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Ethics, and the study of swordsmanship

Ethics (also moral philosophy) is the branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct.”  – Wikipedia

I am writing the fourth instalment of my Swordsman's Quick Guide series, and the topic is Ethics.

I believe that the study of ethics is at least as important to a historical swordsman at any level, as the study of mechanics or tactics. One of the larger goals of modern swordsmanship training is the development of character; through self-discipline, we become able to behave as we believe we ought, in ever more difficult circumstances.

It is easy to be good when everything is going well. But it is much much harder when the shit has hit the fan.

One important tool in the study of ethics is the question to which there is no straight answer. Geoffrey de Charny’s Book of Chivalry (of which my favourite modern edition is The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny: Text, Context, and Translation by Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy) contains perhaps the most famous set of questions in HEMA circles. The key point here is that Charny does not include the answers; they are not the point. The point is to engage with the questions, to come up with your own answers, and to then live by those answers.

The questions that are discussed in the booklet are:

1) When is it ok to stab someone in the face with a sword?

2) What is the one thing you find most useful about swordsmanship training outside the salle?

3) How important is history to you in your practise of swordsmanship?

4) Can a duel settle a matter of honour?

5) Can violence be beautiful?

6) To what extent is the practice of swordsmanship the cultivation of virtue?

7) Is the study of ethics necessary for martial artists?

You may notice that not all of them would normally be considered a matter of ethics (such as number 3), but my interest is primarily in getting people to think more widely about the martial arts we practise. I would be very interested to read your thoughts on them; if you'd like to join in the discussion, please post your answers in the comments below, or email them to me at guywindsor@gmail.com. Please also indicate whether you are willing to be quoted in the booklet, and if so, whether you'd like to be credited, or remain anonymous.

Thanks for taking part!

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

9 Responses

  1. Guy
    These veer in to me thinking out loud, maybe there is something it of use to you.
    1) When is it ok to stab someone in the face with a sword?

    When they are trying to stab you or someone in need of protection or assistance, in the face with their sword or other life threatening object.

    2) What is the one thing you find most useful about swordsmanship training outside the salle?

    Not sure I can qualify it down to one thing. Also I have in effect been doing this my whole life and without sounding too grand, I make no distinction of in or out of places where one is specifically training.. to me it’s all degrees. The Principle or Principles that would be the most important, and to me they are flip sides of the same coin would be Awareness/Intent

    3) How important is history to you in your practise of swordsmanship?

    History is important for everything in my opinion , you can not truly know where you are unless you know from whence you came., whether as an individual, a society/culture or as a species. Given that the practice of historical martial skills is the resurrection of dead arts, without striving to make sense of the historical context that created them means that one is dealing with…. a zombie for lack of a better metaphor

    4) Can a duel settle a matter of honour?

    First define honour! 😉 The define the ways it can be attacked or diminished and then the ways that it would be ok to defend or regain those notions of honour. Perhaps If one can define what it is then it may be possible to deal with in the infringement of ones personal honour by someone else who shares that view point with a physical contest. From my feelings of honour, and in the modern world we live in I find it hard to reconcile a notion of honour with a physical contest, of a duel, which is a Monkey Dance (see Rory Miller) with cultural trappings layered on in am attempt to make it more acceptable. In the Historical context I can understand the aspects that drove people to duel, as notions of self defence , or the defence of self then encompassed both he notion of defending ones physical self and well being and the self by which you identified yourself and held your position in society. To quote from El Cid, “Can a man (person) live without honour?” Perhaps and perhaps not but then the question is At what point can anyone other than yourself be held responsible for it or harming it. It is my thesis that when people talk about matters of honour it s not to do with personal honour but rather social reputation. One then also needs to consider the social aspect that produces the notion of reputation/honour

    5) Can violence be beautiful?

    Define Violence and define beauty, then define the context within which those aspects are taking place. The violence of nature, a storm, raging seas or rivers can have a beauty when viewed from the outside. The appreciation of the beauty can soon disappear once inside it or on the receiving end of it. But then we have to consider how one is accustomed to the nature fo the violence were discussing. I would put forward that aspects of the physicality of violent actions etc can have a beauty of efficiency and effect in the notion of how it neutralises the danger, threat or situation. But if we are discussing the violence in the sense of what it actually does to other living beings, and leaving then broken maimed or dead, and ourselves and our surrounding covered in the gore a bodily fluids…. if we find that beautiful…. well what does that make us

    6) To what extent is the practice of swordsmanship the cultivation of virtue?

    First define virtue or rather virtues. The practice of any skill, especially one that involves person risk will or should cultivate discipline and awareness, and a clarification of Intent amongst other things, if only in the field being studied. Whether that bleeds over and affects the individual outside of the field will depend on the individual.

    7) Is the study of ethics necessary for martial artists?

    The consideration of ethics is something we as humans should all do. As people developing the skills and mindsets for harming, crippling and killing people then it is of even more importance, for if we don’t then we are just playing at it like fantasists playing make believe. There is the argument put forward that not all the arts we study were intended with such serious goals, but even then if we do not consider the actuality of the game that were are playing then we are just as bad.

    Please use anything that you may want to use and yes quote me personally,

    Cheers

    Jonathan W

  2. 1) When is it ok to stab someone in the face with a sword?

    Not to be facetious, but my immediate thought was, “When *they* are trying to stab me in the face.”

    3) How important is history to you in your practise of swordsmanship?

    Fair disclaimer that I am not currently practising swordsmanship. That said, I believe history and culture surrounding the school of swordsmanship would be a very important area to study; I’m not sure how to put why I feel this into words, though. I’ll see if I can think on it more.

    4) Can a duel settle a matter of honour?

    I’m inclined towards “yes”, but I’m not sure why that is. Thoughts that occur here are: “Hollywood! Duels! Honor!” and also, “Well, how else are you genuinely going to settle a matter of honour?”

    5) Can violence be beautiful?

    Yes. I think there are multiple levels to this. On the surface, can it be visually beautiful? I think so, and not just in a Hollywood/visual effects way. I’d imagine in *some* situations (I’m by no means saying all violence ever is beautiful) that the spray of blood, smattering into the sand, and the red lines dripping down muscles… ahem. Yes, I’d imagine so. But that’s the problem: I’ve never really been in or witnessed a violent situation to be able to say that yes, in reality, violence *can* be beautiful.

    On another level, violence can provoke very deep and complex emotions; I’d think both for participants and spectators. I’m not sure whether ‘beautiful’ is exactly the word for it, but I suppose something that can provoke such complex emotions, which may also lead to self-realisation/learning, *is* beautiful.

    Phew. I feel quite wiped out at this point and I’ve only tried to answer half of the questions. I can see how they are an effective list. I may come back later for the rest… though I’m not sure how useful my answers are as someone who isn’t currently and actively studying swordsmanship!

  3. 1) When is it ok to stab someone in the face with a sword?

    Whenever it will prevent a greater harm to yourself or others. As with all things you should be prepared to be judged and defend your actions morally afterwards.

    2) What is the one thing you find most useful about swordsmanship training outside the salle?

    Physical fitness and confidence are the most immediately noticeable, but I found the friendships, contacts and tightly-bonded community (Admittedly back in the heady ’90’s) to be the most useful, if that word can be applied, to life in general.

    3) How important is history to you in your practise of swordsmanship?

    Culturally I like to know where we came from martially. However, I find anachronistic pretensions irksome and the balance is tricky. I want to know the history, but not repeat it. Roots are important, but we are buds.

    4) Can a duel settle a matter of honour?

    Only if both parties sincerely agree it can.

    5) Can violence be beautiful?

    Yes. Beauty is entirely subjective.

    6) To what extent is the practice of swordsmanship the cultivation of virtue?

    None. A craft does not innately instill a belief system. The attitudes and traditional mindset of the practitioners and their instructors however is likely to pass down attitudes from the sources they study, which may well include older moral values, practices or outlooks on life.

    7) Is the study of ethics necessary for martial artists?

    Necessary, no. Strongly advised, yes.

    (Not the most informative but I am tired, quite happy to be named and quoted etc.)

  4. Ethics is the reflection of morality.

    I think summed up it is:

    “Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, “This contemplative is our teacher.” When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness” — then you should enter & remain in them.’ Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.”

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.065.than.html

  5. 1) When you want them dead,
    2) eloquence, martial arts are all about self defence, practice inside is more formal but outside is about repeating the process you started inside under guidance
    3) Humanity has deluded itself with thought of progress with electronic tools of convenience. Fact is we are always very close to more primal and visceral times. Order in society is a convention that is adopted, not everyone adopts this, and history of humanity is a good example of where we cam easily travel too as a people.
    4) Only if both accept the convention, otherwise …
    5) Violence is integral to humanity, it is sewn into our fabric and history. Neo-progressives have chastened history and humanity as a base creature, tamed by modernity and mere happy thoughts and Chamberlain’esk capitulation. Freedom is always been fought and won, otherwise we would all be less than a person. So yes, violence has beauty if it is for the right reasons, primarily freedom of person.

  6. Great topic!

    1) When is it ok to stab someone in the face with a sword?

    Ahh! The most difficult question first! The answer I wish to give is never. I fear, however, if I found myself in a situation of senseless violence (i.e. one where calming down all parties with discussion has been rendered impossible) my natural instincts to defend myself and those I care for will step forward.

    I greatly admire those rare noble souls who would rather die before lifting a hand against another life, but upon carefully examining the scope of violent acts in this world my desire for pacifism is tested. Surrendering to violence in the name of a greater cause is noble. Think of the nameless soul in Tiananmen Square who gave his life in a very public display for the cause of freedom. Such a sacrifice of my life would be easier for me (but by no means easy), than to let a gang of drunk or drugged up ruffians (who are not in their right minds) assault me. They might kill me without even realizing that they have done so. Would my death have any meaning? Would it not be better to defend myself? Yet, is stabbing someone in the face who doesn’t know what they are doing ethical, even in self defense (maybe hamstringing them is better?)? What does it say about my ego that I would rather die publicly for a cause than to sacrifice my life for a drunkard (who is a human soul, no matter how flawed)?

    I return to where I started. This is a most difficult question which boils down to: when is it justified to take another’s life? I do not have an absolute answer. I feel it is a question that we should always return to throughout our lives, especially martial artists.

    2) What is the one thing you find most useful about swordsmanship training outside the salle?

    Although I am not training swordsmanship at the moment, during the times I have trained it has brought me many things. Today if I had to choose one it would be focus. During my hectic days the lessons of swordplay help bring focus to the chaos. In years past the discipline has taught me patients, courage, and helped me discover who I am in situations of stress and competition.

    3) How important is history to you in your practice of swordsmanship?

    I never progressed far enough in historical swordsmanship to delve deeply into it’s history. I do love history, and I’m sure it would be a significant part of swordsmanship for me.

    4) Can a duel settle a matter of honour?

    A classical duel is this day and age? Certainly not. But if the significance of a historical duel was to prove that you stood behind your convictions and reputation with your life if necessary, we should ask, what would the modern equivalent be?

    Were someone to question or slander my reputation I would offer evidence to the contrary, which is more like a court proceeding than a duel. But if my convictions are challenged I could ask my challenger to put his money were his mouth is. Let’s say someone accuses my good friend of being a rascal who will not pay his debts on time. I can offer a wager of 100€, 1000€, 10.000€ or 100.000€ to show how strongly I stand behind my conviction that the opposite is true. This would be the closest I find to a modern day duel. I use this often, in fact. If someone does not believe in global warming, I ask, “how much of your total worth are you willing to bet on that? The contents of your wallet? Your car? Your house?”

    5) Can violence be beautiful?

    Never.

    But martial arts can be. Both the movements of an accomplished swordsman as well witnessing the strategic play with which she out-wits an opponent are both exciting and beautiful to watch. But while the play of sparring fencers can inspire the same wonder the world’s the best artists can, would we not react with horror if the protective gear of a swordsman fails him and we witness the true violence our weapons are capable of?

    6) To what extent is the practice of swordsmanship the cultivation of virtue?

    Swordsmanship cultivates many virtues. Off the top of my head, discipline, patients, courage, determination, control of impulses, and health. I’m sure many more can be added.

    7) Is the study of ethics necessary for martial artists?

    Yes.

    I feel ethics are essential for all who study the use and art of deadly force. A good life is one lived in balance (among other things). Ethics are the counterweight to the lethal knowledge martial artists possess. To contemplate ethics is to wrestle with the responsibility of having such knowledge. Without ethics we are masters of violence, not masters of defense.

    I highly recommend the study of mindfulness to martial artists as well.

  7. I personally think that the study and application of Ethics in any martial art is crucial. Using a sword on another human being without an ethical context reduces the action to simple base violence. A sense of what is honourable, moral and proportionate to the provocation at hand is surely what marks out an evolved human being from an unevolved one? The idea that we need a code to guide our violent actions and engender a common concensus to create social consistency where violent action is concerned is nothing new. The Code Duello was created out of this intention after all. The two big issues as then still remain: how do we make sure that the moral code is not high jacked by petty social conventions or societal drivers that have little to do with morality (e.g. the historical concept of a gentleman’s honour, which has more to do with the elitism of the upper classes and their right to protect social standing from affront, than morality), and that people actually adhere to it (e.g. countless duels are on record where one person has acted with decency and the other has opted not to do so). As Marcus Aurelius puts it very well: ‘Waste no time arguing what a good man should be, be one’ and ‘Reject your sense of injury, and injury disappears’. That last one if adhered to fully would rather remove the need for most duels! When all is said and done, perhaps the simplest way of putting it is: ‘if another attacks me, or others who cannot defend themselves, without just cause and without any noble restraint, then I will act with whatever force is necessary to defend life and liberty, but not with more and in all actions, if and when such becomes possible, grant mercy, killing only where no other option exists, recognising that all life is precious, even that of my enemy’ (Anon).

  8. 1) When is it ok to stab someone in the face with a sword?

    When faced with the threat of imminent, unlawful deadly force or serious bodily harm–and as otherwise defined in your applicable law. The ethical issues involved are of course more complicated and beyond my legalistic mind. But I think it’s ethical to use deadly force provided you must to save yourself or another from death or serious physical harm at the hands of another.

    2) What is the one thing you find most useful about swordsmanship training outside the salle?

    I find it’s helped make me more graceful, which is no small task.

    3) How important is history to you in your practise of swordsmanship?

    For me it’s the most important aspect of historical swordplay and the main reason for the study. If the focus leaves history, the anachronisms quickly get out of control and overtake the entire endeavor. For example, in studying I.33 using the tools and even clothing of the period, I think I can better understand what the Priest was trying to teach his students. And in a broader sense the incredibly complexity and martial beauty of the system he describes gives me a much different view of “medieval” thinking and the pre-Renaissance world. And I now see the lie of the idea I grew up with–that medieval knights hacked mindlessly with dulled broadswords.

    4) Can a duel settle a matter of honour?

    It certainly *can*, in the sense that the guy who’s still alive has “won.” But it’s a pretty stupid way to go about things. I don’t think weapons should be used for dispute resolution.

    5) Can violence be beautiful?

    Absolutely. I’d go as far as saying artistic beauty is impossible without violence. Violence is and has always been a key part of human experience. I’ve discussed this with my tai chi instructor recently. That art, though it seems quite inoffensive, is of course tied to ancient and imminently practical martial practices that emerged from a violent world. Likewise, the systems we learn in HEMA emerged from worlds of intense violence. And I think many have noted how similar historical swordplay is to dance. It’s just a dance of death instead of a dance of life.

    6) To what extent is the practice of swordsmanship the cultivation of virtue?

    I don’t remember much about Aristotle, but I do think historical swordsmanship teaches us the importance of balance. Too much strength applied to a bind is a bad idea, and applied weakness can be used to defeat a foe.

    7) Is the study of ethics necessary for martial artists?

    To understand its historical context, probably.

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