Martial virtues

People practise Aikido for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from exercise to self-defence to social contact to an interest in Japanese culture – and any combination of the above. One of the benefits of Aikido practice is strengthening of the student’s character. But what exactly does that mean, and how does it happen?

In this connection, I’d like to mention an essay written in 1906 by the psychologist William James . It was entitled The Moral Equivalent of War.

James, an avowed pacifist, wrote the essay during turbulent times – just after the Spanish-American War, with the First World War looming on the horizon, less than a decade away.

He was attempting to deal with a disturbing paradox. On one hand, he was convinced of the brutality and waste of war… its fundamental immorality. Few today would dispute that point of view. On the other hand, he tried to acknowledge the benefits of war – even in those days, a difficult argument to make.

His focus was on the human character. He began by pointing out that war is engrained very deeply in the human psyche and – ugly or not – is part of the human experience. It has been a constant throughout history, and some of our greatest literature (the Iliad, for example) celebrates it. “Modern man inherits all the innate pugnacity and all the love of glory of his ancestors,” he noted.

James’s essay helped me understand my father a little better. He was a combat veteran of the Second World War, and carried lifelong physical and psychological scars as a result. The horror of the war had shaken and disgusted him profoundly. But sometimes, he seemed to be weirdly nostalgic about it… the friendships, the challenges he proved equal to, the sense of order and purpose. It was a paradox I couldn’t understand, as a young man.

The negative effects of war on the human psyche are obvious. But James wrote about the positive effects, too: “Fidelity, cohesiveness, tenacity, heroism, conscience, education, inventiveness, economy, wealth, physical health and vigor — there isn’t a moral or intellectual point of superiority that doesn’t tell,” in war, he said. “Martial virtues must be the enduring cement [of society]; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built…”

James was seeking a “moral” equivalent to war, which was itself immoral. “The martial type of character can be bred without war. Strenuous honor and disinterestedness abound everywhere,” he suggested.

Aikido, when practiced with determination, can serve as such a “moral equivalent” to war in developing the human character, for people of all kinds. It can help to develop a tough resilience, determination, courage and sense of community that will serve the committed practitioner well in life, regardless of the ultimate level of technical proficiency attained.

O-Sensei saw Aikido as a path to peace built on a foundation of martial virtue. William James knew nothing about Aikido, but I’m sure he would have recognized its benefits.

There are many collections of quotes from James on the web. Some I agree with, some I don’t, but all are thought-provoking.