Philosophy and combat sports


“The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s,in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.”

— Marcus, Meditations, Book VII

This weekend I am headed to Philadelphia to compete in the US Amateur Nationals Competition in Japanese Sumo Wrestling. I have been training in Sumo for a short six months, and competed in two regional competitions so far. Sumo is a bit more complicated than the American stereotype: there are 82 different winning moves, and more than a handful of moves which cause you to immediately lose. It is the successor to a Shintō ritual, a cosmological archetype of law vs chaos. The Way of Salt, is quite a thing to become familiar with.

Many ancient philosophers participated in or used as reference combat sports. Plato was a boxer, the Cynics and Antisthenes literally began at a gym. Such activities are far from the academic philosophy of college departments the world over.

But there is a type of character which is forged under the iron of the weight room. A focus and intentionality that the boxer and wrestler must have in order to succeed.

I was listening to an audiobook of Seneca’s De Ira yesterday, and in part he writes that a judge or magistrate exercises punishment not for its own sake, but like a doctor used knives and blooding to bring about the best for a patient.

He discusses generals and soldiers in war, and how rightly they too should exercise their duties without the maddening component of anger. He even talks of the common man, who would avenge a familial killing not in rage, but because it is his duty.

The west has mostly lost the old “honor culture” aspects that readily accede to the former in most places, and these may seem to us be conflicting. But they are not.

In a recent Sumo training camp, I had an opponent who was quite a bit younger and fitter than I am. He favored a style which is currently in Vogue amongst the fans of Abi in Japan’s Pro Sumo. Repeated tsupari strikes, often to the chest, neck, and face. This is permitted in Sumo with some restrictions.

However, this mad, crazed style, while a bit shocking and startling, fails when the opponent, in this case me, realizes that it’s not the worst thing be slapped in the face a few times.

Once I got over the initial physical shock or being struck a few times in the face and chest, I was able to formulate and execute a plan to move my opponent, and toss him from the ring.

This opponent actually gave me a great gift. He taught me an important lesson, in the dohyo and by extension (should I learn it), in life.

It’s not that bad to be hitnin the face a few times. But after that, get to work.

I may post a bit more from Sumo Nationals this weekend, and more than other combat sports, Sumo lends itself it such introspection.

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