Plato, Courage and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ)
Can Martial Arts Lessons Really Teach Your Kids Courage?
Plato’s teacher Socrates had a lot to say about martial arts. “The Republic” is famous for the story of the cave, but it’s equally remarkable as one of the first recorded debates on whether a trained fighter could beat multiple untrained guys, which is one of these tricky subjects like free will which keeps sparking debates between friends, scientists, and philosophers without ever reaching a conclusion. Socrates had an amazing ability to pick out these kinds of topics and somehow speak sensibly on them while admitting that he didn’t know the answer.
In “Laches” Socratese adresses another topic that remains important but unresolved today “will signing my kids up for martial arts classes waste their time or improve their character?” The story begins when two wealthy men who have just seen a demonstration of “fighting in heavy armor” (The classical Geek equivalent of Tae Kwon Do) ask Socrates if they should sign their sons up for lessons.
The dialogue has shocking parallels to the contemporary american context, where practically every child attends Tae Kwon Do lessons at some point but the benefits of such lessons remain unclear. Every parent should read Laches, because Plato is especially funny and thought provoking when you have “skin in the game.”
Socrates forces the fathers to clarify what qualities young men ought to have, and then decide which of those qualities is fostered by martial arts lessons. Unsurprisingly, the Athenians answer that martial arts lessons should foster courage, but disagree about what courage is and whether or not learning martial arts fosters it. Some argue that the training builds confidence and that courage is a kind of confidence. Socrates refutes this by pointing out that it’s much more courageous to fight without skill, than when one knows one can win easily.
Others make the familiar argument that martial arts (beyond conventional military training) are all just a bunch of tricks that “don’t work” and students end up looking ridiculous and full of false confidence, which can’t be courage because courage is admirable and not somethingidiotic.
Sensing an impasse, Socrates further abstracts the debate, to a discussion of what Courage is, and a definition of courage emerges which clarifies how courage and confidence can be developed through the study of any noble art. So now lets talk about Brazillian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ).
Brock Lesnar is a famous Olympic Wrester, WWE star and former UFC heavyweight Champion. Brock is unusally strong for a 265 lbs man, and could easily beat 99% of the worlds BJJ blackbelts in hand to hand combat, yet he only has a bluebelt in BJJ.
In contrast, Joao Miyao weighs less than 135lbs and could hardly be expected to defeat any 265lbs athlete in MMA combat. Is there some objective test of what Miyao has gained through his training that makes him superior to Lesnar despite being unable to defeat him? There are many ways to demonstrate the difference, but one particularly visceral example is Miyao’s “rubber legs”. Like many top level black belts, Miyao almost never taps to leglocks.
Professional BJJ fighters, are often praised for having “superior” flexibility, or some other attribute that allows them to ignore submissions,especially joint-locks. Black Beltsare said to have “tough necks” and “iron tendons” that allow them to resist attacks from amateurs. While it’s comforting for us to imagine our superiors as super human monsters, the real difference is mental. High level BJJ fighters are hard to defeat because of their experience.
BJJexperts know when they are in danger, and also the extent of the danger with a much higher degree of accuracy than less experienced fighters. This allows them to sense, for example, that even though their joint is 9 degrees away from an unacceptable injury, the relative position of the opponent’s body only allows for 8 degrees of further extension. Under these circumstances the seasoned BJJ competitor can simply ignore submission and deny the opponent the points he would otherwise receive for a “valid” submission attempt.
In contrast, a less skillful fighter, such as a blue belt can not divine the opponent’s potential extension of his joint within ten degrees of accuracy, and is forced to treat any situation where his joint is close to the breaking point as potentially catastrophic. The blue belt’s options are summarized in the idiom “tap, snap or nap” meaning: give up, suffer a severe orthopedic injury, or lose consciousness due to stragulation. This was the choice presented to Brock Lesnar in his fight with Frank Mir. Brock cautiously tapped to the knee lock long before a more seasoned fighter would have been unable to escape.
Why is it so hard to get seasoned BJJ fighters to tap to dangerous joint locks? Why will some MMA fighters tap so easily to techniques which BJJ fighters wouldn’t even bother defending? The difference is courage of the kind discussed in Laches.
For the purposes of this article courage means “knowledge of what to fear.” Many cowardly people will happily have their arm removed if a doctor tells them the alternative is death. Only a courageous person, would shield a child from gunfire using their own body. The difference between the courageous and cowardly man is that a courageous man knows in his soul that “his own death is a good outcome compared to the death of a child.” so he eagerly jumps in front of the bullet.
In his fight with Frank Mir, Brock lacked the wisdom to act courageously, because he didn’t know if it was better to persist or surrender. Brock was unfamiliar with the hold applied to his knee and since he didn’t know whether or not he was in danger, he slowed down which allowed Mir to stabilize the position. Brock surrendered the fight when he saw no other option. Lack of courage causes inelegant movement and untimely surrender, which are exactly the opposite traits we associated with someone skilled in martial arts.
Why is it, that a skilled martial artist develops such beautiful elegant movements and perseveres to victory long after unskilled observers have started planning his funeral? The answer is that martial arts training does develop confidence and courage just as the rumors suggest. Taking BJJ as an example, a trainee is exposed to threatening situations over and over again until he understands them theoretically and kinsethetically. With every training session his vision of the situation becomes clearer and his confidence grows, exactly like a driver who speeds up and changes lanes more freely as he moves from a foggy night to a clear morning. During the course of mastery the superior knowledge of risks of bodily harm, gives a fighter’s moments a smooth and efficient quality that people find beautiful. Clearly martial arts training engenders confidence and courage.
However, the problem remains that this courage is situational. Later in his career Lesnar courageously took a violent beating at the hands of Shane Carwin and came back to win the fight. Lesnar’s training as a wrestler and football player gave him a profound understanding of the art of holding an opponent down and administering a beating, so he rightly chose to endure a seemingly hopeless situation in pursuit of the “higher value” of honor. He survived and went on to win beautifully. One of the great things about MMA is that we regularly see the same fighters behave courageously and non-courageously due to imbalances in their technical knowledge. Socrates would ask: Does martial arts really develop courage if it produces people who are sometimes courageous and sometimes not courageous?
There’s also the problem of fool hardiness, how can rash actions closely resemble courageous ones while embodying their opposite? The answer is that rash actions are opposite because they involve risking a lower value for a higher value. It’s beautiful and inspiring to see fighters tolerate pain in pursuit of honor, but disgusting to see people sacrifice their health in pursuit of pride. (Foolish pride, not the good kind like you want.)
A good example of this principle is the MMA career of CM Punk. In his last MMA fight, Punk clearly lacked the necessary skill to defend himself in the Octagon. His defeat was a forgone conclusion and the amount of damage he took was completely at the discretion of his opponent. Despite his popularity as a WWE star, most observers found his performance hard to watch because his inept movements demonstrated that he had put his health at risk for egotistical reasons. If he had been equally inept in an attempt to save an old woman from a mugger, his actions would have displayed the kind of inspirational courage that any parent would be proud to instill in their children. So if I maintain that martial arts develop courage, I need to explain how it can be that in some situations a small amount of martial arts training is sufficient to display extreme courage, but in other situations the same level of training might be used to display a disgusting degree of recklessness.
Clearly, if Brock Lesnar can be non-courageous when caught in a submission, and highly courageous when being pined down and beaten; while Joao Miyao can have the opposite traits, there must be something common to both of them which is more essential to courageous behaviors than specific training.
Furthermore, whatever the commonality between Miyao and Lesnar may be, CM Punk must lack this characteristic when engaging in MMA, and an untrained person must have it when they risk their life to disarm a terrorist. So what is this most important quality? and, can it be fostered by martial arts lessons? I submit to you that the essence of courage is “ willingly assuming risk according to correct knowledge of right and wrong.”
A person acts courageously when she consciously risks something in pursuit of something more important. Throwing acid in someones face as an act of revenge is dangerous because of the legal risks, but not courageous because it’s immoral. Likewise, opposing revenge based acid attacks is moral, but not courageous in my case because there is no risk involved. Finally, it would not be courageous to go somewhere where acid attacks were popular and rudely decry them simply to call attention to myself, because it would recklessly place pride above the higher values of politeness and self preservation. The above appears fine as far as it goes, so I’ll use my definition of the essence of courage until I find a better definition or a counter example.
If I’ve reasoned correctly, martial arts training can give the display courage in cases where it would not be possible without such training, but can martial arts training instill the essential principle of Courage? I’m reluctant to answer this question because I can’t prove my theory, but I believe the answer is “yes”.
I’ve noticed that acting in a cowardly or reckless manner, is very painful. It’s hard to live with the memory of having run away from a righteous fight, or injured oneself for a foolish reason. Not only does one suffer social disapproval and guilt, but by their very nature cowardice and recklessness involve trading something more valuable for something less valuable.
A cowardly or reckless person constantly suffers the pain of loss, and the lowered self regard that comes with acting irrationally. Even a psychopath feels pain when he remembers a reckless or cowardly action. In contrast, courageous actions attract praise and always look good in hindsight, because they involve protecting something valuable by sacrificing something less valuable. If somebody knows the pleasure of courageous actions and the pain of cowardice and recklessness, she’s very unlikely to turn away from something pleasurable and towards something painful when confronted by a challenge. It is my strong but unsubstantiated belief that training in a martial arts which repeatedly provide the opportunity to act in a courageous, fool hardy, or reckless manner does instill the essence of courage, because it allows young people to experience the three states associated with these types of action and realize that courageous actions are invariably the most rewarding and pleasurable.
However, as Socrates points out, a final question remains as to which things are to be valued more than others. The essence of courage is wonderful, but without a standard by which to evaluate “good and bad” nobody can act courageously, and it’s unclear which extra-curricular activities promote knowledge of “goodness” itself. Perhaps the most courageous thing to do would be abandon all other pursuits and run-off in search of a teacher who can show us how to act in accordance with the “Good” since good behavior will necessarily encompass courageous behavior and every other human excellence. My only fear is that no such teacher exists and undertaking th search would be reckless.