Martial Virtues by Charles Hackney, PhD, is an obvious gift for anyone who practices the martial arts. Anyone in a high-conflict profession can relate to it,lawyers, for example. For all of us, however, the last chapter offers a good path to thinking about purpose in life, the “Why am I doing this?” question.
Charles Hackney is chair of the psychology department at Redeemer University, Ontario, Canada. He is also a martial arts practitioner. In Martial Virtues, he uses positive psychology and virtue ethics to understand the tradition of virtuous character in the martial arts. Because the martial arts, even when pursued as a hobby or discipline, inspire consideration of warrior virtues and the psychology of combat, Dr. Hackney draws on literature on the warrior ethos from Greece and Rome, Japan, China, and Korea, Medieval England, and modern America.
BOOK REVIEW: Hackney, C. (2010). Martial Virtues: Lessons in Wisdom, Courage, and Compassion from the World’s Greatest Warriors. Tuttle Publishing.
Martial Arts and Virtues
In positive psychology, Dr. Hackney draws primarily from Character Strengths and Virtuesby Peterson and Seligman. In virtue ethics, Dr. Hackney turns to Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre focused virtue ethics on the Aristotelian principles (familiar to those in positive psychology) of
- telos: that for which one is designed, purpose in the sense of what one does best. For humans, from a non-theological perspective, Dr. Hackney suggests “the human telosinvolves functioning well as socialanimals, and in exercising of abilities that evolved as survival-related adaptations.” Or, in Chris Peterson’s phrase, “Other people matter.”
- eudaimonia: a human life well-lived, obviously related to purpose, but also suggesting happiness.
- arete: “virtue,” the qualities that enable the pursuit of eudaimonia, and the lack of which frustrate telos.
MacIntyre suggests that community-based conversations (“practices”), develop the human telos. Martial arts, with their history, traditions, stories, and ethics are examples of such “practices.” It occurs to me that law may be such a practice also, or can be if we make it such.
After reviewing the literature of martial arts disciplines ranging from tai-chi to medieval swordsmanship, Dr. Hackney, in a fashion similar to the approach used by Peterson, et al., in Character Strengths and Virtues, identifies and then discusses “virtues” common to the various disciplines: Courage, Justice, Temperance, Wisdom, and Benevolence. Although not identifying it as a virtue, he also looks at “Courtesy.” For each virtue, he seeks a definition, considers varieties, looks at its interaction with other virtues, and reviews methods for cultivating it in oneself and in others.
Courage in Martial Arts and Courage as a Virtue
For example, the chapter on courage begins with a story of the stand by the Greeks against the Persians at Thermopylae in the fifth century B.C.E. In that battle, the Greeks were outnumbered approximately 300:1 but held on long enough to turn the tide of the Persian invasion of Greece, thus allowing the development of Western civilization. After defining courage as “doing the right thing in the face of fear,” Dr. Hackney goes on to describe different types of courage such as the courage that leads to boldness of action and that which leads to persistence in the face of the threat of failure. Ultimately, courage enables one to face death. Dr. Hackney pulls suggestions from psychological literature on how courage can be developed personally:
- by early identification of fear and mental practice for its presence,
- suppression of the fear through behavior that simulates and stimulates courage,
- humanization of the enemy (they’re probably afraid also), and
- identification with a cause.
In others, courage can be cultivated through
- courageous role models,
- inspirational motivation,
- intellectual stimulation (suggesting the need to find their own responses to fear), and
- caring leadership that creates good individual relations (other people matter).
Each of the other chapters on the virtues of Justice, Temperance, Wisdom, and Benevolence follow a similar approach. Plus, there’s a chapter on “Courtesy” as “not a virtue, but necessary.” We see this practice in our military today as soldiers will address each other with appropriate words of respect according to rank and civilians as “Sir” or “Ma’am.” Likewise, law, especially in the courtroom, demands certain standards of respect and courtesy. This reminds me of the title of the book by the founders of the KIPP charter schools, Work Hard. Be Nice.
What’s Your Story? (And the Community of Practice)
The last chapter is entitled, “Tying It All Together: What’s Your Story?” Dr. Hackney writes:
“If you see the marital arts only as something fun to do with your time, with no more impact on your personality than bowling or attending Star Trek conventions, then reading this book may have been a waste of your time.” p. 194.
However, for those who enter into the community of practice, the practice of martial arts becomes a way to develop the martial virtues. The effort becomes a quest; a strenuous, challenging, even dangerous journey with a goal. MacIntyre, the virtue ethicist, writes, “A quest is always an education both as to the character of that which is sought and in self-knowledge.” A martialarts practitioner may begin the practice of martial arts to develop skill with the virtues as simply a required part of that practice. In time, the virtues become the goal. And the effort and challenge of the quest becomes evidence of the value of the virtues. Likewise, perhaps you chose your profession for one set of reasons (money, achievement), but now find that another set (values, purpose) provide your true rewards and motivation.
This wisdom goes beyond martial arts. Law, for example, places huge psychological demands on lawyers, including pressure to detach from the values that are so often in conflict in legal matters — fairness, equity, justice, caring, community, and autonomy — in order to pursue the goal of “resolution.” Perhaps, however, as with the martial arts, the practitioner’s story becomes less about the pursuit of the goal and more about valuing these values because of and through their conflicts. The martial arts practitioner can come to view belts or trophies as mere trappings or signals of the quest and the virtues as the result rather than the means. Perhaps others can come to see the hard-won wisdom and virtues of their practice as the ultimate purpose after all.
In Chapter 11 of Built to Last, Jim Collins suggests that leaders of business organizations ask themselves whether there would be any reason not to sell the business to a buyer who would pay full value and promise to find comparable employment for every employee, but whose purpose for the purchase was to close the business. The answers to that question establish the true purpose, the mission, of that business. Tal Ben-Shahar in Happierrecommends this as a personalexercise for setting self-concordant goals. Dr. Hackney entitles his last chapter, “Tying It All Together: What’s Your Story?” If the story is about external achievements and acquisitions, both Dr. Ben-Shahar and Dr. Hackney point to the research that suggests the rewards may not be ultimately satisfying. The internal, self-concordant rewards that come from persistence in an arduous quest, however, rarely seem to disappoint. In The Story Factor, Annette Simmons notes that leaders need six stories, four of which relate closely to this question of purpose. She says leaders must be able to tell stories that explain:
- Who I am
- Why I am here
- My Vision
We are all leaders, first of ourselves, then of others. What’s your story?
Hackney, C. (2010). Martial Virtues: Lessons in Wisdom, Courage, and Compassion from the World’s Greatest Warriors. Tuttle Publishing
Collins, J. & Porras, J. (2004). Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. HarperBusiness.
Mathews, J. (2009). Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America. Algonquin Books.
MacIntyre, A. (2007). After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Third Edition. University of Notre Dame Press.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.