Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Plato said knock you out (New Philosopher)

I've an essay in the most recent New Philosopher magazine: 'Plato said knock you out'. I'm discussing the ethical benefits of martial arts practice, which complement a philosophical life.

(For more on this, see Philosophy and the Martial Arts, which I edited with graham Priest.)

The New Philosopher essay isn't online (yet), but here's a sample:
The father of Western philosophy was a fighter. This is not a metaphor. Yes, Plato battled figuratively against Greek relativism and romanticism, symbolized by the Sophists and poets. But the great Athenian scholar also fought literally. The historian Diogenes LaĆ«rtius tells us that Platon, meaning ‘broad shouldered’, was the philosopher’s wrestling nickname. As a prominent aristocrat, Plato was known for his pedigree and youthful poetry, but also for his physique: the muscles of a gifted grappler, who reportedly competed at the Isthmian Games.  
And for all his wariness of the body and its wayward desires, Plato also recommended wrestling for the youth. In his dialogue Laws, he spruiked the benefits of stand-up grappling. This had a straightforward military use, developing “strength and health” for the battlefield. But it also cultivated character if “practiced with a gallant spirit.” The overall impression is that physical virtues encourage psychological excellence: perseverance, courage, and perhaps a greater sense of autonomy. 
Plato also believed that the martial arts were training in what might be called ethical competition. He pointed out that athlete Iccus of Tarentum put sport before sex. “Such was his passion for victory, his pride in his calling, the combined fortitude and self-command of his character, that,” wrote Plato, “he never once came near a woman, or a boy either, all the time he was in training.” This outlook, argued Plato, might easily move from the wrestling school to public life. You think winning a grappling match is a buzz? Think of victory over your own lust and delusion. “If they achieve it,” says the Athenian, “we shall tell them, their life will be bliss; if they fail, the very reverse.”  
So at the very beginnings of Western philosophy we have martial arts: not simply as a hobby, but as a moral and political policy. Nietzsche certainly echoed this combative credo, but most reflection is seen as a genteel business. Was Plato…unphilosophical?

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