Where Do Kung Fu and Philosophy Meet?
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
There is a rich tradition of Kung Fu and philosophy that stems back thousands of years. Perhaps this was because some of the most iconic practitioners of Kung Fu were the Shaolin monks who were, first and foremost, Buddhists and/or Taoists—two deeply philosophical religious traditions. Maybe that’s why the trope of the Kung Fu master-sage continues to this day: a heroic figure—part warrior, part philosopher—an almost magical combination.
But does fighting really have anything to do with philosophy?
I would like to believe so, though at first glance, I must admit the connection seems strained. While I have practiced both Kung Fu and philosophy for the better half of my life, it wasn’t until recently that I formulated a reasonable and satisfying connection between the two.
Oddly enough, it begins with a Grecian. Aristotle once proposed a system of morality based on character traits, known as Virtue Ethics. This system has endured the test of time, and continues to be one of the dominant moral theories in modern philosophy, right alongside Utilitarianism and Kantianism. Aristotle believed that by mastering certain virtues (which he defined as habits of excellence), a person would make the best choices regardless of their circumstances, and have the best chance at achieving Eudaimonia (roughly translated as true happiness or “the good life”).
What does this have to do with Kung Fu? In Chinese, Kung Fu translates to “hard work” or “discipline over time”. Kung Fu is the act of putting effort into something day-after-day despite its difficulty. This principle is associated with Chinese martial arts because the martial tradition of Kung Fu requires this sort of effort to continually better oneself at the practice.
I argue that by practicing the martial tradition of Kung Fu, we develop an unparalleled skill—we learn how to fight. Physically, yes—but perhaps more importantly, mentally. We learn to apply ourselves to something despite its difficulty, and thereby overcome our limitations. Then we do it again and again, thereby honing the skill of Kung Fu in the sense of “hard work” or “discipline over time”, which I would argue just is the ability to fight (both physically and mentally). Yes, skills and strength are required for someone to be a good physical fighter, but without Kung Fu, a person cannot fight at all. It is the critical element that comes before all others.
Now to fuse these concepts. I argue that for a person to be virtuous, they must master Kung Fu (defined here as the ability to fight—not necessarily in the physical sense). But why?
Aristotle believed that virtue was a habit—something that had to be practiced again and again to get it right. It would be convenient for me to stop here and argue the obvious connection: that a person must practice Kung Fu to develop such habits at all. But that wasn’t my epiphany.
I do not agree with Aristotle that virtue is a habit. I don’t think you can habituate something like “courage”, for example, because it means different things in different situations. Habits are things like getting out of bed every morning and going to the gym. It’s a repetitive motion, and the same actions take place to make it happen with little variation. Practicing courage, on the other hand, could mean anything from leading a winning charge in a battle, to asking your boss for a raise, or telling your friends you’re leaving a party to wake up for work tomorrow. Each time you act courageously, there is going to be a crisis of conscience, no matter how many times you’ve done it in the past. The situation will always be different, and most of the time, significantly different. How likely you are to act courageously that day may depend more on whether you got a good night’s sleep the night before than it would the fact that you acted courageously yesterday and the day before that.
Virtue, then, is more of a choice than a habit. A choice is different from a habit, because it always involves a crossroads, and acting virtuously is thinking critically about that crossroads, then taking the right, albeit often more difficult road. The ability to do this—make the assessment and take the harder road—is imperative if we want to align our actions with who we want to be and what we want to manifest in the world.
The ability to act virtuously, then, depends on two things. The first is philosophy in the classical sense of “loving wisdom”: we regularly think about who we want to be, our place in the world, and engage our daily lives with a critical and mindful eye. The other, is Kung Fu: our ability to fight. If we know who we are and what we truly want (thanks to practicing philosophy) and we are ready and willing to fight (thanks to practicing Kung Fu), we will be able to manifest virtue (excellence), acting on who we want to be, and thereby create the world that we want to live in (achieve Eudaimonia or happiness).
It's a little funny to think that the conclusion of this argument could be stated bluntly as, “fighting is the only thing that can lead us to happiness”, but I believe that statement is absolutely accurate. Excellence cannot be achieved without a fight, otherwise it would be mundane. The ability to achieve something even though it is difficult (fighting for something) is the essence of virtue (excellence of action).
I hope that this has demonstrated that Kung Fu and philosophy fit together hand-in-glove. They can be practiced alone, yes, but together they are so much more. Kung Fu without direction is meaningless, just as imagining your greatest self or the grandest world without the ability to fight amounts to nothing.
If virtue were a car, Kung Fu is the engine and philosophy is the driver. Training both is the only way a person can reach their desired destination.