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Arete and Agony
Richard Barrett and James Discuss the Conceptual and Spiritual Aspects of Aryаn Warrior Culture
© 2020 James LaFond
My comments are between the three dotted ellipse.
Hello James,
Thank you so much for responding to me in “Where Western Warriors Wend: Parts 1 and 2”. I am formulating my response to those messages currently; it will probably be two responses, as it is getting pretty long!
But while I did that, I wanted to comment on an aspect of our discussion found in “Confrontational Predation” that I did not respond to in “Where Western Warriors Wend: Parts 1 and 2. That aspect is Arete.
Your analysis of Arete in “Confrontational Predation” is very interesting. Today, Arete is translated into “Excellence”, free of its martial context. Sadly, this is almost the only way I have seen the term used. Translators have done a very excellent job over the centuries stripping the Classics of their martial overtones.
A similar word often used in Classical writings is “Noble” which is a translation of the word Greek word Kalon. In some translations, Kalon is even translated into the word “Fine”! Both words bring up effeminate 17th Century French Sun Kings with the powdered faces, wigs, and all! That’s a far cry from the Western Warrior tradition!
Arete is a concept I need to research more. As I said in our exchange entitled “Where Western Warriors Wend: Part 2”, I did a google search for the book entitled “Arete” published in the 1990s. What it came up with was a book by Stephen Miller on Greek Athletics.
Strangely, I had gotten this book at the library a year ago, and only used it for a chapter that quoted on Aristotle’s view of physical fitness! I didn’t pursue the book further, but now I definitely will.
Using the example of the Greeks considering Arete to be “running, shield and spear fighting, boxing, etc., being their warrior culture” and using your boxing example of Arete as “punching, guarding, and enduring”, it seems to me that we would translate Arete in combat sports as “Fundamentals.” In the contemporary military context, it would probably be translated as the fundamentals of “Shoot, Scoot, and Communicate.”
Richard, my crude guess is that the Aryаn root for Kalon probably meant conqueror.
I would translate arete as:
“Those qualities valued in a warrior.”
The high standard of civility among those powdered wig twerps of the 1700s did have its antecedent form in a high standard of honor, civic identity and familial and tribal identity in Hellas. Although the word itself just looks like a conjunction of war and skill [Ares and techne] it was much more and included a broad suite of martial rituals, metaphysic conventions, up to and including a reverence for “the word” as a thing of power. I would also not get too fixated on the warrior traditions of Hellas, but also look into those of Aryаn Persia, most specifically the Education of Cyrus by Xenophon.
Xenophon is really your man on the broader count. I highly recommend the Epigrams of Simonides of Cos and the Odes of Pindar for a look at core values.
In “Confrontational Predation”, you also noted that “Perhaps examining BJJ for a similar tiering might be useful.” I couldn’t agree more, and since I started it last year (and I since I started working out 4 years ago with the goal of getting conditioned for the activity), this topic has been at the forefront of my mind.
Specifically, you stated “In boxing terms I would equate Arete with punching, guarding and enduring, tactics with footwork and upper body and head movement, and strategy with “ring generalship.”
Now I will warn you that this is an arena relatively new to me, so my classification may not be as clean as yours, however, these are my thoughts.
The first tier of Arete in BJJ is directed at the process of Enduring, and that is Conditioning. I believe that is the foundation of all, and my philosophy in this comes from one of my favorite books, About Face: The Odyssey of An American Warrior by Col. David Hackworth.
Hackworth was fantastic. If he were alive today I’d be listening to his podcast.
I suspect the three- to five-tier pyramid of combat values is fairly universal with technical skills introduced and improved on each tier, and the number of subdivisions dependent on various cultural factors, from the cultural complexity of warrior society to its scale, with 3 tiers the most basic, reflecting individual, band and tribal functions and becoming more complex over the ages. We might see this in the 1- to 5-star general schemes used in the U.S. Army as a matter of the arts of scale.
For me, conditioning is not just for the cardiovascular system to stop the loss of “gas in the tank”, it also consists of muscular balance and endurance. You can’t have muscular endurance if you don’t address chronic muscle imbalances, you’re building on a bad foundation that will get you hurt sooner rather than later (ask me how I know…). Get those two straight, along with cardiovascular endurance, and you have conditioning.
In boxing and stick-fighting stamina and endurance is largely vested in relaxation under pressure, which, I theorize, is why it was important to ancient and modern fighting men for psychological conditioning.
My favorite ways to accomplish this are with the routines of the old Indian Wrestlers, which many do not know where very similar to the 19th Century European exercise systems, specifically Henrik Philip Ling's "Swedish Drill" system; as well as Vladislav Krayevsky's system, of which the great wrestler George Hackensmidt was a pupil; and "Professor Atilla's" system, under which Eugene Sadnow trained.
Specifically, these include:
-Toe Touches (for the lengthening of the hamstrings and calves as well as the contracting of the abominable muscles),
-Back Bridging (both dynamic and static)
-Hindu Push-Ups, and
-Heels up, full range-of-motion Hindu Squats (for the lengthening of the quads and the contracting of the hamstrings and calves).
In addition to these four, two of my favorites are the Infinity Step-Up and the Tibialis Raise, invented by my friend Ben Patrick.
The Infinity Step-Up is a one-legged quarter squat on the ball of the foot, with the feet turned out at fifteen degrees. It is primarily to work the VMO muscle. Practicing these got me up to 100 Hindu Squats in 1 set for a time of 5 minutes.
The Tibialis Raise involved leaning back against a wall or hard surface, pointing your feet straight and positioning them so that your heels are about 6 inches (or more) from the wall, and raising up your feet, lengthening the achilles tendon and contracting the anterior and posterior tibialis. It is a dynamic version of the classic calf stretch, and is to be done in high reps—a hard thing to do. Like the static calf stretch, it is excellent in fixing and preventing shin splints.
Like me, Ben Patrick’s work is inspired greatly by the historic systems of PT. I have seen historical precedent for the Infinity Step-Up in the 19th Century Swedish Ling System, but the Tibalis Raise I have never seen before meeting him.
My own personal daily routine consists of, currently:
-1x set of 100x Toe Touches, feet together and toes pointing straight
-3 Minutes of Back Bridging, 3x sets of 1x minute each
-40 Hindu Push-Ups, 2x sets of 20x
-1x set of 100x Hindu Squats heels together, toes pointing out at 45 degrees
-100x Infinity Step-Ups (3x sets of 30x and 1x set of 10x alternating each leg)
-100x Tibialis Raises (1x set of 40x, 1x set of 20x, 4x sets of 10x)
-1x set of 100x toe touches
The entire routine takes approximately 45 minutes. It primarily strengthens the tendons and the ligaments, and for the last few days, I have been working on bending rebar before starting the routine as a warm-up. I have not bent the bar yet, but the isometric tension is greatly improving my grip strength.
Grappling and its conditioning routines have been very important to weapon handling training. Tendon strength is so important to develop young. Catch Wrestler and Jeet Kune Do instructor Larry Hartsell translated such strength conditioning as you describe to his escrima training. I was told this by Tom Clarke, who trained under him in the 1990s.
The Second, Third, and Fourth Tiers respectively of BJJ’s Arete I believe are best explained by that master par-excellence, John Danaher. I recently discovered his book Mastering Jiujitsu, co-authored with Renzo Gracie, in which he divides the course of any fight—BJJ, MMA, or Street Fight—into 3 Phases
-The Stand-Up Phase
-The Clinch Phase
-The Ground Game Phase
In ancient infantry battle there was, and I have lost the Hellenic terminology here, three phases of battle:
Taking the three BJJ phases, the ancients might look at supervising the contest as a fourth level and of instructing combatants as a fifth level or an inversion of these two aspects.
I believe that once the First Tier of Conditioning is met, the Stand-Up Phase of movement and level change becomes easy to conduct, as you’re not getting tired or sore simply from moving around. One can use the Square or Staggered Stance here, and should always, always, always be applying forward pressure with the goal of dominating the Clinch.
Once one arrives at the Clinch Phase, one should dominate it, and know all six clinch holds, and their hierarchy in this order:
-Collar-and-Elbow Hold (Neutral)
-Over-and-Underhook Hold (Neutral)
-Double Underhook Hold (1st Dominant)
-Neck Clinch Hold (2nd Dominant)
-Rear Clinch Hold (3rd Dominant, and is really just an Over-and-Underhook Hold or a Double Underhook hold from a back angle)
-Front Headlock Clinch Hold (4th Dominant)
It seems to me in BJJ that clinches are taught as an afterthought, and that is a terrible, terrible thing. The sport is so obsessed right now with pulling guard that many of our practitioners do not take the clinch as seriously as they should.
All sporting forms are good in the focus and intensity they engender, but are bad in their tunnel vision and game-theory obsession. For this reason, the ancients had wrestling, boxing and MMA and many other disciplines, while in our sissy age we obsess over which aspect of total combat is the best and hence retard ourselves. BJJ is a huge money engine that has made a clan of men rich through applying Aryаn game-theory and ritual intensity to an Asiatic technical suite, and marketing it to a society obsessed with the ideal of one ultimate methodology. In the context of Modernity, BJJ is an absolute success, despite the fact that a BJJ instructor is basically dog meat in a real knife situation unless he has cross-trained in weaponry, which most refuse to do as it is afront to their one-art fits all contingencies sales plan.
The other aspect of expanding tiers in more predatory warfare situations applies to BJJ. Mario Sperry did attempt to address this in one Blackbelt Article. In the context of Stand-up, to take down, to ground, the contextual dimension is most likely to be a boot party, or similar third-party attack on the lone defender. I would suggest a fourth tier for street BJJ being development of a doctrine to deal with the accomplices of your attacker, as 70-90% of all attacks on men are currently pack attacks on individuals. There is also the doctrine necessary for dealing with third party intervention by police as a fifth tier, then perhaps a sixth-tier for dealing with legal processing that follows and on to trial and sentencing…
This is fine in my opinion if one wants to be dominated by a veteran Wrestler and always be playing catch-up from behind-the-curve, but is useless for everyone else. I fall squarely into the “everyone else” category.
Finally, the ground game is our bread and butter, and knowing the six position hierarchy is key, they are below for the readers seeking to know them (I didn’t figure them out until 3 months into my training):
-½ Guard
-Full Guard
-Side Control
Personally, I like the top game of the last four, with Side Control being my favorite. I don’t much like Guard and its variants, viewing it instead as necessary evil.
However, the work of Neil Melanson and his approach to Guard is a very dominant one that I like very much, for it rejects its squirrelier aspects and is more in line with the Catch-As-Catch-Can tradition of old.
As for submissions from the Ground or Clinch, I think a lot of the confusion can be cut down by understanding that in BJJ you can really only do a 8 things:
-Cut off someone’s carotid arteries or windpipe
-Pressuring the Shoulder in the wrong direction
-Pressuring the Elbow in the wrong direction
-Pressuring the Wrist in the wrong direction
-Pressuring the Spine in the wrong direction
-Pressuring the Hips in the wrong direction
-Pressuring the Knee in the wrong direction
-Pressuring the Ankle in the wrong direction
That’s it. There are unique little variations and tricks to make these 8 more effective and painful for the opponent, but that is it. There are still only 8. Every martial art has strange and mystical sounding names for each of these stepped in its own mythology and lore, but there are still 8—because people all over the world still have two arms, two legs, one spine, and one neck with which to target for attack.
Whatever your base art is, a weapon, grappling, striking, it should be a foundation for cross-training. For instance, a knife guy who sucks at BJJ, but has cross-trained in it, is probably going to be as successful in a knife encounter with a better BJJ man with no knife experience as the BJJ man would be against him in sports context. And do not forget that when ground-fighting on “the street” even if you have the mount, you are still a downed man under boots, bricks and knives—a casualty waiting to be finished off.
That is my combative experience over the last year. I would verily like to see what your thoughts on this, as your books The Punishing Art and The First Boxers, as well as your recommendation of Jason Van Veldhuysen of Precision Striking, has helped me build my baseline for the Striking aspect of the game.
While BJJ was still trying to dominate in MMA, and before the return to a focus on dominating the instruction of non-combatants market, boxing was regarded as a great adjunct for mixed affairs by a number of top BJJO men, such as the Nogiera brothers, and more recently the Diaz brothers.
Also, I would like to ask you if you consider the Spiritual aspect of the fight—the Will to Win and the Imposition of Will—as a part of Arete.
The will, the spirit of the fighter, is the key to Arete. That is why all agons were religious rites, why the agonal events were numerous and why most deaths were due to heat stroke. Keep in mind the single-elimination nature of these events that might have had 7 heats at some agons. This is why I scoff at U.S. jongists not calling Vietnam a defeat. Think about what that says about our society, that most people believe we did not lose in Vietnam, that we simply just quit. Any society that forgets the spiritual aspect of war and even tiny struggles in day-to-day life, like not quitting that shitty job until it serves you rather than your shitbird boss, that society is doomed. Quitting is a defeat so profound that it is only exceeded by one form of defeat—failure to resist in the first place…and here we are, young man, running across America hiding from our ancestral enemies, whining for a policeman and his laws to protect us.
The closest I have come to such a concept in my study of the Greco-Roman World is the concept of Agon. The best definition I have found of the word, in its all its deep philosophical aspects, is by Lt. Cmdr. James Bond Stockdale, Medal of Honor Winner and Senior POW at the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam.
Stockdale defined Agon as “Competition, stress, pressure, struggle to win” on page 18 of his book Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot. In his 1872 essay, “Homer’s Competition”, Nietzsche also expanded on this concept of Agon, the link to this article here: ( .
The Greeks believed that all of life was based off of Agon, the world being composed entirely of opposite forces in competition, creating stress for the opposing force.
Our word agony is instructive, something we think is horrible rather than necessary. Agonistics literally means suffering and toil in preparation for the contest. It is a development of sacred tension to permit entry of the human mind and body into the metaphysic field. Hence our aversion to suffering and toil inevitably leads to the death of the soul, starvation of the human spirit and the fraying of the godly link with humanity.
In this way, a bow is able to be drawn back and fired because the opposite ends of the string are pulled to produce stress upon one another.
The same goes for string-based instruments to create the masterpieces of the music.
Even all architecture, from the humblest hovel to the grandest temple, is composed of tension and compression—how the materials successfully handle the stress of loads from other materials.
And as is in any competition, there is a winner and a loser!
To me, this idea is best summarized in the quote by the Great Roman Emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius: “the impediment to action advances action. The obstacle becomes the way.”
To me, this goes to show how deeply a Western/Aryаn Warrior society respected conflict and the fight, as well as the Warrior’s responsibility in such a system: to win or die trying! They respected this so much, they based their entire system of Metaphysics off it. Would these specific responsibilities be how you define the spiritual aspects of Arete?
Boxing was the unique non-military martial art brought by the Aryаns into civilization. The boxer was regarded as a spiritual dread, and three boxers at least were thought to have ascended and joined with the higher eternity. Striving before the gods at Nemea, Olympia, Delphi and Land-bridge served the purpose of developing and expanding spiritual gravity, of infusing the community with heightened sacral/masculine identity and of developing striving personalities to the point where they could be expected to serve as culturally internal monsters [boxers], military leaders [MMA and pentathlon victors], frontline fighters [wrestlers], and ambassadors [Pentathletes].
The above designations are not exclusive, with all of these types of champions excelling in all of the arts and simply being renowned for their dominance in one or two or three. Interestingly, the most feared and internally monstrous type of victor, the dominant boxer, was most likely to be relatively useless in military and politics, and also most likely to reflect the metaphysic realm as an ascendant hero or a cautionary character. Arete had more aspects than our atrophied Modern minds can juggle in the context of a single word. I would suggest that the most important aspect of arete was the commitment to strive in the face of adversity in a state of decency. Think about that. Our warriors today are expected to fall into incivility, domestic dysfunction and spiritual turmoil all from PTSD. While the ancient warrior was expected to remain whole and to even achieve a heightened peace-of-mind. Perhaps the tragedy of our soul-scarred fighting men is that to whatever extent arete is permitted to the modern warrior or soldier, these values are not permitted outside of combat, so we have a morale vacuum draining the moral gravity of strife—we live in the fields of perpetual fright where the brave are said to be insane. We live in the inversion of arete.
What is little known both in Jewish and Christian is that in the Hebrew Tradition of the Old Testament, there is an identical metaphysical concept known as Yetzer Ha’ra. In fact, the Hebrews even had two different types of warfighting Yahweh endorsed based on this metaphysical view.
These two types of war were Milhmet Mitzvah, a large scale war of national survival or conquest directly commanded by Yaweh, and Milhmet Reshut, a limited type of war fought solely to keep the warfighter’s knife sharp...i.e. a Beowulfian, Homeric style adventure!
Much of the interesting work in this area being pursued by the scholar Dr. Skip Moen as well as Rabbi Randy Brown (If you are interested in specific citations, I can assemble you a list in separate email).
To me, understanding these twin concepts of Agon and Yetzer Ha’ra gives a completely different meaning to the stock phrase often bandied about, that the West is the intellectual heritage of “Jerusalem and Athens.” What that really means if you look at the translations is: the West is the intellectual heritage of Warrior Heroes!
I would be interested to know if you have come across similar metaphysical concepts to Agon and Yetzer Ha’ra, specifically in the Ancient Germanic/Anglo-Saxon/Aryаn tradition.
As many consider these guys to be a different branch of the same Aryаn Warrior family as the Greeks and Romans, I would imagine that they would have an identical concept. But so far, I have yet to come across it, though I am seeing a lot of circumstantial evidence. I am on the lookout though, and the research game is still in its early stages.
There is significant evidence that there have long been links between Celtic and Nordic Europe and eastern North America. Also, Eastern Woodland Indian warfighting was developed as we have come to know it under European cultural influence: horse, firearm and tomahawk, for instance. So, the fairly unique concept of Manito or sacred energy, preserved through pre-battle fasting, and a stricture against raping women in order to preserve this force, is worth considering, as well as the broader Amerindian concept of medicine.
Thank you, Richard.
Richard Barrett
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