“And in this corner, weighing in at 105 pounds, all the way from Copenhagen, Denmark...”


“And in this corner, wearing the white straightjacket...”
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  The Socratic Art of Boxing
A philosopher (and former boxer) explains how a trip to the canvas can be a lesson in moral virtue.

By Gordon Marino

“Know thyself” was the Socratic dictum, but Tyler Durden, the protagonist in the movie “Fight Club,” asks, "How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?" Although trainers of the bruising art wince at the notion that boxing equals fighting, there can be no doubt that boxing throws you up against yourself in revealing ways. Take a left hook to the body or a trip to the canvas, and you soon find out whether you are the kind of person who will ever get up.

For a decade, I have been teaching both boxing and philosophy. My academic colleagues have sometimes reacted to my involvement with the sweet science with intellectual jabs and condescension. A few years ago at a philosophy conference, I mentioned that I had to leave early to go back to the campus to work with three of my boxers from the Virginia Military Institute who were competing in the National Collegiate Boxing Association championships. Shocked to learn that there was such a college tournament, one professor scolded, "How can someone committed to developing minds be involved in a sport in which students beat one another's brains out?" I explained that the competitors wore protective headgear and used heavily padded 16-ounce gloves in competition as well as in practice, but she was having none of it. "Headgear or not," she replied, "your brain is still getting rattled. Worse yet, you're teaching violence."

I countered that if violence is defined as purposefully hurting another person, then I had seen enough of that in the philosophical arena to last a lifetime. At the university where I did my graduate studies, colloquia were nothing less than academic gunfights in which the goal was to fire off a question that would sink the lecturer low. I pointed out, "I've even seen philosophers have to restrain themselves from clapping at a comment that knocked a speaker off his pins and made him feel stupid." I followed up by arguing that getting and taking punches makes you feel safer in the world, and that people who do not feel easily threatened are generally less threatening. She wasn't buying any of it. Then I made the mistake of making myself an object lesson by noting that I had boxed for years and still seemed to be able to put my thoughts together. That earned me a smile and a pat on the wrist.

If I were thrown in the ring today and had to defend the art of self-defense against the sneering attitude of some academicians, I would have at least two colleagues in my corner. In Body & Soul: Notes of an Apprentice Boxer, the MacArthur-award-winning Loïc Wacquant, a sociology professor at New School University, described the sentimental education that he received training for three years at a boxing gym in Chicago's South Side. Professor Wacquant, who earned his red badge of courage by competing in the famous Chicago Golden Gloves tournament, insists that boxing clubs are sanctuaries of order, peace, and tranquility in a helter-skelter world. According to Wacquant, whose ring name was "Busy Louie," the gym is "a school of morality in Durkheim's sense of the term, that is to say a machinery designed to fabricate the spirit of discipline, group attachment, respect for others as for self, and autonomy of the will that are indispensable to the blossoming of the pugilistic vocation." The machinery often works so well that it forges a kind of mutual affection that is absent from the cool halls of academe. When he left Chicago for a postdoctoral position at Harvard, Wacquant fell into a terrible funk about leaving his fistic family. He writes, "In the intoxication of my immersion, I even thought for a while of aborting my academic career to 'turn pro' and thereby remain with my friends from the gym and its coach, DeeDee Armour, who had become a second father to me."

Carlo Rotella, an associate professor of English and director of American studies at Boston College and the author of Cut Time: An Education at the Fights, spent a year taking notes in the gym of the former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. Rotella contends that life is all about hurting and getting hurt, and that there are few courses in life that prepare you for the whirring blades outside your door like boxing. In the introduction to one of the best boxing books ever written, Rotella remarks:

"The deeper you get into the fights, the more you may discover about things that would seem at first blush to have nothing to do with boxing. Lessons in spacing and leverage, or in holding part of oneself in reserve even when hotly engaged, are lessons not only in how one boxer reckons with another but also in how one person reckons with another. The fights teach many such lessons -- about virtues and limits of craft, about the need to impart meaning to hard facts by enfolding them in stories and spectacle, about getting hurt and getting old, about distance and intimacy, and especially about education itself: Boxing conducts an endless workshop in the teaching and learning of knowledge with consequences."

Still, I think the best defense of boxing is Aristotelian. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle offers his famous catalog of the moral virtues. Whenever I teach this section of the “Ethics” I always begin by asking students what they think are the ingredients of moral virtue. Respect, compassion, honesty, justice, and tolerance always fly quickly up onto the board, often followed by creativity and a sense of humor. I usually need to prod to elicit "courage." And so I hector, "How can you be consistently honest or just if you don't have the mettle to take a hit?"

Aristotle writes that developing a moral virtue requires practicing the choices and feelings appropriate to that virtue. Accordingly, colleges today often offer a smorgasbord of workshoplike events to help develop the virtue of tolerance, for example, by making students more comfortable with people from diverse backgrounds. But where are the workshops in courage, a virtue that Nelson Mandela, John McCain, and others have claimed to have found in boxing?

According to Aristotle, courage is a mean between fearlessness and excessive fearfulness. The capacity to tolerate fear is essential to leading a moral life, but it is hard to learn how to keep your moral compass under pressure when you are cosseted from every fear. Boxing gives people practice in being afraid. There are, of course, plenty of brave thugs. Physical courage by no means guarantees the imagination that standing up for a principle might entail. However, in a tight moral spot I would be more inclined to trust someone who has felt like he or she was going under than someone who has experienced danger only vicariously, on the couch watching videos.

In fact, boxing was a popular intercollegiate sport until the early 1960s, when a fatality and problems with semiprofessionals' posing as students counted the sport out. In 1976 college boxing was resurrected as a club sport, and now, under the umbrella of USA Boxing (the governing body for amateur boxing in the United States), the National Collegiate Boxing Association includes about 30 college teams. Every April sectional, regional, and national championships are held. I recently chatted with Maja Cavlovic, a female boxer from Estonia who graduated from the Virginia Military Institute this spring. A power puncher, Ms. Cavlovic reflected, "Boxing helped me learn how to control my emotions. You get in there and you are very afraid, and then all of your training takes over."

The two-time heavyweight champion George Foreman concurs with Ms. Cavlovic. In addition to being an immensely successful businessman, Mr. Foreman directs a large youth club outside of Houston with a vibrant boxing program. Since Mr. Foreman also is a preacher I asked him, "How do you reconcile teaching kids to deliver a knockout blow with Jesus' injunction that we should turn the other cheek?" Mr. Foreman chuckled and explained, "To be successful in the ring you have to get control of your emotions -- that includes anger. And the kids who stick with it in the gym are much less violent than when they came in through the door."

Americans for the most part live in a culture of release in which passion and spontaneity are worshipped. Beyond being told that troublesome feelings are medical problems, our young people receive scant instruction in modulating their emotions. As a result, there are very few opportunities to spar with heavyweight emotions such as anger and fear. In the ring, those passions constantly punch at you, but if you keep punching, you learn not to be pummeled by your emotions. Keeping your guard up when you feel like leaping out of the ring can be liberating. After he won his first bout, I asked Karl Pennau, a St. Olaf student whom I trained, what he had gleaned from his study of the sweet science. He replied, "Learning boxing has given me a lot more than just another sport to play. It is a tough, tough game, but having trained and been in the ring, I won't ever think that I can't do something again."

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A former professional boxer, Gordon Marino is a professor of philosophy, curator of the Hong Kierkegaard Library, and assistant football coach at Saint Olaf College.

This essay originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Reprinted with the author’s permission.


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