Reclaiming the Way of the Sword

Toward a New Chivalry

What is the purpose of physical training today?

“Why would it be worth training even if you never live to see your strength needed to survive?”

Jack Donovan asked this question in a recent essay for A Sky Without Eagles called “Train For Honor.” After rightly dismissing the idea of training to “stay fit and healthy” as depressing and bourgeois, he listed a hierarchy of motivations for lifting weights at a gym or taking up a martial art. In Jack’s framework, the most contemptible motive is to exercise for aesthetics (bodybuilding), or to become more attractive to women. A level higher is to train to become strong and physically imposing, and it is nobler still to train for prowess in physical combat.  Ultimately, however, Jack concludes that all of these motives are essentially masturbatory. They center on developing strength that will never be needed and will likely never serve a purpose in our modern, safe, comfortable lives.  To spoil his ending (I recommend the book), Jack’s personal answer to this question of purpose is that he trains for honor. In other words, he trains out of the feeling that by becoming strong and capable of great physical feats, we can become less of an embarrassment to our ancestors, asserting that “it is better to imagine oneself as a soldier in a spiritual army training for a war that may never come than it is to shrug, slouch and shuffle forward into a dysgenic and dystopian future.”

His conclusion is an excellent start and points us in the right direction, but it is possible to press it further. As Train For Honor hinted, the concept of honor is ultimately a spiritual one. Honor is the crown jewel of an intrepid spirit; it is the outward expression a noble heart.  Honor is important because it reflects who we are, which has ramifications on both a personal and civilizational level.  In other words, honor reflects character. The highest purpose of training, then, is to build the character and refine the soul, cultivating authenticity and a capacity for intuition, inspiration, and the power to rise above mundane limitations. Being worthy of our ancestors does not end at achieving basic physical strength and fighting prowess. It means striving for a truly heroic attitude, an indifference to pain, and a calm mastery over the body in aspects both subtle and gross. It is the quest to strengthen the spirit by means of strengthening the body. It is to, as Jack said, “imagine oneself as a soldier in a spiritual army” and then to become that soldier.

The Ideal of Chivalry

In the great span of our European history, this culture of honor reached its highest and most exalted expression in the medieval ideal of chivalry. As Julius Evola wrote in his book on knightly spirituality:

The strict connection between the warrior and the spiritual principles already characterizes the chivalry of King Arthur's court as well as the meaning of the most typical adventures attributed to its members. The Knights of the Round Table, that is, of King Arthur, are not mere warriors:

“And when they are chosen to be of the fellowship of the Round Table, they think themselves more blessed and more in worship than if they got half the world; and ye have seen that they have lost their fathers and mothers, and all their kin, and their wives and their children, for to be of the Fellowship.” (Mort D’Arthur)

... At this point it may be worth recalling the episode concerning the stones of Stonehenge... Merlin, by ordering his warriors to go fetch such huge stones from faraway peaks, says: "Go to work, brave warriors, and learn, by rolling forward these stones, whether physical strength surpasses the spirit or whether the spirit surpasses physical strength." The warriors prove unable to do this, but Merlin is able to accomplish this task laughingly and effortlessly.
- Julius Evola, The Mystery of the Grail

It is in the canon and sagas of the tradition of European knighthood that we witness the ordering and synthesis of body and spirit, physical prowess and spiritual purity, brutality and sanctity, action and contemplation, and Paganism and Christianity. Chivalry brings honor back to the fullness of its meaning, away from modern profanations of the term:

Here, again, honor is found in a balance between the brutal and the moral, the ethical, the civilized. The modern, gender-neutral, egalitarian usage of honor is ahistorical and essentially meaningless. This feel-good, universally attainable "honor," loosed from the metaphor of manly endeavor and combat, becomes a vague sense of positive feelings and associations -- an Oprah-ism, a completely subjective "warm fuzzy."
- Richard W. Kaeuper, "Historical Introduction" to A Knight’s Own Book of Chivalry

In Europe, the traditions of chivalry (and especially the martial arts that acted as the crucial physical training for knights) have been lost for centuries.  Their lineages broken and their knowledge ill-preserved, written epics, treatises, and historical records are the only sources left to us. Nearly all that remains in practice today of the classical European martial tradition takes the enervated and dilapidated form of “sports” such as boxing and olympic fencing.  These are nearly useless for our purposes. To rediscover the kind of training we are looking for, we will have to dig deeper than modern combat sports, old stories, and ancient manuals. To a certain extent, these can act as guides for us, but the true guide we seek is a part of our inalienable heritage: it is a fire we must rediscover within ourselves.

Bushido: A Living Tradition

When training for aesthetics, bodybuilding is the most effective method. For strength, powerlifting and olympic lifting are best suited, and for practical prowess in combat, modern martial arts (such as Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Krav Maga) are ideal. What then is the ideal method for training for honor?  While all of these regimens can have a positive effect on character and soul, that is not their primary intent. To train physically with such a lofty end as the attainment of spiritual strength, it is not enough to simply follow a diet, a lifting program, or even a harsh regimen of drills, techniques, and sparring matches. What is required for such a purpose is training in the context of an authentic tradition, a comprehensive “way” or initiatory path, passed down from master to student in a complete and unbroken chain.

It is fortunate that the West is not the only civilization to have produced such martial traditions. In discussing the problem of reconciling the pagan, reflexive honor (which makes civilization possible in the first place) with the more inward, “Christian” sense of honor (which enables that civilization’s highest possibilities), Jack Donovan also noted that it is not only in Europe that such an integration has been attempted:

This is one area where Bowman misses an opportunity to explore honor in a cross-cultural fashion. While the Eastern honor culture of Japan is mentioned, there are some powerful parallels in the conflicts between samurai values and the merchant values — and the transformation of the role of the samurai during the Tokugawa shogunate — that would aid in understanding what happens to martial ideals of honor in times of relative peace and prosperity.

In Bowman’s view, Christianity also created some moral conundrums for the honor-obsessed. It has always been difficult for those who believe that a good man should “turn the other cheek” — in contrast to a more reflexive Roman honor culture — to reconcile their faith with the valorous demands of martial masculinity. He highlights this using the example of Lancelot, who was considered virtuous by virtue of his strength and battle prowess, but who created a conflict of conscience for all who knew that he was an adulterer. This creates an interesting distinction between public and private honor that, with the help of Christian morality, over time drew the idea of honor inward and personalized it. Public acclaim alone could not make a man truly honorable if he was, in his heart, dishonest, insincere, disloyal or sinful. The Christian ethos doubtlessly had a hand in transforming Western honor from something reflexive to something reflective and personal, though there are shades of the same move inward in non-Christian Japanese texts on honor like the Hagakure.
- Jack Donovan, What Happened to Honor?

In Japan, as in Europe, the knighthood (samurai) grew out of the roots of the indigenous pagan tradition (Shinto), at the heart of which were the veneration of ancestors and a respect for the sacredness of nature. Japanese chivalry, called bushido, also incorporated and reconciled Shinto with the more supernaturally oriented Zen Buddhism, a religion focused on self-mastery and the pursuit of transcendent wisdom and enlightenment. This integration resulted in an active form of spirituality that Julius Evola described in an article on Zen and The Art of Archery:

As odd as it may seem, there is Zen in the art of drama, in the tea ceremony, in the arrangement of flowers, in archery, in wrestling (judo), in fencing and so on. All of these arts have a ritual dimension... a complete mastery in one of these arts cannot be achieved without the above-mentioned inner enlightenment and transformation of the sense which one has of his/her own self; this mastery eventually becomes a visible sign of such enlightenment.

...Herrigel's book is valuable not only because it introduces us to the spirit of an exotic civilization, but also because it enables us to see some of our own Western traditions under a new light. It is known how in older times, and in part, until the Middle Ages, some traditions which were jealously preserved, as well as elements of cults, rituals and even mysteries became associated with various arts. In the past, there were "gods" associated to various arts and rituals of initiation into these arts. The initiation into certain professional and artisan guilds, corporations and collegia, was paralleled by a spiritual initiation... it is likely that the West knew something similar to what has been preserved until recent times in the Far East in disciplines such as the "way of archery," or the "way of swordsmanship".
- Julius Evola, What is Zen?

To investigate all of the parallels between the development of bushido and that of chivalry would be an endeavor sufficient for an entire book. It suffices to say that the two are animated by a similar spirit and have similar attitudes, even if their frameworks and terminologies differ significantly due to the content from which they emerged. Unlike the martial arts of chivalry, however, those of bushido are still very much alive.  There are men who practice the ancient craft of forging exquisite weapons, men enduring 100-man fights with no weight classes, and dozens of other ancient schools, techniques, and rituals with centuries of history being continually lived, preserved, and transmitted to new generations.

Kendo as a Spiritual Path

Among the Japanese martial arts traditions that are alive and have spread across the world, one of the most remarkable is the Japanese art of fencing known as kendo.  Derived from the ancient fencing schools of the samurai, kendo is a full-contact martial art in which participants wear armor and fence with bamboo swords (shinai). Banned in Japan by the occupying Allied powers in 1946 for being “militaristic and ultra nationalistic,” kendo was allowed to resume in 1952. What differentiates kendo from almost every martial art in the West today is its fundamental orientation and purpose:

Kendo has never become an Olympic sport, which is what saves this great and beautiful martial art. Kendo means the “way of the sword.” Courage, honor, and etiquette are imperative. The scoring is highly subjective, valuing form and execution as much as the result. An ippon, kendo’s equivalent of a knockout, is not judged electronically as in fencing, but is a judgment call. Two out of three referees need to agree. Kendokas have resisted the electronic result because technology in their eyes would degrade victory’s beauty.

See what I mean by purity? Judo has been compromised, as has karate, by the introduction of weight classes and by contestants scoring points as in boxing. In the good old days, a 60-kilo person like yours truly would have to fight a 100-kilo one like you would in the street. (Except in the latter I don’t know of anyone bowing before or after the fight.)

Kendo has resisted “winning at all costs” by keeping the scoring nebulous and subjective. Form and courage beat a winning thrust. How to be is more important than how to win. That’s what Baron de Coubertin meant about what’s important in the Olympics—taking part.
- Taki Theodoracopulous, The Scourge of Sports

Like many martial traditions, kendo’s philosophy and method grew out of the need to come to terms with the imminent presence of death on the battlefield. The crux of what makes kendo a martial art and not just a sport is its insistence on treating the shinai as a real sword and every match as a duel to the death. It tolerates none of the casual, undignified, hipster atmosphere so common in sport fencing gyms. Weapons are handled with the same level of respect given to a loaded rifle, and a kendo dojo is a serious place of formality, etiquette, and blood curdling war cries. Returning again to Train for Honor, the animating attitude of kendo is the spirit of “as if” that Donovan describes (the idea that meaning can come from training at the gym by training as if it’s necessary to be strong to survive). A kendoist no longer duels to the death with live swords, yet he trains with the bamboo sword as if it were real. Without this attitude, kendo becomes another futile, pointless, and self-indulgent exercise. It is only through constant meditation on death that we can recover and maintain the supreme spirituality of our ancestors; this a common thread that runs through Zen, bushido, chivalry, and even Christianity. Without that brush with death, our lives never come into focus. An acutely developed consciousness of death is the only real basis for courage; it constitutes the first stage of any martial initiation.

Rebuilding European Tradition

The value of a martial art such as kendo is that it provides the kind of comprehensive martial system and initiation that Evola describes, handed down from generation to generation in an unbroken chain. While the availability of such a system is immensely helpful to us on a personal level (providing both an avenue for personal development and a point of reference for values), our larger goal can only be the regeneration of our own native European martial arts. What exists today is inadequate. One can come face to face with danger and aggression in extreme combat sports, but there is no verticality to it, no system of elevating and directing the energies arising from imminent danger upward toward the goal of achieving a higher state of being. Alone, these sports are more likely to generate titans than Olympian gods.

In recent years, efforts and movements to resurrect lost European fighting systems have been picking up steam; these are commonly designated as HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts). They base their reconstructions on the systematic manuals and treatises written during the Middle Ages and Renaissance and have gained a modest level of traction in Europe. HEMA practitioners are training with a variety of weapons (including longswords, rapiers, staves, daggers, smallswords, and swords with bucklers), and have formed a number of leagues for full-contact competition.  

The future of HEMA is not entirely certain due to its new, decentralized, and un-codified nature. Some currents are showing very positive signs while others show signs of drifting toward the frivolity and unseriousness of sport fencing.  For those men who are willing and qualified for it, it would be a worthy undertaking to get involved and take up the task of directing this trend of medieval revivalism toward recovering the profound depth that these arts once had in the past. Such men could lift contemporary European martial arts beyond the mere re-enactment of obsolete fighting techniques and bestow on them again the full meaning of knighthood, striving not to ape the forms of the ancient past and dress in absurd costumes, but to resurrect the noble spirit and ignite the conquering and purifying fire. All that is required is the will to realize it. There is no reason for modern fencing to lack the heroic attitude of the crusaders, the iron discipline of the Prussians, and the enchanted mysticism of the grail sagas.  

Toward a New Chivalry

In the wake of the world wars, the ideals of chivalry are all but dead, along with the prestige, integrity, and influence of the old European aristocracy that guarded them.  In building a new generation of leaders (a new aristocracy in the highest sense of the term), we must develop and rediscover a new martial path to excellence and self-overcoming, a new chivalry. It cannot be a mere legalistic code or ethical system. It must be conceived in absolutely spiritual terms, as a true Way that brave men loyal to one another and to an ideal can follow upward toward Heaven, toward Valhalla, and to a transcendence of everything that Nietzsche criticized as “human, all too human”. We must seek a renaissance of that Kshatriya attitude which has always animated the estate responsible for creating and upholding order in the world:

These Christian knightly stories, at once romances of chivalry and of religion, thus extend our insight into the mental attitude behind that truculent cry of the crusader poet Aymer de Pegulhan: 'Behold, without renouncing our rich garments, our station in life, all that pleases and charms, we can obtain honour down here and joy in paradise.' What Aymer in his eloquence is implicitly claiming here is that there is no need to try to prise apart the goals of worldly honour and of service acceptable to God, that the knightly life, with all its violence and with all the richness and decor of its aristocratic trappings, is within its own terms a road to salvation.

The idea here is one that looks back, through the colour and overlay of the fashions, phrases and moods of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, to the conception of the religious worth that kingship (modeled on Christ's kingship) confers on service rendered to it, rather than to any ideal of knighthood serving the sacerdotium. This is typical of the attitude that underpinned the conception of chivalry as a Christian vocation. It was an attitude that was ultimately the fruit of the ancient marriage of Teutonic heroic values with the militant tradition of the Old Testament, rather than of later developments in ecclesiastical thinking - an attitude with a royal, not a priestly genealogy.  

-Maurice Keen, Chivalry

Today, there is a need for a new order of European knighthood, a new chivalry drawing from our heritage and connected with the great stream of European religious and cultural tradition. It must exist in its own sphere as the ideal of a unique estate destined to govern the temporal world, not subservient or beholden to priestly authorities but defending them paternally. Such an order would have no need to imitate the practices of contemplatives but would possess a profound spirituality of its own. This ideal must come to animate the whole of society, in both its higher and lower orders. Here we can agree with Giovanni Gentile when he advocated for Man “a higher life, founded on duty, a life free from the limitations of time and space, in which the individual, by self-sacrifice, the renunciation of self-interest, by death itself, can achieve that purely spiritual existence in which his value as a man consists.” Only by rooting out the decadence, weakness, and roots of adversity within ourselves can we hope to inspire and lead others around us to do the same.

Verba movent, exempla trahunt.