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Why Am I Doing This? Martial Virtues (Book Review)

written by Dave Shearon 17 December 2009

Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

Dave's articles are here.

Martial VirtuesMartial 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

Courage as a Virtue

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,
  • distraction,
  • 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)

Flying Sidekick

In time, the virtues become the goal

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
  • Values-in-action

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.

Leaping with a swordcourtesy of RichardMasoner
Flying sidekick courtesy of kaibara87

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Senia 17 December 2009 - 8:38 pm


Thanks. Great book! I see Charles on the “friend-of-pp” listserv all the time, and this is the first time I know of his book. Sounds great.

Especially the interconnections with life:

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.

There’s not much for me to say here.
I. Just. Like. This. A. Lot.

Thanks, Dave,
And thanks to Charles for combining martial arts and life philosophy.


Charles Hackney 18 December 2009 - 10:03 am

Thank you for reviewing my book, Dave. I had a ton of fun researching and writing it, and I hope that somebody finds it useful. I’ve been collecting the published psychological research on the martial arts for a number of years now, and it’s an awfully puny stack of articles. I’d like to do something to change that, and it would be great if my book helps increase scholarly attention to this topic.

Writing this was also very much a learning process, as I was trying to strike the right balance of scholarly quality and general readability (taking lessons from books like Jean Twenge’s Generation Me and Phil Zimbardo’s Lucifer Effect). I had to go back and forth a bit with my editor to find that balance, but I think we ended up with something that works.

If anyone has any questions about it, my email is chackey@redeemer.ca for the next few weeks. In January, I’ll be starting in a new position at Briercrest College, so my email in 2010 will be chackney@briercrest.ca.

Jeremy McCarthy 18 December 2009 - 1:40 pm

Thanks Dave, I’ve been meaning to read this book because I was an avid martial artist for most of my life. I studied a variety of styles but really fell in love with it when I was practicing Aikido which always seemed to me to be the most virtuous of the martial arts. Aikido (as I was taught, which varies from what we see Steven Segal do in his films) is purely defensive. In the style that I practiced (Ki society) there were no strikes, no offensive maneuvers, no attacks. It was simply understanding how to respond to the agression of someone else by blending with the energy they were sending your way and redirecting it in a different direction. This lesson has been applied in my life many times outside of the martial arts arena and has always served me well. I’m sure this is a skill you’ve developed in the realm of law as well.

It is interesting how most Aikido techniques begin with the Aikidoka turning to face the same way as the attacker. An analogy which also applies outside of the realm of physical combat. I’m sure the book is ripe with other examples of how the underlying philosophy of the martial arts has real world applications that we can all learn from. I look forward to reading the book.

I also love the four story questions at the end of your article. I’ll definitely be thinking about those. Thanks Dave and Charles for giving us much to think about.

WJ 18 December 2009 - 3:37 pm

Charles – the big question is how many people develop these so called martial virtues. Most martial artists I know are thugs who work as bouncers in bars. I doubt they really pick up the virtues that you are talking about.

And if they do have these vitues were they already present ie are they personality traits?

Jeff 19 December 2009 - 8:59 am

I forgot Seligman/Peterson’s definition of virtue/strength. I think it had to do with using it either constantly (trait) or occasionally (state). The martial arts are big over here (USA). Not as big as they were in the pimp-moustache 1970s. Remember the movie The Karate Kid? I grew up with that stuff.

I think there is something to martial arts, but when I think of the good stuff that comes with fighting I am reminded of the military. Not the nasty side of the military. Not the bad actions at Abu Graib for instance. I’m talking about that camaraderie and unique bonding that seems to happen in major crises.

Is it a virtue or strength? It may depend on who you ask. I’d vote yes probably or at least it is part of the other 24 or so strengths.

You didn’t ask my opinion. Sorry for grandstanding.

Charles Hackney 19 December 2009 - 11:57 am


“Most martial artists I know are thugs who work as bouncers in bars.”

I know some of those as well. I’ve been practicing the martial arts for almost fifteen years now, and I’ve been in training halls from coast to coast. Every martial art seems to attract it’s own special brand of knucklehead. Aikido tends to attract New Age flakes. Jiu jitsu tends to attract UFC wannabes with too much testosterone. One of the arts that I’ve studied has a strong ninjutsu influence, and we were always having to deal with the occasional twit who thought we were going to be wearing masks and learning The Scary Secret Death Touch of Scary Death. Fortunately, every brand of knucklehead is very much the minority in the martial arts. The great majority of us are thoroughly normal.

“And if they do have these vitues were they already present ie are they personality traits?”

In the same way that physical strength is not something that you absolutely have or don’t have, virtues are psychological strengths that must be developed. The basic message of my book is that practicing the martial arts is one of the ways that we can develop them. There was a study published in 2004, for example, that showed that practicing the martial arts is connected to better self-control. But we need a lot more research in this area, and I think that the positive psychology movement contains resources that can help us who are interested in empirically investigating the connection between the martial arts and becoming a more fully-functioning person.

WJ 19 December 2009 - 2:46 pm

Charles – thanx for the response.

I suspect people who perservere with martial arts might be high on conscientiousness in the first place.

I have to admit that I am not comfortable with martial values as I associate them with war mongering.


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