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'Fighting can nurture the soul'
'Fighting can nurture the soul - just ask Plato'
Damon Young, Sydney Morning Herald
Inside a caged boxing ring stands a well-built, tattooed young man, his body gleaming, skull shaven. His face and chest are streaming with fresh, bright blood. This is the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Sydney 2010 and the fans love it - more than 15,000 are screaming ringside, and millions are watching internationally on pay-per-view.
This year was the Australian debut of the championship, the most successful mixed martial arts prize fight. What began as an obscure American no-holds-barred competition in the 1990s has become a lucrative global sporting craze. Having waited years to see top fighters in the flesh, excited Sydneysiders savoured the full arsenal of martial arts: kicks, punches, knees, elbows, throws and chokes. Fallen fighters were mounted and punched. Cut combatants kept fighting and bleeding.
For many, it was a dark day. It confirmed their worst fears for our country: we are a violent, vulgar nation, slavering for savage sport.
Behind this anxiety is a simple idea: violence is always negative. It is anti-intellectual, uncivilised, coarse, and no civilised Australian could watch it, let alone participate in it.
This attitude is understandable, but mistaken. Violence can be both civilised and civilising. Obviously not Saturday night barbarism at the pub, or the stuff of criminal rage. But in the right school and style, martial arts can complement good character.
Take Plato. ''Plato'' was not actually his name. In ancient Greek, Platon meant ''broad''; Plato was the philosopher's wrestling nickname. So, one of Western civilisation's founding scholars was a martial artist. For all his love of ethereal beauty and truth, Plato was intimately familiar with gritty, bloody violence. Indeed, he recommended wrestling for the ''masters and scholars'' in his theoretical state.
This is a helpful reminder: fighting is not always the province of the dim-witted, vulgar yob. Screaming ultimate fight fans might look bloodthirsty, but the competitors can be restrained, thoughtful and courteous in daily life - chivalrous if not philosophical.
Plato's esteem for wrestling flags a more important possibility: fighting arts can be edifying and illuminating. We need not automatically see all violence as negative: managed well, it can be a positive force.
For example, martial arts require reliable, robust co-operation. Because dangerous techniques are involved, teachers and partners must be trustworthy. In judo a sparring partner must release a lock when a player taps. In karate many are trained to pull their punches or withdraw after a strike. This is partly pragmatism: if everyone is injured no one can train. But it is also a lesson in the psychology of violence: we can be aggressive without hatred, brutal without cruelty.
This can reduce the paralysing panic of physical confrontation - fear remains, but it is kept in check, redirected. It can also buoy confidence in general: three rounds of wheezing, dukes up, makes public speaking look tame. More importantly, sparring can transform confrontation. It becomes an educational tool, not simply a weapon of selfish domination. We learn a lesson Plato and the Athenians knew well: competition need not entail malice. Violence can be comradely.
Studies cautiously confirm this. For example, respectful, safe martial arts schools can promote pro-social behaviour - higher belt rank correlates with lower overall aggression.
This requires another virtue, discipline: we control our darker urges, instead of being controlled by them. We abide by rules, follow etiquette, manage impulses. And we do so in taxing circumstances - precisely when we would normally be doing our block. So the martial arts can be training in restraint. Indeed, I see more ill-feeling and pettiness in newspaper commentary or literary criticism than I ever did in karate.
I also mention patience, respect and concentration - all are required to excel in the fighting arts, and all can contribute to successful schooling, professional life and marriage.
Of course, not all martial arts are equally healthy. Research reveals that the character of the teacher and school is important: the more vicious gyms or coaches can encourage anti-social behaviour. And some styles or organisations are cultish, promoting muddled thinking, blind obedience or dangerous overconfidence.
But at their best, the martial arts can exemplify healthy, contained violence. To the uninitiated they seem thuggish and anti-intellectual, but they can be edifying. More than two millenniums since Plato wrestled, we are still grappling with arms and minds - and are healthier for it.
Dr Damon Young is a philosopher and the editor of Martial Arts and Philosophy: Beating and Nothingness.
Last edited by DAYoung; 11/26/2010 10:18pm at .