Jiu-Jitsu might seem like raw physical exertion to the untrained eye but to those training regularly, it can often feel like a form of physical philosophy. Seeing as I’ve just watched Episode One of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, it appears that it’s as good a day as any to consider a potential cacophony of alternate universes.
The likes of such thoughts would, at least I’d hope my imagination merits such kudos, make the MCU blush with inadequacy.
For some reason, tonight, and maybe it’s because I’m writing an article on this specific martial art and all that, I’m thinking of some kind of ADCC superfight, placed in a deviant Ancient Greece setting.
The kind of world where, on the surface, things feel perfectly matched with the natural order of our historical chronology: people worshipping the moral frivolities of Zeus; both tragic and comedic spectacles showcased to the culture-starved masses; enough alcohol, partying and festivity to make Kim Kardashian’s Instagram look like amateur hour.
But, just like any alternate universe, the timeline I’m picturing carries a twist. An awesome twist for us grappling aficionados, specifically
I invite you all to take a step back and picture the scene. Notable espouser-of-ethics Plato, hair a slicked-back, shock of blonde, boasting a whole host of Athenien sponsors draped across his rashguard, emerges into the beehive of roars bouncing across the amphitheatre.
Today’s a good day to be both a philosopher and wrestler, he reckons to himself.
And it wouldn’t be a decent superfight without the appropriate adversary to get the tongues wagging; the crowds clubbing up together to form a shoal of excitement.
From the opposite corner emerges another faction of thinker; a teacher of Plato’s tenets, no less. Socrates strides across the mat, a little stockier in physique but more slight in worldliness, and both reach the centre to commence a match more hotly anticipated than a heatwave in Heraklion.
In this alternate timeline, Plato and Socrates, quite literally, go head to head as two skilled grapplers. And there’s a poetic justice in the way Socrates literally reunites with his mentee in the best conceivable format: through the medium of a submission-only appointment.
I’d envision this arc of the story to be the part where jiu-jitsu comes in, when Plato learns that people got bored of moral philosophy pretty quickly, and mainly enjoyed watching others grapple in the physical format, rather than the intellectual one.
Only thing is, much like some of the things he proposed about brains and behaviour and stuff, that’d be an incorrect assumption on Plato’s part. It turns out, philosophising and thinking about your own thinking (metacognition) translates exceedingly well into the gentle art of folding people, and vice versa.
Beating mentalities into submission
Martial arts are typically denoted as the tough guy kinda sport, or the art in which people uncover a more resilient, confident version of themselves.
Indeed, walking into an academy, you’ll be hard-pressed not to find any individual with their fair share of baggage which has galvanized them to migrate to the mats.
The art of jiu-jitsu carries with it an indomitable desire to conquer one’s self-doubts; committing to an act despite fear or reticence. We learn through the sport about the curious paradoxes of fragile things; how truly powerful we actually are, underneath the heartbreak and pain and trauma. From hen eggs to butterfly wings to the pumping of our unfaltering hearts, easily-broken, most simple of things are interpreted, at first glance, to be the most oh-so-fragile of ephemeralities.
Jiu-jitsu teaches us that coddling ourselves from the impending threats, both on and off the mats, actually makes us more prone to breakage. Rather than toughening up in hot water, we become weak and cracked when left aside for too long.
In fact I would go as far as saying that if you are constantly shielded from dark things then you have no sanctuary from, knowledge about, or understanding of dark things when they turn up at your doorstep.
This same concept is littered across philosophical texts; thinkers like Nietzsche, Jung, Frankl and Seneca wrote about the consequences of leading a soft, safe life. Without fire to be forged in, we become ungrateful, unaware and unappreciative for the highs life may throw at us after experiencing lows.
Both philosophy and jiu-itsu hold so much power in showing us dark things – the dragon hoarding treasure, the sith lord, the clown-like agent of chaos – because in the showing, they assure us that these dark things can be beaten. That you have power. That you can fight back. That, eventually, one day, you can win. Because winning is possible – but you have to believe that. You have to know it, as if it were truth.
Nietzsche recognized this as a fundamental truth of humanity; to embrace, not merely accept, our shortcomings and pain, and take it all in as an exhilarating part of our existence. Much like the teachings of jiu-jitsu, in his study of philosophy, he assures us that we are much tougher than we think; that our actions and attitudes will long outlive us; that it’s in our own stead to make the latter as good as they get.
Crafting ideas, stories…and game plans
Nobody is born a jiu-jitsu black belt, and in the same vein, philosophy and critical thinking skills aren’t acquired by divine rights. Both fighting and thinking require practice, experience, and a consistent application of frameworks. You can’t defend yourself with poor technique in a fight; likewise, arguments are not created nor won with invalid soundbites.
Logic, reason and ideas can only be tested in a practical setting. And getting your thoughts out in the world can feel like an uncertain, terrifying thing. Many people would rather stick their heads in a bucket of rotting whelks than risk articulating their reasonings out loud. To be wrong is a scary thing, at least momentarily; but by exchanging ideas, or at least, intellectually grappling, we learn about our own shortcomings, block the gaps, and develop ways of thinking that are impossible to do so on our own.
Bit like playing a game of chess. Moving pieces on their own and memorising patterns within the squares is one thing; actually applying it in a match setting is a whole other matter.
Jiu-jitsu is in of itself a game of very sweaty, very unpredictable human chess. Critical thinking and planning is required, even if not in the ebb and thrall of sparring per se, but at the very least in the way you see your training unfold. It can feel terrifying going up against someone who might be “better” than you, just as a young university student would quake at the notion of debating Richard Dawkins on the origins of evolution, but it still remains to be one of the most well-proven methods for improvement.
Famed philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein carried a tremendous preoccupation with the way philosophy attempted to represent the world around us. He believed that we ought to try and systematize the world in logic and “facts” when we try and describe what we experience all around us. Mirroring Wittgenstein’s need for linguistic frameworks, jiu-jitsu practitioners are becoming ever-more concerned with constructing systems or concepts for us to understand what we are attempting to do in training, and more to the point, why.
Now, thankfully, leg lock instructionals aren’t quite as dense as Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (alas, dear reader, this is the genuine title of Wittgenstein’s work) but still carry with them that smouldering need to understand and conceptualise.
By improving how we define and speak about the world – or the way we try and control a joint – we, in turn, become more articulate in the way we speak. Our opinions sharpen; our arguments, manifest themselves more precisely.
Both jiu-jitsu and philosophy help our minds to think laterally, and think quickly. There’s nothing more incentivising than having to figure out your endgame when you’re being threatened with a physical checkmate in front of you, after all. In fact, most of the best jiu-jitsu books available to buy contain sections where the experienced grappler/writer talks about their philosophy for the sport.
If Plato and Socrates did actually decide to hash it out on the mats in our MCU-lite saga, my money would be on Plato to deliver the finishing blow, if I’m honest.
Plato admits the balance required for a moderate, open mind: “excessive emphasis on athletics produces an excessively uncivilized type, while a purely literary training leaves men indecently soft.” In other words, we require both physical and intellectual training to lead meaningful, happy lives – and to better understand our jiu-jitsu.
This is not to say one should replace their nightly no-gi sessions with Hegelian dialectics (you’d become pretty depressed, pretty fast) but it is wise to step back and take a philosopher’s view on the way you train. How am I approaching my game? Why have I chosen this way? What are its current weaknesses, and as they exist, from whom can I learn from to be better?
Socrates might’ve lost the fight in that world, but his idea that the unexamined life is not worth living is something we can all carry with us, both in fighting and everyday routine.