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Philosophy and Sport

Apologia Pro Pugilatione

Gordon Marino claims that great virtues can be learned in the ring.

I used to study philosophy uptown at Columbia University and boxing downtown at the storied Gramercy Park Gym on East 14th Street in New York City. Though I was a mediocre pug, I signed a two year pro-contract in my senior year of college, but my manager was so crooked and inept that I was out of the prize ring almost as soon as I stepped into it. Over the years, however, I have remained active as a boxing coach. During this period, my colleagues in philosophy have jabbed and hooked me hundreds of times, screwing up their faces, raising their voices, and asking, “How could you be involved in something as primitive and violent as boxing?” That rhetorical question invariably struck me as ironical because the business of philosophy has always seemed to me to be a bloody one. To be sure, no one tries to break anyone’s nose over Kant but violence should not be understood solely in terms of the intent to inflict bodily harm. At conferences, colloquia, and in the house-to-house fighting of the journals, philosophers are always trying to decapitate one another’s sense of intellectual identity. I have known scholars to burrow underground for months on end so as to deliver a decisive blow against another philosopher on some highly forgettable point. So I cannot help but smile when philosophers turn squeamish about the sweet science, as though intellectual combat were not dangerous and laced with aggression.

The intellectual gladiators who swear that they would walk away from a good boxing match usually begin and end their assault with the claim that boxing is the only sport in which the goal is to hurt your opponent, to knock him or her out. I beg to differ. The aim of a boxer is to win his or her bout and by far the most common way to do that is to have your hand raised in a decision. You can, of course, also triumph by putting your opponent on the canvas for a count of ten or so overwhelming your foe that for safety’s sake the referee puts a halt to the contest. And yet, even in the case of knockouts, there are few boxers who would celebrate hurting a rival. More significantly, the boxer who celebrated or did not regret sending an opponent into emergency brain surgery would certainly earn the opprobrium of the boxing community. Theater or not, the young Mike Tyson once quipped that when he fought he was trying to drive the nasal bone of his rivals into their brains. There are, of course, boxers who aim to hurt just as there are middle linebackers and hockey players who try to injure their opponents, but everyone in the relevant communities recognizes that these are improper aims of these practices.

Once again, my academic sparring partners often complain that professional boxing is so corrupt that it ought to be banned. Here, they may have a point. There are, in fact, enough problems in professional boxing to give even the most ardent fan pause about the sport. With a few exceptions, the sanctioning bodies for rankings and titles are so transparently shady that the boxers themselves laugh at them. Worse yet, there is no national boxing commission. Every state has its own commission and rules. The result is that sometimes a boxer can be banned for health reasons (a head injury) from boxing in one state and go to another to pick up a fight. These results are occasionally fatal. Mismatches are another perilous problem. Boxers whom the promoters bless as real prospects, will, in the beginning of their careers, be matched with opponents who do not belong in the same ring. The intent, of course, is to pad the records of the haloed fighters without subjecting them to serious risk. Again, these mismatches are sometimes bad enough to make a lover of the sweet science, and humanity, cover his eyes.

While I cannot deny that I enjoy watching pro boxing, my short apology should not be read as a defense of professional pugilism but rather as letter of recommendation for the practice of boxing itself. For those who find such labels helpful, my brief is of the virtue ethics kind. Though different practices do different things for different people, boxing, when properly taught and supervised, has the potential to enhance moral development.

When I teach Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, I always begin by asking my students what they take to be the essentials of moral character. Over the past decade or so, a consensus has emerged concerning the cardinal virtues. When I take dictation from my students, self-respect, tolerance, honesty, and a sense of humor always make it to the board. Courage, however, rarely gets into chalk these days without my prompts. But how can you be honest, or for that matter just, without the mettle to cope with the consequences that will certainly come your way if you make your life an open book or always try to act justly?

Aristotle was no Freud but he was certainly right to observe that a little practice helps if you want to develop a disposition to act and feel in a certain way. For all of our nightly throatslitting videos, contemporary culture provides scant opportunities for practice in learning how to act reasonably when it feels as though your ship is going down. Indeed, last year there was a great debate about whether or not the game of dodge ball should be permitted in public schools. Those in favor said that the game was unique in that it provided a safe context for cultivating courage: those against insisted that dodge ball was a game conjured up in bully heaven and was detrimental to the self-esteem of smaller students. Guess who won the debate? We have workshops for diversity and tolerance but apparently we believe that either courage is unimportant or that we are born with the backbone to cope with fear.

Once again, with the same proviso, ‘properly supervised’, the ring is an excellent classroom for developing physical courage. As Kate Sekules attests in her book, The Boxer’s Heart, nearly everyone is generally terrified of their first sparring session, and yet after six weeks or so, the fear diminishes and becomes more controllable. A few years ago, when I was coach of the boxing team at Virginia Military Institute (VMI), I coached a young man who had gone through advanced training for the paratroopers. He was fully prepared to jump behind enemy lines but jumping into the boxing ring filled him with a pure tincture of terror. After his first bout, which like his second, he lost, he ran over and embraced his victorious opponent, caught his breath, and then proceeded to joyously explain about how getting through the contest was one of the most significant experiences in his life. He had walked through and learned that he could survive intense fear, which in his case and many others is more a fear of being publicly whipped than of physical injury. While this will stand as a recommendation against pugilism for many academic elites, the military had a great deal to do with the legalization of boxing in the United States during the early part of the twentieth century. The military brass believed that boxing should be part of the sentimental education of young men for precisely the reason that I have posited – boxing provides practice in keeping your head when you are afraid. For this reason, you cannot graduate from any of the United States service academies without successfully completing a course in boxing which includes considerable practice in full contact sparring. When I taught at VMI, each student was required to have three in-class bouts. They did not have to win any of them. They simply had to triumph over their fears of getting in the ring.

It could, of course, be argued that physical courage is one thing, moral courage another. The ability to conquer fear to the extent that you can, say, climb steep rock faces without a rope by no means provides surety that you will tell the truth when telling the truth may cost you your job. Physical courage does not guarantee moral courage; but it is, with the proper wisdom, in itself a desirable quality, and may well be conducive to the development of moral courage. Calculating the trajectory of developing character traits is an inexact science, but I would be more inclined to trust the physically brave individual in a tight moral situation than I would the individual who had no practice in dealing with physical fear.

In addition to helping to cultivate courage, practicing the sweet science can also augment a person’s sense of themselves and, in the process, render its participants more rather than less pacific. Whether we like to admit it or not, it is comforting to know, or at least to believe, that we can defend ourselves if physically attacked. It is a psychological truism to say that the less vulnerable or threatened you feel, the less aggressive you are likely to be. Once again, these are general claims but for the most part physical and or emotional bullies are an insecure lot. On this point at least, Nietzsche was correct; the person who feels strong and safe is less likely to overreact to a slight than someone who feels threatened. Writing in Esquire Magazine years ago, Gay Telese told a story about the then heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson. One evening, Patterson was coming out of a restaurant. For no apparent reason, a large man walked up and punched Patterson as hard as he could. Patterson reeled from the blow, but instead of retaliating, he literally ran away from the guy. He had no need to prove to himself or others that he could impose his will upon his assailant.

Finally, at least for now, Aristotle was again right to observe that, morally speaking, the way we feel and relate to our anger is of decisive importance. In our post-Freudian world, many of the repressions surrounding sex have become attenuated but rage remains taboo. While it may be acceptable to read violent thriller novels or to watch action flicks that pulse with blind fury, admitting and, heaven forbid, expressing anger is another story. And yet, as the mirror of movies such as Fight Club reveals, there is more than enough ire and frustration to go around in our Babbitt society. Trivial as it may sound, channeling your aggressions into a punching bag or a sparring session can have a very cleansing effect. I don’t know how this will sit with orthodoxy today, or whether or not it is politically correct, but it seems to me that women have taken to boxing over the last decade or so with a zeal that no one predicted precisely because they, no less than men, are occasionally burdened with the impulse to clobber someone. There are both men and women who suffer from a sense of impotent rage à la, what use is there in getting angry when I could not punch a hole through a paper bag. Boxing is helpful for these folks. There are others whose repressed anger is so out of perspective that they feel as if they will surely kill someone if they dare to express it. For these people, going at it in the ring can have a liberating effect in which they have the concrete experience of expressing their aggressions without catastrophic results. On this score, boxing is good therapy and, as Philip Rieff long ago taught us, therapy is what we are all about today.


Gordon Marino is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.

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