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Tag: ethics

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 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!

The School of European Swordsmanship was born on a Scottish hilltop, not far from Fort William. I was at a crossroads in my life, and went up into the hills to clear my mind, and meditate on what I should do. I thought my options were to stay in Edinburgh, or move to America. It was a bit more complicated than that, but the other people involved might be reading this and would probably prefer that I not go into detail.

So I went and sat on a mountaintop (cliché perhaps, but it worked), entered a meditative state, and a voice in my head said “Go to Helsinki and open a school of swordsmanship”.

So I did.

But there were about 6 months of preparation and groundwork between revelation and the actual move to Finland, and one of the things I needed to do was create a logo for the new school. But what on earth should that logo be?

So I meditated on it, and came up with this:

Which became this:

Fourteen years later, hundreds of people worldwide train under this logo, so I thought I’d better explain what it represents.

The Shield: the principle of defence, of course. It’s a heraldic device, and a perfect image for the ideals of the School.

The Longsword: I knew from the beginning that I wanted the Longsword, and specifically Fiore’s style, to be the foundation of our practise. This is because at the time it was the type of sword that I could best practise with for spiritual purposes. It was the tool I was using to create the self I wished to be. I could rationalise it a hundred other ways, but that’s the real reason.

The Rapier: solid, practical fencing. This sword style (and I was thinking early Italian, from the beginning) is practical, straightforward, and embodies the principles of fencing most clearly. It’s the stripping away of all other things, armour, horses, knightliness, everything, until all you have left is two people in shirts, sword in hand.

The symbols on the shield are of course Fiore’s four virtues, from the famous “Segno Page”. I was working from the Pisani Dossi at the time, so here it is from there:

I thought the objects (arrow, heart, castle and dividers) would work much better in a logo than the animals (Tiger, Lion, Elephant and Lynx).

The Castle, fortitudo, or strength (see I am Weak for a post on that virtue), the Arrow, presteza or speed (see I am Slow for a post on that virtue), the Heart, ardimento or boldness (see “I am Fearful”, in Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers, and Martial Artists, for a chapter on that virtue), and the Dividers, avvisamento, (which I refer to in The Medieval Longsword, but have not gone into in depth anywhere, yet. It’s the hardest virtue to write about).

The point of these is to remind all students that they must keep these virtues in balance: strength without stiffness, speed without losing your balance, boldness without rashness, and prudence without cowardice.

In the middle we have the circle, square and triangle, representing at one level, the basic patterns of movement, but also geometry as a virtue in itself. This puts a group of three things in the centre, surrounded by a group of four things; a trinity and a quaternity (or indeed a triangle and a square). Readers of part one of the forthcoming The Swordsman's Quick Guide series, The Seven Principles of Mastery will be on familiar ground here.

Geometry is important not only because Vadi mentions it, but also because it is a perfect metaphor for training. Geometry is perfect in theory, and flawed in practice. Nobody has ever drawn a truly perfect circle, or a truly straight line. But we can hold geometrical truths in our minds, however imperfectly they are embodied in reality. Pi has an infinite number of digits after the decimal place; it is impossible to write the number down. But you can represent it geometrically with ease; just scribe a straight line, put your compass anywhere on the line, and draw a circle. The length of the circumference of the circle is Pi multiplied by the length of the diameter. Simple.

The motto of the School is In Gladio Veritas. I derived this from the common phrase in vino veritas, “truth is in wine”, which basically means that drunk people tend to tell the truth. The ideal on which the School is founded is the virtue of Truth. One of my students, Ken Quek, wrote his thesis for Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences on the branding of the school. In it, he wrote:

The school's values are as follows:





Integrity means respect for the truth, as reflected in the school's motto, “In gladio veritas”, meaning “In the sword is truth”. This means that all instruction is grounded in adherence to what is historically accurate: the treatises are the ultimate source of authority, and every exercise is meant to bring the school's practice closer to the historical reality as far as we know it. This also requires that the school's syllabus be constantly refreshed to accurately capture the state of the art of our knowledge, as well as avoiding, as far as possible, practices that distort our understanding and expression of the art.

Security means training in a safe and sensible manner. Safety is paramount in training and everyone, even if it is their first day in the salle, is responsible for their own wellbeing and that of everyone they train with. It extends beyond physical measures to encompass emotional security as well. While an essential part of training is to challenge people to step out of their comfort zones, they must always do so with a sense of trust that their training partners and instructors will do their utmost to keep them safe. In addition, it means that nobody should ever feel threatened, intimidated or belittled in training.

Maturity means having the correct training priorities. The watchword for the salle is respect – for the art and for one's fellow practitioners. While every student wishes to become the best swordsman they can be, this must never be allowed to hinder anyone else's development, enjoyment or safety. It also means that the community assumes the best in everyone.

Equality means not showing prejudice in any way against other members of the community. The school esteems spirit above all: what is important is the desire to walk the path together, rather than any other characteristic or achievement. Members show the same respect for male and female, tall and short, young and old, heavy and slim, new and experienced. As long as someone holds a sword in their hand and practices with diligence and responsibility, they are expressing the art and being a credit to the school.

It always blows me away when a member of the School really gets it. And this is a classic example of that. I never said that these were the values the school was founded on; I wasn't trained to think in those terms. But dammit, this is spot-on.

The motto clearly resonates with at least one of my students; Ilpo Luhtala had this tattoo inked about a year after he started training:

Now another member of the school, Titta Tolvanen, has created her own vision of the logo, and it is so gorgeous that I had to share it.

Isn't that glorious?


For many of us, there is no need to even think about why we would train in the Art of Swordsmanship. It is simply an irreducible desire, like the way many people want to have kids. But we all know someone for whom our passion for the sword is inexplicable, just as we all know someone who does not want to be a parent. I thought I would write this rather difficult post so that you know why I have chosen the path of the sword, and if it resonates with you, you can direct the baffled in your life here for enlightenment.

Let us begin with a wide focus: why martial arts at all? Some have practical uses, sure: those living on meaner streets will have use for self-defence skills. But most martial arts, if they convey those skills at all, are very inefficient at it. Some martial arts, or combat sports at least, offer a career path that includes fame and riches. An Olympic gold medal, perhaps. But that is not true of ours.

I train martial arts because they can offer moments of utter transcendence. The ineffable made manifest. This is traditionally described as “beyond words” or “indescribable” but as a martial artist and a writer, that would feel like a cop-out. I will take this feeling and wrestle it down onto the page, or at least give it my best shot:

It is a moment when every atom in your body is exactly where it should be. Every step you have taken on life’s path makes sense, is part of a coherent story. The pain of every mistake is made worthwhile by the lessons they contained. There is a feeling of physical power without limit; strength without stiffness; flow without randomness; precision without pedantry; focus without blinkers; breadth and depth; massive destructive capability but utter gentleness; self-awareness without self-consciousness; force without fury; your body alive as it has never been, all fear and pain burned away in a moment of absolute clarity; certainty without dogma; an overpowering love, even for your enemies, that enables you to destroy them without degrading them. It is, for a religious person, the breath of God within you. For an atheist, a moment of attaining perfection as a human being.

And I can, in theory at least, get that feeling every time I pick up a sword. In practice, I've been there a dozen times. And a lesser version of it, a breath or a hint of it, almost daily.

It is, of course, an illusion. Even in that moment of grace, you are not perfect, or invulnerable. And this is where the discipline of a serious art saves you from the wishy-washy hippy shit of some other “spiritual paths”. It is so easy to slip, to believe your own hype, and simply essential that the moment you do so, reality comes crashing in like a sword to the head. The rigour of a true martial art contains at its heart a continual examining of your skills. This can come in all sorts of forms: I tend to use pressure drills and freeplay, but the critical component is the existence of an objective external test: “Does this work?”,  with a clear yes/no feedback mechanism in place. In many ways, the books from which we draw our art are that mechanism: the benchmark against which you measure the correctness of what you do. This academic aspect is I think unique to historical martial arts, and it requires that we are able to articulate in reasoned argument why we do anything a particular way. This adds a mental dimension, a way of thinking clearly and logically, making arguments supported by evidence, that is the antithesis of the “feel that energy, man” hippy shit I refer to above.

There is also the question of morality. The moral dimension to swordsmanship comes from the lethal nature of the art. It is, originally, for killing people. Some systems emphasise self-defence, but the knightly arts were for professional warriors. You kill people because that’s your job. Much like a modern soldier, who must only distinguish between legal and illegal orders. If the order is legal, and obeying it means killing people, well, that’s what they train for. I’m not suggesting that any part of that is easy, especially distinguishing legal orders from illegal ones, but at base, it is simple. Do, or do not. But for us, training exists in an artificial space that allows us to deeply examine the morality of the martial arts. (I’ve written elsewhere about training as a holo-deck for the philosophy of ethics.)We are training a killing art, so we must ask ourselves this question: in what circumstances, if any, is it acceptable to take life? This is why I have no interest in non-lethal arts. They simply lack this moral aspect. Especially combat sports, where your opponent has chosen to compete with you in a fair fight, and so long as you both follow the rules, there is no question of right or wrong at all.

Bodily health is also an issue. We have no choice but to live in this carcass until it stops working. There is just no way round the fact that you either figure out how yours works, and get the best out of it (it is a stunningly fabulous machine) or you ignore it until it fails.  I don’t train to stay healthy— I stay healthy so I can train. All of my students know that I put maintenance and conditioning at the heart of our training, and I spend about 90% of my own training time, and about 40% of my teaching time, working on mechanics. Most of my students come to me a bit broken in the beginning. Poor posture, bad wrists, a dodgy knee, excessive weight, whatever. We work together to develop good habits, mostly by paying attention to posture, breathing, and joint strength training, and of course, diet. This has a way of both preparing the student for the physical training, and of keeping them grounded when the magic starts to happen. For many students, the sword has hooked them out of physical lassitude and ill-health and into a more active, healthier life. It is certainly part of the core mission of the School. Our the training is healthy— our one golden rule is everyone must finish class healthier than they started it. And because we are interested in process, not outcome, it is literally irrelevant how fit a student is when they start. Only the attitude they bring to training matters.

(And this is another reason why I am not interested in combat sports. They have a pretty high threshold for physical fitness, which means that you have to start quite fit (and young!) if you wish to get really good at them. There is a genetic lottery (every sport has an ideal body type) and luck plays a huge part too. Read Bounce, by Matthew Syed, for more on this. Combat sports also have a very high risk of injury. So the students who need hooking off the couch and into a healthy life are barred from admission. The ones who need it least are the only ones who can have it.)

So why the sword? All of these spiritual, mental, moral and physical benefits can be accomplished with other weapons, or with no weapons at all. There is no good reason, though I could rationalise it at length. We could talk about flow states, ala Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: swordsmanship practice is most certainly a way to bring “order to consciousness” (as opposed to entropic chaos). We could talk about the social aspect, how good it is to find, coming to the salle, that you are not the only sword-obsessed loony out there. But fundamentally, some people are just drawn to the magic of steel. It resonates in them. Many students remember the first time they heard the clash of blade on blade, and how their heart leapt.

I train because I feel it. Oh Lord, I feel it in my very bones. But how I train is utterly rational. Together, the martial and academic truth-testing keep me from flying away with the fairies. The physical training keeps my body strong and agile. The mental training keeps my mind clear and focussed. The moral aspect leads me to consider the meaning and value of every part of my life.

So when someone asks you “Why practice Swordsmanship?”, perhaps the best answer is “how the hell do you manage without it?”

So, that's my reason. What's yours?


I was asked recently to write a preface to the new Finnish-language Conan compilation, Conan Palkkasoturi (Conan the Mercenary). It was a pleasure to write, and the published book is nothing short of beautiful. The editor, Janne Suominen, translated my thoughts into Finnish, and with his permission I am sharing the original English version here:

When I was a child I faced a serious choice regarding my future. I was either going to grow up to be a ninja, or Conan. While neither quite panned out, I do find myself swinging swords every day at work, so it could have been a lot worse. My career choices stemmed from two sources: the ninja movies of the early 80s, and the great, the glorious, Conan books and movies. Incarcerated in boarding school, I was forced to play hockey. Field hockey. This had one major advantage over all other sports: they gave me a weapon. I used to try to play defence so I wouldn’t have to run around much after that stupid ball, and instead could get back to the serious business of training up to becoming CONAN!!

When the first movie came out in 1982 was only 8, so I didn’t get to see it right away. It took about 3 years and a pirate VHS copy before I saw it on the screen. But the novelisation of the film Conan the Barbarian was in the school library and I devoured it. There were other Conan books to be had, the one I remember best being Conan the Buccaneer, also by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. These were heaven on the page: swords, sorcery and sex. Fantastically educational for an 8 year old. Graphic novels like the wonderful example you are holding had not yet become mainstream enough to be widely available, and were banned at my school unless obviously made for children. How the legendary Frank Frazetta book covers slipped through the net I don’t know. But I think my swordsmanship students should be glad they did.

I am often asked who draws the best swordfights, and it is a tricky question to answer. We have some great swordfighting graphic artists here in Finland: my favourite is Hannu Lukkarinen, not least as he came to me for training just to improve his artwork. The Art of Swordsmanship is to strike first. To do this your actions should be as small and quick as possible while still getting the job done. The sword is a labour-saving device, as it is so much easier to kill someone with one than without. But Swordfighting Art is a whole other story. It has to look good on the page, to an uninformed audience. It has to look like it would do the damage, and it doesn’t matter if the actions are way too big. On one of my consultancy jobs for a swordfighting computer game they had me put on a motion-capture suit and do various sword drills. A year later when I was back helping these game designers work out the underlying logic of what action counters what, I saw the game footage and said “that isn’t me! It’s all over the place!” and they told me that the actions I had made for them looked like nothing on the screen. Nobody would believe that they would work, as they seemed to take no effort. “That’s the fucking point” I said. But next time I’ll ham it up for them.

The great thing about fantasy series like Conan, of course, is that it is not trying to be historically accurate. The writers and artists can take whatever liberties they like, and must only be true to the characters, the story, and the fictional world of the Hyborian Age. Conan the Babysitter would not go down well. Nor Conan the medieval knight. But Conan the Cimmerian is one of the great characters of 20th century fiction, an archetype of the independent warrior spirit that can encompass being a thief and a pirate, a mercenary and a king, remaining true to himself alone.

Conan is a perfect hero, if you think about it. He is really, really good at killing people, but never takes advantage of a naked slave wench, never kills people who don’t deserve it, and is always there for his friends. Today in my School’s training hall there is a shelf of role models, gifts from friends and students: Yoda, Zorro, the Black Knight, and of course, inevitably, Conan. Thanks to some of the artwork, and a certain Austrian’s screen portrayal, the modern Conan is a muscle-bound archetype of brawn over brains, which is quite unsuited to swordsmanship. But this is not at all how Howard portrays him. Howard’s Conan is cat-like and clever, strong yes, but lithe, fast and cunning, with a very clear moral code. In every way, the ideal swordsman.

I was talking to a student after class the other day, someone who has been training with me off and on since the school opened. I happened to mention that for me, one of the primary uses of the art we study is that it is a holo-deck for the philosophy of ethics. Because we are not expecting to use our skills in earnest any time soon, we are free of the constraint of knowing we must be willing to use them. (This is my core moral objection to the idea of arming teachers to defend students against those sad evil little wankers who try to compensate for their utter inadequacy by murdering the defenceless. Giving the teachers guns would not help at all, without training them to use them, which would inevitably require those teachers to train to be willing and able to take life. That is a profound and utterly life-changing moral and emotional step, and it is simply not fair to ask the average teacher to make it. My practical objection is simply that kids are great at improvising, and having more guns in schools will inevitably lead to more guns in childrens' hands, and so more likelihood of fatal shootings, accidental or otherwise.)

For us, the salle becomes a simulator, a holo-deck if you will, in which we can examine violence and degrees of violence, and pose questions such as

“Is this action ever justified?”

“In what circumstances would cutting off someone's head be ok?”

“How do I feel about the idea of fighting to the death over a point of honour?”

“What was it about this culture that made this response acceptable?”

It is moronic to suggest that violence never solved anything: for the entire history of life on earth it has solved the problem of hunger: I kill to eat. Rory Miller makes this point well in this podcast. So the question then is “in what circumstances is violence acceptable, and to what degree?” Current martial systems, such as police training, military training, and such must have clearly defined answers to all such questions. In these  circumstances, I can use a baton. In those, I must shoot. In these, I call for an airstrike, etc. Martial arts teachers and parents both must be able to teach their students/kids a moral framework in which to place violence. One interesting point of view on this, that of a mother trying to raise her son in a non-violent way, and learning that violence is not intrinsically evil but has its place, can be found here. In short, she decided on a set of rules which, if followed, would make any violence her son was a part of morally acceptable. My rules are a little different (less gender-oriented for instance), but I admire her position.

We can imagine our Art being applied in dozens of circumstances, and while many of my students use aspects of their training at the School in their work as security guards, police, etc. most will never call on their skills outside of class. But for the training to be of any moral use it should require the practitioner to engage with the fact that we are training in lethal techniques, and therefore must have a clear set of internal guidelines as to when their application is acceptable. We can create those guidelines for all sorts of modern or historical contexts, which while it is not of any immediate practical use, nonetheless has the value of making us engage with these difficult questions.

In my view, it is impossible to inflict damage on another soul without inflicting damage on your own, no matter the circumstances. But there are situations in which the better course is to inflict the physical damage and take the spiritual. Failing to act out of fear of damage, physical or spiritual, is cowardice.

Let me tell you a story:

Twenty years ago, while at University, I was walking home alone from band practice with my trumpet, through a dodgy part of Edinburgh. As I was walking I saw a man, rough looking, with a bleeding head, standing over a woman in a doorway. I was terrified, of two things. One, I would act, and get the shit kicked out of me or killed. I was under no illusions as to who wins in a fight between street-thug and pampered kid. Two, I would not act, and despise myself for the rest of my life. So I stopped, far enough away to have a running head start, and called out in my best public-school accent

“Excuse me, but can I be of any assistance?”, the subtext I was trying to imply being “I've seen you and will call the police if you don't leave her alone”.

I was astonished when the man called back:

“Yes, please, my wife is having an epileptic fit!”

So I went over and helped him get her home, and we became friends. Turns out the blood came from his trying to cushion her fall. Some weeks later I told them that I had thought he was up to no good in that doorway, and they both fell about laughing.

My point is that while we can simulate all sorts of scenarios, and come up with ideal responses to them, we cannot reasonably predict our own actions unless they have been tested under stress, nor necessarily predict the outcome of a seemingly obvious scenario. But we can use our training in violence to help us make moral choices about who we are and wish to be, and then try to live up to them, accepting that doing so can be dangerous.

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