Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. -Mathew 10:16
My last post, “Against A Life Of The Mind,” warned that pursuing a life of the mind is not very useful, practical, rational, or comforting. It concluded with a warning about mere dabbling in certain mental disciplines: that adding a little bit of consciousness can be destabilizing, much like how your natural gate becomes awkward the moment you start really being aware of how you walk. However, let me make the argument for a life of the mind and explain the utility of pursuing certain mental disciplines far beyond this kind of dilettantism.
I could wax eloquent here about intellectual pleasures, the joy of epiphany, and so forth, but that won’t be very compelling to most people on a purely hedonistic level in this age of synthetic drugs and video games. Aside from just quoting Mathew 10:16, the simplest argument I can offer here is that thought is a form of violence. The disciplines of philosophy and psychology are martial arts. They are most commonly applied as offensive weapons, as a form of social judo, so one would be well advised to learn enough of them oneself to avoid being thrown off balance, manipulated, or hurt. When learned intuitively or informally, these disciplines are nearly always pursued for dominance and power, which goes by many names: influence, social proof, status, respect, recognition, and self-esteem. People generally learn just enough of these martial arts to overpower others, but not enough to overpower themselves, as this would threaten the very security they aim to derive from such competencies. My last post facetiously advised that one forget about wisdom, virtue, etc and simply become cunning and manipulative, but the truth is that an intuitive study of philosophy and psychology is precisely how people become so. We are kinda stuck with this situation and must often fight fire with fire. That is the depressing side of my argument anyway.
The beauty about these martial arts, whether the physical, emotional, or intellectual variety, is that the more rational thought & concentration you apply to them and the more powerful you become, the more peaceful you will be, as violence springs from powerlessness and insecurity. People are violent during their desperate pursuit of power, but are peaceful once it is within view.
Even if someone studies philosophy to overpower others with rhetoric, psychology to manipulate them emotionally, and martial arts to hurt them physically, he will eventually have to turn that will-to-power inwards, towards his own self, if he is to grow more powerful still. Thus, the truth of Blake’s dictum: “if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” With persistence, one will discover that the carrot is always more powerful than the stick, that people are influenced far more by a leader than a cynic, and that a positive solution is always stronger than a smug criticism.
Professor Anton is correct that we cannot eradicate violence with violence, but he is referring to scapegoating and directing violence outwards, not directing it inwards to its true source. One must become one’s own best critic, an opponent to one’s self, in order to reach the highest levels of power and thankfully this has the side effect of fostering gentleness. Peace can be discovered through conflict. There are times when we need to criticize, correct, scold, and restrain, but it takes practice to learn how to do this with care. It is through proper contest that a man learns how to keep his ego in check, keep his thoughts on ice, and spare someone shame instead of always trying to win regard through disregard.
We need very strong ears to hear ourselves judged frankly, and because there are few who can endure frank criticism without being stung by it, those who venture to criticize us perform a remarkable act of friendship, for to undertake to wound or offend a man for his own good is to have a healthy love for him. -Montaigne
A gentleman is not someone who wears “kid gloves” into every situation he encounters, for many situations require a measure of violence, whether verbal or physical. Martial arts training, in the broader sense of the term I am introducing here, produces gentleman precisely because it demands the application of measured violence. Through this training people learn the exact amount of care and gentleness that can still be preserved in various unfortunate situations. They become existentially secure, having already proven themselves in supervised and honorable contests with others. The process of producing gentlemen can only be assured, however, when both the physical and verbal/social martial arts are studied together, as man has physical, emotional, and metaphysical insecurities that incline him towards violence. The three disciplines here discussed must not only be studied persistently, but also studied together, in order that they balance each other out.
While I contend that self-awareness is a good thing, the more of it the better, it must be this well-rounded self-awareness that I describe above, otherwise it is simply neuroticism. One must be aware of the total self. Aristotle reminds us that “an education of the head without one of the heart is no education at all,” but also recall that Aristotle’s Lyceum was a gymnasium! That is, the human being is the amalgam of head, heart (really the right frontal insular cortex), and body. Plato was a wrestler; Socrates a warrior!
Ernest Becker reminds us that madmen are the best reasoners we know and this is their undoing. The “reality head” would do well to shift his awareness from abstract matters to matters of the body and of the proverbial heart. Those obsessed with psychology often lose the objectivity and rigor of logic while nonetheless spending too much time in their heads and too little in their bodies. Those who spend all of their time concentrating on kinaesthetic matters and physical combat can lose touch with the true purpose of their training, when to apply it, as well as lose objectivity as they become consumed with ritual practice that often borders on religious compulsion. Truly living a “life of the mind” (for men, I might qualify) requires the balanced and persistent study of all three disciplines, lest some part of one’s self be overlooked, misunderstood, or sometimes over-trained. Together they provide a preventative medicine for the mind.
So there you have an argument for a life of the mind. Read on if you care to understand this ambiguous situation a little better and how it came to be.
The Birthing Pains of Consciousness
Fools and wise folk are alike harmless. It is the half-wise, and the half-foolish, who are the most dangerous. -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
There was a time before philosophy; a time when the human mind was not conscious of itself in the way it now is. “People” were not capable of long-term deception, rhetoric, or overt emotional terrorism. They could be cruel and nasty, just as primates are much of the time, but they were not yet capable of evil. We tend to think of such primitive times as being the most evil, but this is a mistake based on a lack of written records before the dawning of consciousness (though many early writings refer to a lost “Golden Age”). People in prehistory actually suffered far less than we do, not only because true deception and manipulation were impossible, but also because they couldn’t consciously recall past suffering or imagine future horrors. They were non-conscious: largely confined to the specious present and the memory cues available in their immediate environment. This is what grounds the idea of a “noble savage,” by the way, though he was not so much noble and virtuous as simply incapable of true evil.
Julian Jaynes describes the breakdown of this bicameral mind, but it’s a mistake to think of this as a single precipitous break. In fact, Jaynes describes four stages, and it is the first stage that is actually the most terrible. In our ancient, hunter-gatherer existence, it is true that wars were fought, but tribal leaders hardly endeavored to “conquer the world.” Furthermore, these tribal leaders didn’t rule with an iron fist, as this post explained. They didn’t need to because the tribe was held together by myth and mutual reliance. The breakdown came from the mixing of huge tribes and the conflict of their many incommensurate myths, customs, and languages–the same situation we are presently in, if you will notice. Thus consciousness was born as an offensive weapon for destroying the gods of your enemy, or defensively, for hiding ones true beliefs and feelings while being ruled by foreign overlords. It hasn’t really lost its edge in the last few thousand years either, has it. This is why cocktail party discussions about religion, politics, or metaphysics get so heated. Our body codes a moral threat (a threat to our myth/worldview) as a physical assault, because it was blind adherence to that very myth that ensured inclusion in the tribe and thus physical security.
It is highly instructive to notice that the nastiest times in human history occur in the first stage of the emergence of consciousness, when there is just enough to deploy deception, emotional terrorism, and religion as political control, but not enough for the populace to use these weapons against their overlords or to give these overlords a crisis of conscience. Similarly, in modern times, which are infused with consciousness to begin with, this little bit of consciousness initially acts to weaponize the disciplines under discussion and bring out the worst in them. Thankfully some people discover true power in the process and can stop acting out of pure insecurity. Over historical time, conscious awareness eventually gave us rule by law, philosophy, history, science, etc. However, in modern psychosexual development people usually get stuck in the first one or two stages, using consciousness as a blunt instrument to gain social power. Furthermore, once they reach a plateau of such power, any further researches and study seem to undermine their intuitive and aggressive application of these disciplines. Even the seasoned street fighter largely stays away from formal martial arts training lest it mess up his intuitive fighting style and thoughtless aggression. If consciousness is such an effective weapon, why do social predators usually avoid becoming terribly self-aware regarding their art? Why don’t they use more rational thought and study their discipline formally?
Martial Prowess After The Birth Of Consciousness
The monks who developed Shaolin Kung Fu thought that humans didn’t have natural fighting instincts and therefore proceeded to observe and imitate those of animals. The truth is that conscious humans don’t have fighting instincts, or rather, these are obfuscated by man’s very consciousness. In bicameral times, the martial arts did not exist. In fact, courage didn’t exist, because homo sapiens didn’t have free choice or knowledge of what death really meant. This allowed these humans to push their ligaments and muscles incredibly hard, just as animals do. They could fly into battle with such reckless abandon that they were likely able to perform physical feats beyond what a conscious human could possibly demand of himself. As “humans” evolved, primitive culture allowed for the propagation of spear-throwing and club wielding techniques, which co-evolved with “human” morphology, such that throwing a spear just kinda feels natural for the human form. Thus, non-conscious humans learned hunting and fighting intuitively through serious play. When consciousness was added to the equation quite recently, however, real trickery entered human warfare, of the Sun Tzu variety. Suddenly men could use courage to face down the intimidating charge of an enemy, baiting him into over-committing, and so forth. The conscious human mind was suddenly becoming far more important in determining success in combat than the physical attributes of an individual’s body. However, in this process “people” lost that natural berserker aggression, that “animal courage” of the mythical Achilles. From the emergence of self-awareness on, this natural, intuitive grace and confidence has had an uneasy relationship with the rational mind, which can blunt the former with indecision and prudence, but also hone it to finer edge. This uneasy relationship is what gave birth to the martial arts.
Consciousness not only exposed humans to their own mortality, disrupting their natural confidence, but similarly disrupted their intuitive theory of mind and worldview. Thus the verbal/social martial arts were born in order to preserve, recover, or replace a lost certainty and deal with a new and increasingly ambiguous world.
WMDs (Weaponized Mental Disciplines)
Jaynes implicitly describes consciousness as a mental weapon developed under the pressure to cope with, and defend oneself against, alien peoples of unintelligible languages and unpredictable behaviour competing for the same habitat, i.e. space, or means of subsistence. -Walter Ratjen (2013 Jaynes Conference)
Consciousness first emerged as a mental weapon. For the most part, humans still wield this weapon much as any primate would: to seduce and manipulate each other, to climb the social hierarchy, and generally to stress each other the hell out. We tend to think of consciousness as some kind of immense power that we wield, some great advantage we enjoy over the animals, as it is largely responsible for our domination of the natural world. However, while it is true that we are the most successful predator on the planet, this has also rendered us the most likely prey. Consciousness is a rather mixed blessing when it comes down to it. Though it has added true love to the lust of pair-bonding, it also added anxiety to fear, hatred to anger, guilt to shame, and so forth. Hold on, aren’t I supposed to be defending a “life of the mind”? Let me explain something about “minds.”
Animals have minds–they just aren’t conscious ones. Primates, for instance, have theory of mind–it just hasn’t been weaponized yet. Some animals even have primitive, non-conscious cultures, perpetuated by imitation, but “a life of the mind” is not possible for them. While man was still a pre-conscious animal he yet developed incredibly sophisticated cultures that began to allow him to experience himself, albeit through projected deities, hallucinatory fugues, and so forth. The imagination had man, instead of man having an imagination (largely the state that small children live in, if you will notice). This was the mythical “golden age,” when non-conscious religion organized human societies via a non-conscious “operating system.” However, when this operating system broke down, various mental disciplines were weaponized, a word that we use to describe the forging of something potentially dangerous into something stupendously harmful. A blade, for example, is not inherently a weapon; it can be used as a surgical scalpel or a shank. Similarly, consciousness is not inherently good or evil, but radically empowers either possibility. However, I highly doubt that the first blade was used for medical purposes, so true is Heraclitus’ dictum that “war is the father of all things,” and the same is true of consciousness. For instance, religion used to be a shared mythos that held a tribe together and preserved forms of non-conscious wisdom that helped them survive and get along together, but add consciousness and you see religion produce The Crusades! Similarly, in modern society, kids who haven’t reached the so-called “age of reason” can be cruel, but they are hardly capable of real evil. Add a little bit of reflective self-awareness and you see kids get really nasty. Though these diabolical little creatures have “minds,” these minds are entirely dedicated to monkey politics and they hardly enjoy a “life of the mind,” which is positively discouraged for the most part, as schools generally pursue an agenda of domestication, not empowerment.
My favorite disciplines to study are psychology, philosophy, and physical combat, which you will notice are not included in the curriculum of most schools. Nevertheless, everyone pursues a shallow study of each, half-consciously, but with just enough consciousness to weaponize them. Though the higher primates can be extremely cruel and fight bitter duels over mating rights, gang up on individuals and kill them, etc, it takes conscious humans to be evil enough to bully an individual physically, emotionally, and intellectually to the point that he mutilates or kills himself.
When learned intuitively or informally, these disciplines are nearly always pursued for dominance and power, as I mentioned. This will-to-power manifests initially as physical combat in the form of play-fighting, rough-housing and sports, progresses to psychological play-fighting in the form of teasing and ball-busting, and then finally culminates in rhetorical sparring and every form of priggish snobbery imaginable (most commonly political or religious). While we generally think of physical violence as the worst kind of such aggression, the sad fact is that self-awareness itself opens the human mind to enormous amounts of anxiety–some call this existential guilt–and this insecurity is taken out on others in ways that are hardly preferable to a little schoolyard shoving match.
The martial discipline of philosophy is deployed in the forms of biting rhetoric, harsh criticism, needless contrarianism, scientism, and religious fundamentalism, to name a few. Plato remarked that “rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men” and I don’t need to remind everyone that teenagers generally act more like tyrants than philosopher kings. In schools today, the emotional insult of “dumb ass” slowly begins to grow more barbed and articulate as kids figure out the cognitive errors of their compatriots and start to reveal them with immense glee. Schopenhauer astutely pointed out that social intercourse is often governed by the following maxim: “to disregard is to win regard.” This might as well be the clarion call of the modern age, where science is paraded about in the form of scientism more often than not, allowing people to cut down each other’s beliefs at will with a glib “that’s a myth” or “prove it!” without ever having to state any positive beliefs of their own. The delight that people derive from criticizing each other’s political and religious positions is just incredible, when you think about it. Humans are much more interested in proving their superiority and mocking their fellows than in finding god or enjoying good governance, it seems. This basic sentiment was expressed well by Oscar Wilde when he stated that “morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people that we personally dislike.”
The discipline of psychology usually takes the form of gaslighting, emotional terrorism, overzealous teasing, as well as essentially being a jerk and denying a fundamentally social animal the solace of inclusion and brotherhood. There are just too many forms to even scratch the surface of this martial art, but one will recognize the violence often hidden in the backhanded compliment, the loaded question, the humble-brag, and many other psycho-martial techniques that are all, as Ernest Becker might call them, “petitions for self-worth” at the expense of another’s. Physical play-fighting often becomes too violence simply because kids don’t know the rules (ie whether a knuckle in the ribs is a fair move in playful wrestling). Similarly, there is nobody establishing the rules for a fair contest of ball-busting, leaving every little cadre of kids to work out among themselves where to draw the line between public character assassination and simple kidding.
The physical martial arts hardly progress past physical coercion and bullying except when combined with these verbal/social forms. It should go without saying that these disciplines are most often combined in some manner, such as when an emotionally hurtful ad hominem is added to one’s rhetoric while aggressively leaning towards the interlocutor. The more consciousness is added to these pursuits, the more insidious they become initially.
It is not ferocity but cunning that strikes fear into the heart and forebodes danger; so true it is that the human brain is a more terrible weapon than the lion’s paw. -Schopenhauer
Peace Through Conflict
Again, I am not suggesting that even these “weaponized” mental disciplines are evil, for they each have their own utility. Competition makes life interesting. I’d far prefer to discuss politics than how the Yankees are doing, even if my partner in the discussion is a snob. Intellectual sparring, even if it gets nasty, at least motivates thinking and spares us from the boredom of small talk. Similarly, teasing has many uses, especially when it doesn’t go too far. There were plenty of awkward, weird things that I did, said, or thought that I am thankful to my friends for disabusing me of. Teasing can be its own form of care and a gesture of solidarity. Gossip has been a check on the powerful for a very long time. Regarding physical violence, this helps develop physical strength, knowledge of where you stand in the pecking order, and if done right, a sort of “unit cohesion” and trust. But this all worked better in tribal or “village” life and easily goes awry in the modern metropolis where we hardly rely on those we went to school with even if we did bond with them, trust them, and develop a “team” mentality. We are on our own in modern society and cannot rely on the “tribe,” our buds, the team, or whatever. This is why the personal practice of the “martial arts,” as I’ve been using the term, is so necessary. In modern society, the violence that we see is not the result of too much martial arts training, but too little, as the martial arts afford an incredible opportunity for a real moral education. One can gain many life lessons from a street fight.
Ernest Becker argued that human beings are fundamentally conflicted, having two opposed drives: Eros and Agape. Agape is like people’s naive vision of peace or heaven: an eternal melting into the mother’s breast, acceptance, safety, etc. Eros is the desire for expansion, challenge, individuation. The warrior has nearly always sought acceptance by the tribe (Agape) by means of proving himself in competition with his fellows (Eros) towards the ultimate purpose of joining his brothers in the hunt or in battle (Eros again)–this is how he aligned the two antagonistic motives. The desire for expansion is an expansion of self, beyond one’s current self, such that an agon within the soul is sought; a competition with ones self, often by means of internalized hero figures (Plato’s Socrates for Plato, etc). We expand and grow by competition and conflict, not by tolerance, acceptance, Agape, or peace (in the naive sense). The male spirit (“thumos”) must be sated, it must grow powerful, otherwise it will not be at peace, but will feel vulnerable, unproven, unworthy and it is out of this insecurity that it becomes pathologically violent. The martial arts both humble the ego and encourage the spirit, and this is done through conflict, not chanting “love, love, love.” Furthermore, men need to learn to withstand and dispense measured violence, as the earlier Montaigne quote aptly gets across. Internal peace is not the absence of conflict–this would just be a dull mental emptiness–but instead, a system of tensions and compromises resulting from many iterations of contest and turmoil simmering into a semi-stable, but also flexible equilibrium. It is this form of peace that still allows for a passionate life.
Just as the martial arts were born of an uneasy relationship between the conscious, rational mind and ones intuitive “animal courage,” so too are the verbal martial arts born of such existential insecurity. The more you learn the more you discover your own ignorance. The more psychology you read, the more unsettled you are likely to become as you realize how mad we all are. It is out of this deep insecurity that people lash out at others, using what little they have learned as a blunt weapon to externalize their own pain. This is why a well-rounded martial arts curriculum can both render people far more peaceful and act as preventative medicine for the mind. The equilibrium of peace is forged from countless painful contests which are best performed under some kind of guidance and supervision. Instead, we leave kids to figure this all out on their own.
The physical martial arts really shouldn’t be taught without some kind of “verbal judo.” I’ve talked my way out of every street fight that has ever come looking for me. Usually this can be done with humor, irony, and other verbal tools that are actually the greatest countermeasure to the emotional warfare described above. When it comes down to actually saving your life and limb, martial arts schools should really dedicate at least half of their class time to discussing human (and primate!) psychology, “social jiu jitsu,” and so forth. They should be places that teach shame-inoculation in addition to stress-inoculation; places where the human-all-too-human can be laughed at and accepted in the same class. There is no better place to teach kids how to manage their own egos than a place where there egos are not the only parts of them that could get bruised. Receiving carefully controlled blows toughens one’s hide against sticks and stones, while taking carefully controlled criticisms and taunts thickens one’s skin against words. The dojo should be a school that teaches the brotherly art of un-love. This is how guys prefer to bond anyway, you might have noticed. Humans require physical touch and need to accept their bodies, but dudes prefer a punch on the shoulder to a lingering embrace in this regard.
Alfred Adler wrote that “neurosis and psychosis are modes of expression for human beings who have lost courage,” while Ernest Becker adds that this is the same as “a failure of heroism.” The martial arts were developed precisely to instill courage in an animal who had suddenly become conscious of the certainty of its own death and was thus exposed to anxiety, indecision, doubt and the threat of meaninglessness. Bullies strike at a rather compromised animal, so what better means of protection than a discipline that teaches courage and gives its practitioners a firm rooting in their own bodies? Why would we leave this to a PE teacher or Football coach? It also baffles me really that most McDojo’s still teach nothing but kata, punches and kicks. Why not discuss the psychology of violence? Why not also hold debates on fiery topics to stress-test a kids ability to control himself? The Dojo shouldn’t necessarily be where we teach our kids to think, but it seems a rather ideal place to teach them to feel. To the modern mind, making loud screams and breaking boards seems to be a rather foolish, even laughable act of a childish mind, but inside every man is child who just wants to play, Nietzsche reminds us. Our modern world requires far too much instrumental reason from us already.
Madmen are the greatest reasoners we know, and that trait is one of the accompaniments of their undoing. All their vital processes are shrunken into the mind. What is the one thing they lack that sane men possess? The ability to be careless, to disregard appearances, to relax and laugh at the world…
…the only secure truth men have is that which they themselves create and dramatize; to live is to play at the meaning of life. The upshot of this whole tradition of thought is that it teaches us once and for all that childlike foolishness is the calling of mature men. Just this way Rank prescribed the cure for neurosis: as the ‘need for legitimate foolishness.’ The problem of the union of religion, psychiatry, and social science is contained in this one formula. -Ernest becker
There simply is no better, more natural source of such “legitimate foolishness” than the martial arts. Male children especially are quite fascinated with violence and all of its many tools. This natural curiosity can be used to teach them about their own will and instruct them as to the proper objects of their desires to compete, to overcome, to protect, etc. Furthermore, it can be used to promote discussion about philosophical topics like justice, virtue, and evil. The verbal sparring involved in debate is a perfect proving ground for moral and emotional maturity. One must be able to keep his thoughts on ice in debate, which is excellent training for keeping your cool generally. Personally, I don’t really fully trust any man until I’ve argued with him or sparred with him, as you must interact with someone’s ego under harsh conditions to really gauge its stability and security. In George A. Miller’s history of psychology he describes Henry Jame’s method of raising his children.
He (H. James) organized his family into one of the most high-spirited and exclusive debating clubs in all history…
…It would be difficult to devise a better way to learn to think for oneself, or to learn that intellectual combat need not interfere with personal affection.
In fact, neither physical nor intellectual combat need interfere with personal affection, and can often form an incredibly solid foundation for it. Though Plato is right that rhetoric is the art of governing the minds of men, so too can it be turned inwards in order to govern a man’s own mind. The will-to-power need not lead to megalomania. Man’s natural yearnings simply need to be educated and turned inwards. Aristotle tells us that “wit is educated insolence” and that “anger is a gift”! Instead, for decades we have chosen to tell boys that their natural insolence and aggression are either culturally conditioned evil or the natural evil of their primitive nature. We have tried to educate them as we would girls, hoping to make them more peaceful and cooperative. Instead, a man’s natural fighting spirit is either directed at the market and the scene at the bar, or it is drowned in alcohol and mindless television as the life slowly fades from his eyes like a caged gorilla. Educators should have been trying to stimulate these natural curiosities and direct them beyond the intuitive goals of self-serving competence, but as stated earlier, education is more about indoctrination and domestication than promoting a life of the mind.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. -William Blake
The workhorse of philosophy is the reductio ad absurdum. Sometimes one just needs to take things to their absolute limit in order to see the flawed logic or the wisdom in the contrary view. For instance, if you think that causality invalidates the idea of free will, you would do well to take this to its logical conclusion and ask yourself if anything at all is free. The determinist is inclined to answer in the negative, but if nothing whatsoever is free, then how does one explain energy, matter, motion, evolution, or anything for that matter? Is the world not freely existing or “worlding?” You see, this debate is so intractable because diametrically opposed motives drive the whole thing: Eros for free will; Agape for determinism. The above method of purging a certain view of its own flaws must be applied to the topic of violence. When this is done, one will find that the natural male fascination with violence and power (Eros), is equally just a plea for security, acceptance, and love (Agape).
People simply can’t fathom a certain paradox of human nature: that to find the light one might need to endure a dark night of the soul; that to combat cynicism one might need to become increasingly more cynical, pushing through cynicism to the “post-cynical;” that to find non-delusional optimism one might need to pursue pessimism to its very limits; that to promote peace people might need to study warfare; that to prevent violence we might need to empower people. The writer of Mathew understood this, advising us to be wise and innocent; cunning and gentle. While ‘wisdom’ and ‘innocence’ are antonyms, there is no contradiction in this council. Hopefully this essay has allowed you to see how one can eventually lead to the other and that someone could hold them both in a healthy tension.