Stoicism as a Martial Art

What the Stoic Philosophers Learned from Combat Sports

What the Stoic Philosophers Learned from Combat Sports

The art of living is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s in this regard, that it must stand ready and firm to meet whatever happens to it, even when unforeseen. — Marcus Aurelius

Greek and Roman youths often engaged in combat sports, including wrestling, boxing, and also the pankration, which combined elements of both. It is no surprise that we find many references to these sports in the writings of ancient philosophers, many of whom participated in their youth, and later watched others compete.

The Historia Augusta says that in his youth the Stoic philosopher, and Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius was “fond of boxing and wrestling”, and that he had been trained to fight in armour. However, we’re told that over time he became more physically frail, suffering from chronic health problems, and his interest in philosophy came to distract him from these physical pursuits.

The Stoic philosopher must be psychologically resilient, he’s saying, and prepared in advance to meet the blows of fortune, like a wrestler facing his opponent.

Nevertheless, Marcus’ early enthusiasm for these sports inspired him to write of boxing, wrestling and pankration in The Meditations. In the quote above, he describes the whole “art of living” as resembling the art of wrestling. The Stoic philosopher must be psychologically resilient, he’s saying, and ready in advance to defend himself against the blows of fortune. Life is not like a being dancer with a co-operative partner, but more like being a wrestler facing an adversary — if we’re not prepared for misfortune it may overthrow us.

As well as wrestling in his youth, Marcus led a dance troupe called the College of the Salii. They performed ritual dances dedicated to Mars, the god of war, while dressed in arcane armour, carrying shields and weapons. For Roman youths, martial dance was a stylized way of rehearsing fighting moves, perhaps a little bit like the “patterns” or kata of east Asian martial arts.

When Marcus says that the basic Stoic attitude toward life is more like that of a wrestler than a dancer, he’s speaking from years of personal experience in both disciplines. As we’ll see, the idea that the mind-set of a philosopher should resemble a fighting stance had already been stressed centuries earlier by one of the leaders of the Stoic school.

Elsewhere, Marcus elaborates on different aspects of this analogy, such as in the following passage. His point here is that we should view misfortune in daily life as if it were training in the gymnasium, and our opponents, as if they were sparring partners. We should focus on how we grow stronger and more skilled by learning how to respond actively to misfortune, rather than allowing ourselves to respond passively, by becoming resentful.

In the gymnasium, someone may have scratched us with his nails or have collided with us and struck us a blow with his head, but, for all that, we do not mark him down as a bad character, or take offence, or view him with suspicion afterwards as one who wishes us ill. To be sure, we remain on our guard, but not in a hostile spirit or with undue suspicion; we simply try to avoid him in a friendly manner. So let us behave in much the same way in other areas of life: let us make many allowances for those who are, so to speak, the companions of our exercises. For it is possible, as I have said, to avoid them, and yet to view them neither with suspicion nor hatred. — Meditations, 6.20

Everyone who poses a challenge for us in life, in other words, is a “companion of our exercises” or potential sparring partner — friends, family, colleagues, etc. They all give us an opportunity to exercise wisdom and temperance.

In another well-known passage, Marcus compares the principles of Stoic philosophy to weapons.

In the application of one’s principles, one should resemble a pankratiast, and not a gladiator. For the gladiator lays aside the sword which he uses and then takes it up again, but the pankratiast always has his fist and simply needs to clench it. — Meditations, 12.9

Indeed, Marcus describes the ultimate goal of Stoicism, as becoming:

…a wrestler in the greatest contest of all, never to be overthrown by any [toxic] passion, deeply steeped in justice, welcoming with his whole heart all that comes about and is allotted to him, and never, except under some great necessity and for the good of his fellows, giving thought to [i.e., worrying about] what another is saying or doing or thinking.— Meditations, 3.4

If we can view life as a wrestling match, and people who bother us as sparring partners, who can help us improve our skills, he thinks we become like wrestlers in the greatest of all contests. As he says here, these skills involve learning to not be overthrown by unhealthy “passions” such as fear or anger, practising contentment with our lives, and not allowing ourselves to worry much about what other people think of us (unless it can somehow helps us do good in life).

Stoicism as Wrestling in Epictetus

The philosopher whom Marcus Aurelius quotes most often is the Stoic teacher Epictetus, who liked to compare training in philosophy to the instructions given by ancient wrestling coaches: if you fall get back up again, and keep fighting, if you want to become stronger.

But see what the trainers of boys do. Has the boy fallen? Rise, they say, wrestle again till you are made strong. Do you also do something of the same kind: for be well assured that nothing is more adaptable than the human soul. — Discourses, 4.9

Like Marcus, Epictetus portrays philosophy as the greatest fight of all, for the prize of good fortune and happiness.

For we must not shrink when we are engaged in the greatest combat, but we must even take blows. For the combat before us is not in wrestling and the pankration, in which both the successful and the unsuccessful may have the greatest merit, or may have little, and in truth may be very fortunate or very unfortunate; but the combat is for good fortune and happiness themselves. — Discourses, 3.25

However, this metaphor was probably already common in Stoicism before the time of Epictetus.

“…opposing judgment and forethought like arms and hands to the strokes of fortune and the snares of the wicked, lest in any way a hostile and sudden onslaught be made upon us when we are unprepared and unprotected.”

Stoicism as Wrestling in Panaetius

In a less well-known passage, from the Roman grammarian Aulus Gellius, we find the same analogy being attributed to Panaetius, the last head or “scholarch” of the Athenian Stoic school. The chapter in Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights is titled:

Of an opinion of the philosopher Panaetius, which he expressed in his second book On Duties, where he urges men to be alert and prepared to guard against injuries on all occasions.

He notes that Panaetius’ On Duties had particularly influenced Cicero, generations earlier. In it, says Gellius, was to be found an “incentive to virtue”, which ought especially to be kept fixed in the mind. Almost three centuries before Marcus Aurelius, Panaetius states very clearly that the Stoic wise man must adopt a mental attitude, of constant mindfulness and vigilance, resembling the fighting stance of a pankratiast:

The life of men who pass their time in the midst of affairs, and who wish to be helpful to themselves and to others, is exposed to constant and almost daily troubles and sudden dangers. To guard against and avoid these one needs a mind that is always ready and alert, such as the athletes have who are called ‘pankratiasts.’

Panaetius continues, by describing the fighting stance of an ancient pankratiast:

For just as they, when called to the contest, stand with their arms raised and stretched out, and protect their head and face by opposing their hands as a rampart; and as all their limbs, before the battle has begun, are ready to avoid or to deal blows — so the spirit and mind of the wise man, on the watch everywhere and at all times against violence and wanton injuries, ought to be alert, ready, strongly protected, prepared in time of trouble, never flagging in attention, never relaxing its watchfulness, opposing judgment and forethought like arms and hands to the strokes of fortune and the snares of the wicked, lest in any way a hostile and sudden onslaught be made upon us when we are unprepared and unprotected.— Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights

I think these older passages from the Middle Stoa, centuries before Marcus was writing, help to provide some more context for his remarks. They give us a more complete idea of what the Stoics meant by saying that the art of living is like the art of wrestling. It means being constantly mindful, alert, and prepared in advance to meet life’s challenges. The wise man, in other words, is never to be caught off guard by the blows of fortune.

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