Aeschylus, the Turtle, and Arwrology


Taught the third class in our four class self-defense series last monday, despite being sick as a dog. It went well. Six hours in and I feel like everyone has a good grasp on the basic materials. The small field trip really helped, hanging out for a while and practicing recognizing individual and group dynamics. Learning to see and categorize what would otherwise just be a “gut” reaction is a skill more people should develop.

The third class was mostly the reverse CPR class. We covered all the ways to stop someone quickly and thoroughly. We covered why humans are hard to stop, unless you hit the right button. And we talked about how to push each button just right.

I think it says a lot that such material is the rarest thing in martial arts. Doesn’t matter how bad-ass a martial art is, most of the class isn’t going to revolve around those buttons, or even acknowledge that they exist. I teach a jab-hook-liver-low kick combo more than I teach button pushing.

In weapon arts, the lightsaber effect is huge. Or I suppose it might be the taser-saber effect…the belief that the lightest touch with a weapon is instant death. It’s a grey area that people aren’t comfortable talking about. The usual crowd likes to “man” it up, or “realism” it up I suppose, by insisting on faster speeds and more impact to make a more pure art. Which, oddly enough, always seems to mean tournaments and competitions.

Reading “Arwrology” I came across an interesting anecdote. It relates in some ways to other anecdotes that have come up before, usually about what is more lethal, the thrust or the cut. There is always some tale about how someone survived one type of injury, or a lot of such injuries, and kept fighting. The point of these stories is usually brought up to support the argument for afterblows, or armour in bouts allowing harder/faster hits that means more realistic fighting, or that rapiers are stupid weapons.

This story was about a german soldier who survived being stabbed by two Irish soldiers. 165 times. With rifle bayonets.

I’ve seen video footage from a prison stabbing where a guy was curled up on the floor and stabbed over 60 times. For sure he died, but the autopsy revealed that only 3 of the stabs were fatal.

165 blows, or 60, all delivered with great fury and intent. It’s not easy to push the right button.

And to be honest, it’s not the point of most martial arts. It’s a little odd that we lie to ourselves about that so much. Counting coup is a honourable thing, and fun. It doesn’t need to be more than that. Mastering a complex and challenging art is a worthy goal for a lifetime. The attempt to layer gritty realism on top is a bit of a sham.

Which is a bit weird, I suppose. I took up martial arts because bad things happened, and I wanted to stop them. I did learn how to stop bad things from happening, but I also learned that bad things happen anyway. Aeschylus was not to blame for the turtle.

But I do find that when I teach reverse CPR, it’s from a far different toolkit than the one I teach martial arts from. Bluntly, I think that black little toolkit has things in it most martial arts would never teach, and many more would not know how to defend against.

I think I prefer it that way.



  1. Thanks for the post, interesting as always and had provoked me to look out my copy Arwrology again that I haven’t looked at for a while…

    I find the fixation on competition as some kind of reality check for anything beyond how well one does in the “reality” of that competition… interesting.

    Also the fixation on harder and faster, which while they have an obviously place, seem in the way they are exploited currently come with a lack of control of the opponent and their weapon and lead to attacks with a gay abandon that would lead to one striking down the opponent and then bleeding out after from the blow that made it through, that or getting someone to pick up your fingers/hands

  2. Well there is a paradox in the term “martial art” . Art denoting one thing and martial another. The black toolkit should be what it is and being an art unto itself may or may not be necessary…Not teaching it or dealing with it is the failure of most things martial. Most get their self esteem from the art part and walk away happy. Interesting discussion. Personally, these technologies were developed to help you come home after a tough day on the battlefield, I think it necessary to preserve that.

  3. It can also be with the semantics of much of the words we use with this as well as broader issues with how we view things,
    How much of the martial is martial, in a proper sense?
    We lump the notion of art, IMO too loosely, art in this sense is the creative application of the principles of the skills. Where as the common notion of art is now to do with bettering ourselves and The Arts.
    It makes it harder when subjects are consider using models inappropriate to the actual thing

  4. Jonathan Barber

    Your titles are always entertaining;-).

    My focus on unarmed martial arts shifted at some point years ago from “how to fight” to “how to not get hurt any worse than absolutely necessary, create enough space to get away, and do those quickly” (armed stuff is obviously a little different). Regular martial arts are fun – I like doing complicated physical things, and I LOVE winning – but they don’t have much to do with not getting killed. Ain’t nothing fun about that particular scenario.

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