While in university, I briefly studied Shaolin Kung Fu and one of my great regrets from that time is that I didn’t continue to study that discipline. Time constraints ruled against me: I was working thirty hours a week on top of reading vast quantities of books to obtain my degree. There was also a psychological reason for why I stopped attending Kung Fu classes. I was angry and impatient and the lessons seemed long and slow. The fault was mine. My instructors were correct about many things including the fact that anger is often a liability in a fight.
Shaolin Kung Fu is a complex martial art. The Buddhist monks who first developed it originally set out to devise exercises for prolonging life. Military necessities ensured that Kung Fu developed as a means of defending life and territory and sometimes with great brutality. For example it is possible for a master practitioner to seize his opponent’s collarbone with one hand and tear open said opponent’s rib-cage.
But at its philosophical core, Shaolin Kung Fu is a peace-loving discipline. Its practitioners seek inner calm and physical harmony at all times. The aim of the latter is to ensure the balanced flow of chi energy (life force) through the body to stave off illness. In combat the practitioner directs that chi into blows against an opponent: Delivered at high speed and with enormous power. I recall one of my instructors, a burly man with a pot belly and wicked sense of humour kick a cinderblock wall, leaving a two foot long crack in the masonry.
That power serves a purpose. The goal of combat is to achieve victory as quickly as possible. In Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies, violence is considered an imbalance and harmony (tao) must be restored quickly. Therefore those who instigate violence must be quickly corrected by the swift delivery of counter-force. The angry brute opponent is best stopped by one who is calm and surgical.
I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve only had to use the Kung Fu skills I learned on a handful of occasions. As far as I’m concerned those few occasions were too many. The last occurred when I was attacked by a patron while at work. My opponent was angry and so was I. Consequently, I forgot a key lesson my Kung Fu instructors had drilled into my brain: Never punch your opponent in the head or face.
The reason is that the human skull has lots of hard edges that bruise the knuckles. Therefore the most efficient blow against the human head is a slap. The idea is to use the weight of your opponent’s head against him. A well delivered slap will propel the head sideways and strain the vertebrae and muscles bearing the weight of the head. UFC champion Nate Diaz’s “Stockton Slap” is an example of how powerful such a blow can be.
Needless to say in my anger I forgot these details and sent a straight right jab into my opponent’s face. I busted his mouth up pretty well, but the blow probably hurt me as much as him. Sometimes pain blows away the clouds of anger and I saw sense. He came at me again and this time I remembered my training. I parried an oncoming punch with my left forearm then slapped him upside the head with my right hand. That time I know it hurt him more than me. Before I could end the fight, fellow patrons intervened and dragged the fool outside. My right hand swelled up and hurt for days afterwards. I’m still a little angry about what happened and mostly at myself.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had to use physical force and I’m grateful for that fact. These days the battles I face are rhetorical, philosophical or psychological. In all of these the lessons my Kung Fu instructors taught me are still valid. However sometimes in outrage I forget what they taught me.
Not that there isn’t a place for anger, so long as it is balanced by wisdom and common sense. Anger can be a powerful motivator but in any form of combat it can prove to be a double edged sword. Often it is an inescapable force and the effects can be dangerous.
As Sun Tzu wrote:
“The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming ants, with the result that one-third of his men are slain…”
Or in a physical fight, you forget the correct method for striking an opponent’s head…well, you get the idea.
An important lesson in any form of combat be it physical, rhetorical or philosophical, is not to fall into the trap of using the same weapons and tactics as your opponent. After all, if your enemy is charging towards you across open terrain with a sword in hand, why run to meet him head on? Why not use a bow and arrow and shoot him down before he closes? The victory will be swift and balance restored.
I recently fell into a philosophical trap through anger. A recent essay I wrote about Jordan B Peterson was the subject of opprobrium from readers and friends. I don’t regret the points made in the article and I stand by my statements. But I regret the tactical and rhetorical errors in how I made my arguments. The first was applying the use of labels without adequate qualifying illustration. In doing so I invoked the same weapons as my opponents.
Peterson and his followers are adept at using labels to describe philosophies and groups that they oppose, in a manner inconsistent with the meaning of the terms. Peterson may decry deconstructionists for debasing language, yet he has also been guilty of doing the same. The use of terms like “post-modern” “Marxist” and “politically correct” are utilized to denote intent, rather than meaning.
For example, by claiming as Peterson does that universities promote “post-modern, radical leftist ideology” Peterson’s intent isn’t to challenge intellectual opposition to his reactionary ideas but to demonize opposition. His description is also woefully incorrect – but then being correct isn’t the point. The aim of labelling is to dehumanize and in Peterson’s case, making outrageous statements allows him to play the victim.
Vladimir Lenin employed a similar tactic – the Bolsheviks (meaning “majority”) were never actually the majority. The “post-modernism” or what Peterson interprets to be post-modern thinking in Canadian universities is a myth.
In the opening paragraph of my essay on Peterson I described him as “a modern Marxist.” My error wasn’t in the term itself but in employing it in the same manner that Peterson uses labels. To my regret I did not qualify the term at the time and will do so now.
Leaving aside Marx’s observations on surplus value and the means of production, Marxism is a dialectic of class conflict where economic determinism will decide the social structure.
Marxist philosophy was discredited during the twentieth century thanks to its various interpreted applications by Lenin, Stalin and Pol Pot. By the middle of the twentieth century most Marxists on the Left had given up on the philosophy, having come around to the idea of stable, bureaucratic management of economic affairs.
However, all ideas once espoused become public property. By the 1970’s Marxism re-emerged on the Right in the form of the neo-conservative movement with its intellectual support from the Chicago School of Economics. At the centre of this new right-wing Marxism was the unregulated marketplace and an ideological contempt for the idea that institutions could or should work to achieve social stability and protect the vulnerable. The ideological aim of neo-conservativism is to promote class conflict in the pursuit of a corporate society. The only difference between the neo-conservatives and Marx is who wins that conflict.
Neo-conservatism is at the forefront of promoting a socioeconomic system where corporations (businesses, special interest groups) and not individuals are at the centre of government and society. Modern political ideologies of all categories are in essence manifestations of corporatism. Corporate movements can be popular and in the past they have manifested in various guises depending on socioeconomic circumstances and political mood. Understood in context, they can appear benign or vicious or both.
Where does Peterson fall in all of this? He and his ideas are representative of a movement seeking to turn back the cultural clock. It’s possible that neither he nor his followers are aware of this and if Peterson’s seeming inability to grasp historic context is anything to go by, that could be the case. Yet the corporate movement in which he is part of shares eerie similarities with both right wing and left wing corporate movements of the past: Dehumanising the opposition, promoting myths (consider Peterson’s dismissal of women’s history in the western world), attacking women’s movements, promoting groundless conspiracies (the supposed domination of universities by the post-modern left) and all wrapped in a pretense of well-meaning populism.
To be fair I agree with Peterson that the current state of western universities isn’t great. I too, abhor the idea of “safe spaces”. However I dispute the underlying causes of the decline in university education as being the result of a single philosophy.
An honest appraisal of Western universities would discuss the influence of corporate money in financing university programmes. There is also human weakness to consider. Professors are regularly paid large sums by corporations to provide a veneer of intellectual legitimacy for the ideas of vested interests. Academia for sale has always existed. The Ancient Greeks referred to such learned mercenaries as sophists.
The University of Toronto enjoys considerable finance from pharmaceutical companies and other businesses. U of T isn’t alone in that regard. However by comparison to competitor universities such as Queen’s University, the University of Toronto receives far greater amounts of private donations. Referring to the U of T as a bastion of post-modernism is, in addition to being inaccurate, a trite comment from a lecturer who receives $50,000 a month in private donations.
The problem with modern education is that administrators outnumber teachers in many jurisdictions by a ratio of three to one. That isn’t the result of post-modernism, but the natural result of a society obsessed with purposeless, managerial power, thus resulting in an application of Pournelle’s Second Law.
In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.
Some readers may argue that a reliance on contributions hearkens back to the days when teachers were paid directly by their students. During those times, teachers who didn’t teach what the students wanted to hear would be run out of town.
But the point of education isn’t to hear what you want to hear or to learn what you want to learn to the exclusion of all other subjects. The purpose of being educated is to think and discern. It can be argued that wisdom can’t be taught in school and I would agree. Wisdom is achieved through life experience. The efficient transmission of knowledge can occur in a school but knowledge itself is subject to change. Before 1930, no one on Earth was aware of the existence of Pluto. Imagine a lecturer run out of town for daring to suggest that Pluto didn’t exist because his or her students disagreed!
Other commentators can correctly point out that partisan funding of campuses is a widespread issue. It is an acknowledged fact that the libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch fund business schools in numerous American universities. It is also acknowledged that the billionaire George Soros also pours money into American universities.
Therefore the solution to these partisan attacks on education should be to remove private funding from universities. The only reason for not doing so is ideological. Critics of public schooling go to great lengths to describe the indoctrinating capacities of public education yet the alternative models they propose tend to be exclusive and outdated.
A sensible policy towards public education would be to render it less exclusive, decrease class sizes and encourage the pursuit of real world experience. Since the 1970’s our corporate society has worked against those premises through cuts to public spending, thus opening the door for private and partisan investment in education. Perhaps instead of relying on private contributions to fund our schools, we could tax the income behind those contributions and pay for schooling for all.
Throughout history, universities have faced battles in order to establish a forum in which independent thought and ideas can develop. During the Medieval Period and during large portions of the Enlightenment, Western universities were controlled by the Church. Academic ideas in the realms of science and philosophy were strictly controlled.
The church’s control over education was steadied by Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits who provided the blue-print for modern elite education. The Jesuits stifled independent thought in Europe’s universities throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And it was their suppression in the second half of the eighteenth century that helped unleash the forces of the Enlightenment. Over the next hundred years philosophers such as Voltaire, Diderot and their followers fought to wrest university control away from the church. They were partly successful.
Then Immanuel Kant dragged philosophy back into the realm of specialisation and away from the service of the public weal. Kant achieved this remarkable feat under the auspices of university tenure. Unlike Voltaire and Diderot, Kant enjoyed job security, a regular salary and respectability. However, closeted away in the university, Kant became divorced from reality and confused teaching with thinking. Rather than communicating with humanity, he wrote in an esoteric manner. His successors in universities have continued this practice, thus imprisoning philosophical thought in systematic, faith based logic.
Kant’s most vocal critic, Friedrich Nietzsche was correctly dismissive of Kant stating:
“Systematisers practice a kind of play-acting: in as much as they want to fill out a system and round off its horizon, they have to try to present their weaker qualities in the same style as their stronger.”
Tragically, both Kant and Nietzsche have emerged as forces of intellectual and social stagnation: The former for promoting faith based reason as a moral virtue, the latter for the intellectual justification for cynicism and inaction in the face of the status quo.
With forces like this at play, the Jesuits may have lost the battle, but their rational technocratic descendants appear to have won the war.
Consequently I have developed a healthy scepticism concerning philosophers, especially contemporary ones. As a result the reader may be asking why I devote time to discussing philosophy and philosophers when I hold so many of these in contempt.
The answer is that I am looking for answers and because I spend a great deal of time thinking. Furthermore, I see merit in questioning and seeking alternatives rather than succumbing to the delusions of doctrinal certainty, or blindly accepting what I read and hear. Moreover, the job of a writer is to be mean and to question everything. Call it a public service.
A fact of our modern culture is the celebration of celebrities and our most prominent philosophers have willingly embraced both fame and corporate sponsorship. Therefore, they and their ideas are fair game for critique. Over the coming months The Intellectual Plane will examine and critique such characters and their ideas. I’ve already discussed Jordan Peterson. Another corporate thinker worthy of criticism is another Canadian export, the equivocating Malcolm Gladwell.
But before embarking on that task, I’d like to return the reader to the title of this essay and provide some explanation therein.
Few would deny that our society is a state of flux. Looking at the state of the world, its politics, its economy and popular culture reveals a society seeking heroes. The silver screen is dominated by movies about super-heroes. The political landscape is dominated by men and women playing heroic roles. Donald Trump portrays himself (and is portrayed by his followers) in messianic terms. That he belongs to the very social class that bears the brunt of responsibility for the problems faced by the US and the world has been lost in the popular clamour for a heroic leader.
The search for heroes is not a partisan issue. The appeal of Bernie Sanders in the last US election and the appeal of Trudeau Mania in Canada are further symptoms of a society seeking a popular hero.
A common theme among populist heroes of our day is the manner that they communicate. Trump, Peterson, Trudeau, the late Rob Ford, Silvio Berlusconi and other would be heroic figures are celebrated for speaking plainly. For many, Jordan Peterson has assumed the role of guru-like figure.
Why the search for heroes? Because as Bertold Brecht wrote in Life of Galileo:
Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.
So in closing I will pose the following questions.
Why not be your own hero?
Why hold to ideology when ideology doesn’t work?
Why listen to philosophers whose sole life experience is that of the enclosed environments of the university or corporate world?
Why not think for yourself?
Lately, while pondering these questions I’ve recalled my martial arts training and how the anger I carried worked against me when unfocussed. It occurs to me that while philosophers should not be followed or adored, some of the greatest wisdom has been passed down by warriors. In fact, warrior-philosophers have shaped the course of history.
I am not advocating unnecessary violence or hero worship here. A warrior is separate to a soldier or a mercenary depending on context. Native North Americans did not exist as a separate social class in their communities. They were hunters, philosophers, politicians and artists. Similarly the warriors who fought in the Classical Greek phalanx were also statesmen, philosophers and farmers.
An honest appraisal of Western philosophy shows that contextual, historical violence lies at its core. Socrates, Plato, Demosthenes, Sophocles, Thucydides, Pericles – all these men, famous in philosophy and literature did at one time or another, pick up a shield and spear and kill another human being. Consequently, these men were forced to confront their own guilt and to question both themselves and their societies. One doesn’t have to like Plato or Socrates to understand and criticize their wisdom and failings. They are neither life models nor heroes, nor should they be revered as such.
Nor am I not suggesting that violence is virtuous or that individuals in a society should resort to violence. The point I am trying to make is that even within the chaos of the Ancient World, these thinkers helped to create practical philosophical institutions that survive to this day.
The contrast between these thinkers and our contemporary corporate sophists in experience and real-world wisdom is enormous: The latter’s adherence to abstract principles is a negation of twenty five hundred years of human progress. Put simply, most of our contemporary philosophers exist in a state of denying reality. Theirs is a realm of abstract terms and ideological thinking that ignores physical limits.
Just as Socrates encouraged critical thinking on all matters, later warrior-philosophers espoused the importance of accepting reality over fanciful thinking. Carl von Clausewitz in On War emphasized the importance of assessing reality:
The first, the supreme, the most far reaching act of judgement that the statesman and the commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something alien to its nature.
We need not be soldiers to understand the essential logic of approaching all matters with the above in mind. Substitute war for problem. Instead of mistaking said problem for what it really is, or attempting to turn it into something that it isn’t, we can adapt and overcome it.
But what of error? Perceptions can be flawed and humans make mistakes.
Consider then a key idea from the Hagakure written by the seventeenth century samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo:
It is said that one should not hesitate to correct himself when he has made a mistake. If he corrects himself without the least bit of delay, his mistakes will quickly disappear. But when he tries to cover up a mistake, it will become all the more unbecoming and painful.
In short own your errors, accept them and correct them. Correction is often a necessity in life. Our managerial society being incapable of admitting error causes the kind of pain elucidated by Yamamoto. Better then, that the philosopher, the thinker – the human being– be like water and as Sun Tzu wrote:
Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows
Because as in life and as in war:
Therefore just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.
As stated earlier I am not promoting the idea that war and violence are keys to building intellect. Instead I challenge the reader to consider the value of real life experiences over that of abstract thinking alone – especially when those ideas originate from academics whose major life experiences occur in the structured and unreal corporate worlds of business and universities.
Better yet, I challenge you to consider philosophy as a stimulus for independent thinking and a means of finding, not defining who you are and what your beliefs are. Embrace doubt. Accept reality. Be human and humane.
I recall a little piece of wisdom I read from a Lakota medicine man named Archie Fire Lame Deer. In Lakota society, medicine men are also philosophers and warriors.
To be a medicine man you have to experience everything, live life to the fullest. If you don’t experience the human side of everything, how can you help teach or heal? To be a good medicine man, you’ve got to be humble. You’ve got to be lower than a worm and higher than an eagle.
Very rarely do any of us need to resort to violence but many readers may have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime. One need not be violent to be a warrior. One can be a discerning and peaceable warrior and achieve balance in all things.