Fencing, Martial Arts, and Self-Improvement

Αισχύλον Εύφορίωνος Άθηναιον τόδε κεύθει μνήμα καταφθίμενον πυροφόροιο Γέλας· άλκήν δ’ εύδόκιμον Μαραθώνιον άλσος αν εϊποι και βαθυχαιτήεις Μήδος έπιστάμενος.

This tomb in grain-bearing Gela covers an Athenian, Aeschylus son of Euphorion, who died here. The famous grove of Marathon could tell of his courage and the longhaired Mede knew it well. [1]


The Greek playwright Aeschylus (d. 456 or 455 BCE), one of the luminaries of Athenian drama, is remembered today for his poetry, sophisticated plots, and stage-craft. His “Oresteia,” to name one example, has been standard reading in many college literature and classics classes for decades. However, his epitaph says nothing of these accomplishments, achievements for which he was celebrated even in his own lifetime, but for his participation in the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE). Either the poet himself or his family wished for him to be remembered for his military service, not his contributions to world literature. There is a lesson in this for us fencers, for any martial artist.

For many fencers the Art is a game, a sport, and in certain iterations that’s absolutely true. I think it is, potentially, much more than that. As a caveat I should say that my first exposure to martial arts was Asian—my father, who had been stationed in Korea, took up Tang Soo Do while there and began teaching me as a child. In late elementary school I started formal training in Tae Kwon Do. Later, as an adult, I studied Kendo, Gumdo, and Tai Chi (including some sword forms), all after long exposure to western fencing. In short, much if not most of my thinking about the value and purpose of martial arts, any martial art, is “Eastern,” which is to say heavily influenced by Buddhist notions of ego-annihilation, humility, and self-improvement. These values will not appeal to everyone, and that’s okay, but they’ve shaped much of my path as a student and I’ve found them useful even outside of philosophical considerations.

For example, focus on improvement versus more easily-met ego needs, like trophies and rankings, is one such way that this more “Eastern” approach is beneficial. This isn’t to knock those successes, but to see them in their proper light. Sure, be proud of what you’ve accomplished, but appreciate the realities of competition too. What worked? What didn’t? What areas should you work on? What did you learn from your opponents? Too much concern about medaling, fame, all that distracts from study; it’s easy to take these nice things too far and rest on your laurels. When people believe that trophies and notoriety are the best proofs of skill and worth they often start thinking they’re superior fighters and have nothing left to learn. There’s always more to learn, always ways to improve.

Another benefit of cultivating humility is that it makes it easier to work with others, to share information without one-ups-man-ship, and collaborate. For those who think they have it all figured out, others are either dead wrong or mostly wrong; they’re far more quick to criticize what another is doing than consider that there may be lessons there. This is particularly odd in historical fencing, because by its nature reconstruction is tentative. In so many cases there is no proof one way or another, just the best case to be made from the evidence, any product of which might be overturned should new evidence be found. That should engender more excitement than dread, and generally does unless one has a lot riding on a particular interpretation.

Lastly, what is fencing if not a form of self-improvement, a constant process of refinement in action and thinking? The plateaus and peaks we spend so much time on are a lot less rocky knowing that the path goes on, sometimes through rough terrain, sometimes on grass. That one action we believe we do well is always something we can make even better. The sensei with whom I studied kendo briefly told this story—each year he joins his master at a Zen retreat in New York. They train, meditate, train, meditate. Each year his master fixes something “basic” such as his grip on the shinai or boken. In sharing that story Yan Sensei wasn’t complaining, but making a point. We can always do what we do well, better.

If this seems completely foreign, e.g. “non-Western,” it might be worth considering some of the western sources we have on the role that the study of arms plays in developing a person. There are a number of medieval and later works that treat this. The works on chivalry that we have, chivalry as a code of ethics, an approach to life, while they don’t lay out tenets the way some Asian manuals do, nonetheless make a connection between the study and practice of arms and virtue. Why? Was it merely ecclesiastical and royal concern about public violence? Was it just a way to fancy up what was, in essence, the truly bloody business of what today we’d call organized, state-sponsored murder? I don’t think so, not to read Lull, Gower, de Charny, Loyola, and others. It was more than that to them. Some, like de Charny, not only lived by this code, but famously died by it. [2]


Medieval notions of chivalry in time combined with more urbane concerns about court life, political involvement, and a shift in the way in which some authors, especially renaissance humanists, viewed humanity. Few works exemplify this like Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier). Published in 1528, Castiglione contributed to the idea of the “renaissance man,” that is, a polished, educated, multi-talented individual who was at once self-reliant and a dutiful, skilled courtier. In discussing martial arts, he famously wrote:

 But to come to some details, I am of opinion that the principal and true profession of the Courtier ought to be that of arms; which I would have him follow actively above all else, and be known among others as bold and strong, and loyal to whomsoever he serves. And he will win a reputation for these good   qualities by exercising them at all times and in all places, since one may never fail in this without severest censure. And just as among women, their fair fame once sullied never recovers its first lustre, so the reputation of a gentleman who bears arms, if once it be in the least tarnished with cowardice or other disgrace,  remains forever infamous before the world and full of ignominy. Therefore the more our Courtier excels in this art, the more he will be worthy of praise; and yet I do not deem essential in him that perfect knowledge of things and those other  qualities that befit a commander; since this would be too wide a sea, let us be content, as we have said, with perfect loyalty and unconquered courage, and that he be always seen to possess them.[3]

There is much of interest in this short passage, but for our purposes the emphasis on the study of arms being the “principal” and “true profession” of the courtier is instructive. Here, Castiglione has one foot in the Middle Ages and one in the “Renaissance,” the combined stance of which shaped the idea of the gentleman in western thought for centuries afterward. In some circles today it still does. But what to make of it? If arms are the occupation, how does it relate to a person’s experience of other arts, of knowledge of literature, skill in music, their devotion to a prince and excellence as a servant? What is it that the Art provides that is so important? The more obvious answers, outside the physical benefits, are discipline, tenacity, and focus. Done right, pursuing the Art can do much to improve how we interact with others, from how we assess them and ourselves to fostering respect and a sense of fair play. Cultivating these qualities can extend beyond the ring or piste.

Castiglione discusses this too. He goes on to describe some of the virtues of the study of arms, but of note with balance. Significantly, he doesn’t favor braggarts or thugs:

Therefore let the man we are seeking, be very bold, stern, and always among the first, where the enemy are to be seen; and in every other place, gentle, modest, reserved, above all things avoiding ostentation and that impudent self-praise by which men ever excite hatred and disgust in all who hear them. [4]

Though he doesn’t spell it out in 12 convenient steps, Castiglione suggests that even in the study of arms, as elsewhere, the goal is self-control, balance, and a keen sense of what is appropriate when. In other words: self-improvement.


I’ll confess that The Book of the Courtier is a favorite book, one with great meaning to me, but beyond that there are lessons there that are on par with the best out of Asia. Castiglione would no doubt have found much to like, and dislike, in Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, but I think he would have understood it well, not only the courtly aspects, but also the emphasis on self-control, humility, and service. [5]

Fencing should be fun, it should provide a work-out for your body and your mind, but it can also be a path to self-improvement. Can be, doesn’t have to be. In historical fencing we’re often worried about “contamination” from other traditions, even other western traditions, and that’s fair. One reason I’m laying this out as I am is to own up to at least one way I commit that sin. However, to my mind there is precedent generally within martial arts, and even specifically within the western tradition, that allows for if it doesn’t outright encourage the study of arms as a way to improve ourselves. Put to it, one can find examples from Greece, not only for the idea of moderation in all things, but also for the place of physical activity, especially martial training, in cultivating the self.

As fencers, we are not warriors, but enthusiasts; serious as we may be we play at fighting. There is value in doing so, value that goes beyond practical skills, beyond historical insight and appreciation, beyond enjoyment. We can find ourselves, test ourselves, and hone the way we approach challenges, other people, and our world. As the example of Aeschylus demonstrates, while to focus solely on martial arts, especially those with less practical utility today, would leave out the other arts, other avenues for growth, we should nonetheless remember, as he did, that there is virtue in the study of arms, something worthy enough for an epitaph.


[1] There is debate about whether Aeschylus or his surviving relatives chose his epitaph, but linguistic studies indicate that the language hails from his time, not the later Hellenistic era as some have suggested. Among other sources, see Todd M. Compton, “Aeschylus: Little Ugly One,” in Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History, Hellenic Studies Series 11., Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2006, avail. online at https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/4923.part-i-greece-12-aeschylus-little-ugly-one#n.4 Regardless, it’s telling that for all his fame that this is what he or his family emphasized as his legacy.

[2] See on this site “Mindfulness and the Illusion of Inclusion,” August 30, 2019, n. 5.

[3] Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, I. 17, trans. Leonard Eckstein Opdyke, New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903, p. 24-25, avail. online at https://archive.org/stream/bookofcourtier00castuoft/bookofcourtier00castuoft_djvu.txt

[4] Ibid, p. 25.

[5] See Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, trans. buy William Scott Wilson, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1983.

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