The Aristotelian and Noble Art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Last year, marching steadily towards a midlife crisis, I asked my Twitter followers: “What martial art would you start learning at age 40?”
I’d never done a martial art before and barely any sports, beyond getting picked for the high school basketball team on account of my towering height (I’m 6’7). But recently I’d begun feeling the pressure of two imperatives: to know how to fight, and to not feel like I’m 80 in my 40s. The overwhelming consensus among those who responded was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ).
From what I understand, people who listen to popular podcasters Joe Rogan, Jocko Willink, and Lex Fridman hear Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu mentioned every several episodes. Others discovered the sport through MMA and UFC. But before I attended my first class, BJJ was unknown to me. I didn’t do any homework. I just showed up.
That was four months ago. In Week 5 I broke a rib and took six weeks to recover. But now I’m back, training three times a week, and thinking about Jiu-Jitsu constantly. It would be an exaggeration to call it an obsession. But somehow it has quickly become an integral part of my life, and how it integrates with my other concerns — philosophy, education — has surprised me.
BJJ is a grappling sport. You don’t punch or kick anyone, but try to take them down from standing, and put yourself into a dominant position over them. They attempt to escape that position. If you really get them, they tap to admit defeat: you’ve submitted them. That is, from another perspective, you’re taken down. You’re put in a painful position. You attempt to escape. When you start, your job is to suffer. You get crushed and choked. Advanced players put you into positions where they could easily break your arm. You’re killed over and over again. And it’s great.
The satisfaction isn’t a Fight Club phenomenon. It’s not that all day hunched over a computer working on some trivial task has made me want to reconnect with the visceral brutality of choking someone to death (okay, maybe there’s some of that). Rather, what I found unexpected about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was not its bare physicality but that the physicality is embodied mentality: players often compare the sport to chess or language. Blackbelt Chris Matakas, writing in The Tao of Jiu Jitsu about his own love affair with BJJ, has observed that, “Jiu-Jitsu is cognitively complex, so much so that there is a great barrier to entry in terms of intellect. I have never met a great Jiu-Jitsu player who was not highly intelligent, and I don’t think I ever will.”
It’s an old story in philosophy that man must find a balance between his intellectual life, which is disembodied, and his physical life, which, if unchecked, can reduce him to a brute. In the Republic, Plato writes that too much “gymnastic” can make a man hard and insensitive to the higher pleasures, while excess in the direction of “music” can make a man soft and cowardly. BJJ is enrapturing because it combines intellectual activity with physical expression. Every move has a reason. You don’t act with “noise and fury, signifying nothing” but with calm composure, guided by syntax, producing a meaningful contest not just of strength, but of study.
All my instructors so far have emphasized the importance of calm in Jiu-Jitsu. When you imagine “calm,” perhaps you see a beach in the Bahamas, or a rejuvenating Sunday at a Swedish spa. You probably don’t imagine martial arts. But Jiu-Jitsu teaches you to maintain composure in combat and not lose your head even when your untrained instincts want to take control. It’s not an aggression release valve.
After my second BJJ class, I started watching interviews that earlier I would have skipped over as boring. One of the first I saw was with John Danaher, perhaps the most famous living trainer in the sport. Danaher is a former academic. His field of study was philosophy. But he pivoted to another Academy, which is what Jiu-Jitsu training centers are called, and became a “Professor,” which is what they call the black belts.
It’s not a coincidence when highly educated people suspicious of the direction of the modern world and the modern university (to say nothing of the postmodern world and the postmodern university) turn towards martial arts as a practice where classical virtues survive. “The high-minded pursuit of a Jiu-Jitsu practitioner pursuing mastery cannot coexist well with the modern world,” Matakas writes. I don’t insist that BJJ is anti-modern. Still, those with a healthy skepticism towards the worst excesses of modern technological society can satisfy their hunger for a healthy alternative there.
BJJ, amongst other things, is highly ritualized. What do these rituals convey? Respect for tradition. Commitment to discipline. Gratitude towards teachers. Gratitude towards those who help you grow. A sense of duty and responsibility towards those less experienced than you. Humility that isn’t self-effacing. Willingness to learn. Acknowledgment of progress made by effort. And the importance of fundamentals.
Something I didn’t understand and didn’t like about university was that there was no interaction between graduate students and undergraduate students built into the education process. They were siloed off from one another, as if different breeds. In Jiu-Jitsu, by contrast, you have higher belts “rolling” (sparring, practicing, training) with white belts, as mentors. “The white belt is a willingness to grow and improve,” Matakas writes. “It is a symbol of the courage it takes for someone to acknowledge a void in their life, and the strength it takes to pursue its fulfillment. Once we are a black belt, we must not forget the importance of being a white belt, or of what this represents.” A Jiu-Jitsu master remembers his roots and seeks to help the new plants in the garden grow.
Some of these elements are common to all martial arts, but there is an explicit connection in Jiu-Jitsu to wisdom. For instance, the canonical work Jiu-Jitsu University by Paulo Ribeiro opens with the following quotation: “Technical knowledge is not enough. One must transcend techniques so that the art becomes an artless art, growing out of the unconscious.” Minimally reformulated, this could be a Heideggerian meditation on the limitations of a technical interpretation of the world. The first page of the book states: “If you think, you are late. If you are late, you use strength. If you use strength, you tire. And if you tire, you die.” That applies to combat situations, of course. But it also tells us that there is a level of understanding beyond thinking, which depends on thinking, but becomes something like a second nature, or an intuition.
To play well, you must be in the zone, in a flow state. To get into that state, you must study and practice. These are not platitudes. They are genuine insights that are mappable into other domains.
Apart from deep wisdom into the nature of mastery, Jiu-Jitsu conveys a practical skill that is just as important to civic virtue: the ability to stand your ground. One of my own students in political philosophy brought up Jiu-Jitsu to me a week before I started training. He said that when he was accosted and harassed on a college campus for sticking to his ethical positions — that is, for raising basic questions about the ideology of the far left — he understood that defending freedom of thought demands an ability to defend oneself physically. The writer Alex Epstein, whose work on energy policy defends fossil fuels, has also stated this view. In December, Epstein tweeted that he learned Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu because “on several occasions in college I received physical threats for expressing my views.” Now a black belt, Epstein described how “BJJ has kept me safe a number of times by helping me de-escalate threatening situations.”
Of course, mastering BJJ is no guarantee that your physical safety won’t be compromised if you stand your ground before a hostile audience. And I wouldn’t say that’s the primary reason to practice it. But anyone “in the arena” should at least know something about how to protect themselves and others in the event of confrontation. This is not a call to start fights or to intercede in situations that can get you killed, of course. It is only a reminder that the virtue of manliness has always had something to do with the ability to fight, even if virtue as a whole is not reducible to that ability.
Writing about liberal education, Leo Strauss once reflected beautifully on the intellectual experience of understanding. He said, “We cannot exert our understanding without from time to time understanding something of importance; and this act of understanding may be accompanied by the awareness of our understanding, by the understanding of understanding, by noesis noesos, and this is so high, so pure, so noble an experience that Aristotle could ascribe it to his God.” Strauss was talking about understanding great books. But his words capture the joy of learning more broadly, and they apply to Jiu-Jitsu specifically.
Understanding how your body moves and how you can use it to oppose the strategic force of a training partner may not be as “deep” as understanding whether the world is created or eternal. But it is not trivial. We don’t need to be Nietzscheans to recognize that the quality of our thoughts is related to the vitality of our bodies, or that thinking joyously is a kind of dance. Even Socrates danced, and Plato wrestled. We are not disembodied spirits. There is a bodily noesis. You feel a new awareness in your movements, and a new coherence and integrity in your life.