives to making complex systems work.

They’re not glamorous heroes, and there are almost never TV shows about their wacky adventures. But they are the everyday people who bring complex systems to life. Their job is to help us all get along with the world.

Bureaucrats don’t chase down criminals and they don’t change the law — but these are the everyday enforcers who make sure that we have car insurance, drivers licenses, and roads to drive on. They make sure that our food is clean and that records are kept. In short – they work to make sure that we get to keep living in civilization.

“…And I Feel Fine”

Sunset over New York City - 1932
Are we in the sunset of Western civilization?

The “End of the World” is always an alluring subject.

I’m not referring to people’s religious convictions about a coming Apocalypse, Armageddon, or Ragnarök. I’m thinking of every survivalist out there and everyone who obsesses about earthquakes, global warming, tornadoes, invasion from China, and so forth. It’s not that these things couldn’t happen. It’s just that change — even massive, disruptive change — isn’t anything new.

Climate Science as Apocalypse

I’m not a climate-science denier. Yes, global warming is happening. Yes, it is going to terribly impact weather patterns, and thus food production and the frequency of “natural disasters.” And yes, policy-level decisions made at this time will work to ameliorate the impact some of these challenges. Otherwise, things will be messier than they need to be.

But that’s a far cry from the collapse of civilization, the death of Western culture, and a Mad Max-like future. The changes that will be necessitated are probably no more massive than the ones that were caused by the Industrial Revolution and the Digital Revolution.

Yes, we are right to worry about the disruption that man-made climate change will bring. But we’re not taking into account the fact that in a larger sense we’ve already lived through changes just as massive and just as terrible.

The Times, They Are A’Servin’

In Katrina's Wake
We can expect to see an increase in natural disasters.
We can also expect to see people adapting resiliently.

In the past 200 years, about three quarters of the people in Western culture have completely changed their lifeways. Two centuries ago, we were mostly small-field agrarians. Life changed, and people became factory workers. It changed again, and now many of us work in service industry jobs.

The true scope of the service industry is bigger than we usually think. It’s made up of everyone who doesn’t actually produce things we need, pass down culture, or protect our people and way of life.

You might think that you’re not in the service industry, but it’s wider than we usually acknowledge. If you’re a computer programmer and you make video games, you’re in the service industry every bit as much as your friend who works at Starbucks. The entertainment industry, to name one, is little more than a more-respected part of the service industry — at least in the hunter-gatherer sense.

Many of these “service” jobs are lucrative, from movie and sports stars to the founders of companies like “Facebook.” It’s not that these services aren’t real, it’s just that they aren’t usually connected to the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They’re also not usually all that involved in the reproduction of culture — except incidentally.

Back in the “Real” World

At the same time, we’re pushing on the traditionally “productive” (in a cultural sense) professions in order to pay for more entertainment. We’re cutting pay for our teachers, disrespecting our priests, slicing benefits to factory workers, pressing farmers on crop prices, and frowning down upon our soldiers.* In fact, of the traditional professions, only medical doctors seem to be doing well.**

But the point is that we’ve been through massive changes, and we’re still going. On a cultural level, the changes that we face probably aren’t any worse than the ones we’ve already been through. Addressing these problems early and thoughtfully will help us make a smoother transition. But panicking that it’s the “end of the world” will not help us.

* If we put yellow ribbons on our cars, and then don’t react to the VA scandals, what does that say about us?

** As a side note, the respect given doctors can help us understand the power of unions — and by “unions” I mean specifically the American Medical Association.