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October 08, 2014

Fighting, Manliness, Freedom, and the Last Frontier (a repost)

Jonathan Chait's liberal defense of male aggression prompted us to look for this old post. Much to our delight, we found at the end of it a poem we wrote in 2005 or 2006 on another blog that we thought was lost forever. Anyway, enjoy. If you want to read the original comments, they're here.

One of my favorite things about blogging is the way it often turns into a huge freeform discussion, sometimes on site, sometimes continuing offline via email or phone conversations, hopping from one blog to another. It just fascinates me. Another thing I love is the sheer connected-ness of ideas: the way even thoughts which, at first glance, may not appear to have anything to do with each other often end up (at least in the zig-zagging breadcrumb trail that is my mind) taking me to totally unanticipated destinations.

Considering the topic of today's peroration, it is perhaps not surprising that the trouble all started with mr rdr, who is himself a veritable feast of manliness. Last week, he sent me a wonderful WSJ piece (unfortunately subscription-only) that has been driving me mad all week because I kept seeing things in it that applied to different topics. But there was also the germ of an idea in the back of my mind that I didn't have a place for, which strangely enough wasn't really the focus of the article at all. It lay in this line:

For Shakespeare, inflexible virtue becomes its opposite, vice. The subtlety of his understanding of the human predicament is incomparable. We pride ourselves, perhaps rightly, on our vast accumulation of scientific and other knowledge; but when it comes to self-knowledge, self-understanding, I doubt that we shall ever progress beyond him.

Believe it or not, that paragraph has been worrying at me all week. They say the first step in the recovery process is admitting that you have a problem.

Oddly enough, I started out thinking I would apply the article, about the play Coriolanus, the protagonist of which is a noble Roman consul too honest to hide his scorn of the vulgar plebians, to the Abdul Rahman story and George Bush. As with most of Shakespeare's plays, things do not end well. The Bard's characters tend to be larger than life, and twinned with their outsized virtues are tragic flaws, often the obverse of the very qualities which make them great. For Coriolanus, his downfall is virtue carried to such extremes that it becomes rigid and inflexible and so, what was within moderation admirable, turns to evil.

But during the week I ended up linking to this piece about young men adrift, in my opinion because they've been emasculated and infantilized by an increasingly out of kilter, feminized society; and as a result my fellow bloggers have given me quite a bit to think about. Grim dropped the next crumb on the trail, and as usual, it was quite thought-provoking:

Nothing could be more natural to a young man than fighting other young men, not just for people but for anyone: it's featured in every nature documentary ever made.

We need a way to expand this concept into the main American society, so that young men will be freer to express themselves naturally. We also need, however, to continue to constrain fighting: like drinking, it can be a good thing that relieves tension and adds to the pleasure of life; but it can also be very destructive to you and others around you.

I propose, then, what I shall call "the Fair Fight Bill." I suggest you write your state representatives and suggest that the laws in all 50 states should come to include it.

Now I had to laugh at my initial reaction to this, which was a decidedly feminine, "Eeeeewwwww!!!!"

I haven't seen many fights. I suppose I've lead a sheltered life. I saw one in the parking lot outside our townhouse when we lived in Annapolis about 15 years ago and I remember that it really upset me hearing the smack! of one man's fist on another's flesh. They were really going at each other and it frightened me. I saw another when I was 21 and managing a store on East-West highway in DC. Oddly, it was the day Reagan was shot. A store detective tried to grab a thief after he tried to smash one of my glass display cases containing power tools and they got into a fistfight that continued up one of the aisles, through the doors and out onto the street outside the store. I had to pull my cashiers off the registers - several of them were crying and my head cashier (an Indian girl in a sari) had fled up to the cashier's cage and locked herself inside so I couldn't get to a phone to call the police until I finally talked her into unlocking the door. What a day. When I finally got back outside, the two men were on top of a stopped car in the intersection punching away at each other like mad.

Reading Grim's post, I had to ask myself if I had raised my sons all wrong. When my boys were little, my husband was often gone: deployed, or in the field. So I couldn't always ask him for advice on how to handle boyish misdeeds like fighting.

My own policies on such things were shaped by a combination of reading books (fiction, mostly) and childhood experiences. I was the oldest of two children and we moved every year. Military kids living out in town are easy target for bullies because you have no friends for the first few weeks or even months. My younger brother was smaller, shyer, and rather quiet and since we walked to school, he got picked on sometimes so I was protective of him.

At times, walking home from school was like running a gauntlet - either someone was threatening to beat me up because I'd refused to back down during some playground altercation, or some group of twits was lying in wait for my little brother and I had to try to find him and walk him home in hopes they'd be afraid to take both of us on. I remember in particular one enormous black girl named Linda. Everyone was terrified of her. The rumor was she had beaten up several people. Of course I never actually saw any of these people, so I was the only skeptic on the topic of Linda's superpowers. But she was enormous and had arms like jackhammers.

Linda detested me. We were always getting into it at school because she cheated at all the games and butted in line. No one would stand up to her, and it really frosted me that people just let her get away with it. She had this little white girl named Karen who clung to her side like a remora, and Karen started threatening to beat me up too, which really made life a Living Hell. I used to mock them mercilessly, which only made them both madder, but I was starting to get scared.

The thing is, I never got into a fight with either girl. A boy would have. There were a couple of big showdowns when I met them after school. They resulted in verbal sparring matches, but no fighting, because I had been taught not to fight. I was able to talk both of them out of fighting by simply pointing out that fighting was dumb. It really wasn't going to solve anything other than getting everyone suspended for no reason, which was pretty idiotic over a dodgeball argument. Eventually they got tired of picking on me and moved on to bigger and better things. I don't know what would have happened if I'd been a boy.

I have always wondered why neither they, nor any of the twits who came after my brother, ever hauled off and just hit me. At any rate, the upshot of all this is that when it came time to raise my boys, I tried to teach them the same thing, because it worked for me. I told them that if they couldn't avoid a fight, to hit as hard as they could, knock the other person down, and walk away. But to try reason first, and above all, to show no fear and no emotion, because my big theory was that it is really, really hard to haul off and hit someone who is just dead calm. I think it just unnerves people and they feel slightly foolish if they persist. I think fighting requires escalation and anger, and if one person refuses to play then it's hard (though not impossible) to manufacture a fight out of thin air.

Reading Grim's post, I have to question whether I did the right thing or not, though. I wonder if there is something in boys that needs to fight, and if I squashed it? I'm not stupid - I know both my sons got into tussles, though neither of them ever got into a major donnybrook. What I don't know, though, is whether that's a bad thing or not?

Fuzzybear Lioness sent me this wonderful piece on being a man. It asks some intriguing questions about our attitudes towards masculinity:

Manliness," he says, "is a quality that causes individuals to stand for something." The Greeks used the term thumos to denote the bristling, spirited element shared by human beings and animals that makes them fight back when threatened. It causes dogs to defend their turf; it makes human beings stand up for their kin, their religion, their country, their principles. "Just as a dog defends its master," writes Mansfield, "so the doggish part of the human soul defends human ends higher than itself."

Every human being possesses thumos. But those who are manly possess it in abundance, and sometimes in excess. The manly man is not satisfied to let things be as they are, and he makes sure everyone knows it. He invests his perception of injustice with cosmic importance.

Manliness can be noble and heroic, like the men on the Titanic; but it can also be foolish, stubborn, and violent. Achilles, Brutus, and Sir Lancelot exemplify the glory of manliness, but also its darker sides. Theodore Roosevelt was manly; so was Harry "The Buck Stops Here" Truman. Manly men are confident in risky situations. Manliness can be pathological, as in gangsters and terrorists.

Manliness, says Mansfield, thrives on drama, conflict, risk, and exploits: "War is hell but men like it." Manliness is often aggressive, but when the aggression is tied to the concept of honor, it transcends mere animal spiritedness. Allied with reason, as in Socrates, manliness finds its highest expression.

I loved this piece, because it embodies the same view of men (and women) that my Dad taught me, and this is why I believe so strongly that little girls need fathers so desperately. Though I was a bit of a tomboy as a child, I firmly believe men and women are intrisically different and our different natures are designed to balance and complement one another.

Fathers teach their daughters not only what to look for in a man, but also something about being a woman. My father always had a great respect for women. He taught me that, at their best, women are a civilizing influence on men. We guard society’s moral traditions, we appeal to their protective, nobler side and channel the innate aggression in the male spirit in a positive direction so that it is used for good: to build, to protect, to explore and expand and extend our knowledge.

This is why I think the whole "gender-neutral" business is so pernicious. In addition to being unnatural, it robs us of that balancing influence and causes people to make rules that defy observable reality:

After almost 40 years of feminist agitation and gender-neutral pronouns, it is still men who are far more likely than women to run for political office, start companies, file for patents, and blow things up. Men continue to tell most of the jokes and write the vast majority of editorials and letters to editors. And--fatal to the dreams of feminists who long for social androgyny--men have hardly budged from their unwillingness to do an equal share of housework or childcare. Moreover, women seem to like manly men: "Manliness is still around, and we still find it attractive," says Mansfield.

The disturbing aspect to the more radical feminist agenda is that it produces aberations like Nancy Hopkins: academicians who see no contradiction in a purportedly-equal woman who gets the vapors when a man dares to express a scientific theory she disagrees with. If a man were to suggest that women be barred from future conferences because they were "too delicate" to hear shocking theories like the one she wanted Larry Summers sanctioned for uttering, Ms. Hopkins would rightly have accused him of sexism. Yet she conveniently hid behind her feminine frailty when it suited her: "How dare he suggest such a thing! The big bully! I feel faint....".

Just try to imagine a man doing such a thing. All right. You can stop laughing now. And yet where is Larry Summers? Gone. Only Nancy Hopkins remains. She won in the end. Which makes me feel just a little bit sick.

Well actually, to tell you the truth, it makes me mad as hell. And to finally close this circle, if it mades me mad as hell at my age, when I've learned to make my peace with things I can't change (or at least most of the time I have) can you imagine how it must make a young man feel, who is still railing against the status quo? Is it really any wonder young men are tuning out in increasing numbers, or choosing to act irresponsibly? How many positive channels do we give them for the exercise of their masculinity? More importantly, how comfortable are we as a society with masculinity itself, anymore? Doc Russia comments:

Talking with my friends who are a little older or of a more rural upbringing, I am struck by how they had somewhere to go where the laws of man lost their power. Today, everyone in double digit years wants to "rebel." Nevermind that they are "rebelling" by Parroting exactly what a bunch of MTV execs have decided the next fad should be, or that they are questioning only what some clueless lefty propagandist says should be questioned. Everyone wants to rebel. Actually, what they really want to do is to exist unfettered. When you go off into the wilderness, you are free. You are unfettered. You do not need to rebel because there is nothing to rebel against. If you want to run around naked screaming "booga booga booga!" nobody is going to be shocked or dismayed, or call the cops, or call the TV station. In fact, all you have to worry about is not paying attention to the brambles your birthday suit is headed for. And if you do wander into those brambles, there will be nobody there to help you out of them, or tend to your wounds. There are no rules, no responsibilities, and no limitations. There are only consequences, and as long as you can handle that, then you can do whatever you want.

So, we now have a population of frontiersmen with no frontier. So they sit, stew and eventually rot.

Some of us get lucky, and avoid screwing up too badly before we can go out and at least see the frontiers, even if we cannot explore them. I do not know what the solution is. I just have this sneaking suspicion that if you were to tell a young man that he had a shot at wealth and prosperity which relied upon his own innate abilities, and not upon what school his degree is from, or whose ass he kisses, and how well he does it, that there was something out there which he could never find the end of, I bet you that a lot of this teenage horseshit would stop.

I had a thought the other day. Who knows, I may be going off the deep end. Shakespeare's inflexible virtue, carried too far, became vice.

We are currently engaged in a titantic struggle with radical Islamism, which is, if has, if you stop and think about it, all the characteristics of unbridled thumos - they certainly have no problem standing up for their kin, their religion, their country, their principles. The problem with Islamism is that it is untempered by the feminine influence. There is no partnership: they have totally subjugated women, shut them away, as the Left would say, silenced their Voices, marginalized them and treated them as the Other.

America, on the other hand, seems to be going too far in the other direction. We are marginalizing the masculine and becoming femininized in an attempt to right past imbalances, and that is just as great a mistake as what radical Islam is doing. In fact, it may be an even greater error, for it leaves us defenseless. We are becoming, as Kim du Toit says, a nation of women.

Reading Doc Russia's post, I was overcome with a feeling I have often: the urge to run away. I felt it all the time when I was a little girl. I used to dream of escaping from my safe home and having adventures. Sometimes I would sneak out of my bedroom early in the morning before anyone was awake just so I could wander for hours without getting caught. When I was a teenager I used to go out the window of my bedroom and walk around at night, just glorying in the freedom of being out under the stars. I wonder, sometimes, what kind of society we are becoming, where we lock our doors and our children up and everything becomes one giant calculation of risk.

I think it is that, most of all, that makes me want to open the door sometimes and just keep on going:

I opened my door
and the night air rushed in

crisp, and cool

and the scent of woodsmoke
and fallen leaves
and possibilities was everywhere

and for a moment
I saw myself walking
down the hill and into the moonlight
like I used to do

when I was younger

Someone has to push the boundaries. I hope we never lose our tolerance for those who are willing to try.

Posted by Cassandra at October 8, 2014 08:15 AM

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Two things:

(1) If "Manliness . . . is a quality that causes individuals to stand for something," but women's job is to be a civilizing influence, where does that leave us: with the conclusion that standing for something is uncivilized? What about women who stand for things? Shouldn't they do that? Are they failing to be civilized when they do?

(2) I wonder if the problem with inflexible virtue is not the virtue itself, but the failure of another virtue that should be there, too. It may not help a Shakespearean character to be admirably honest if he fails in other, equally necessary virtues such as charity and humility.

Posted by: Texan99 at October 8, 2014 11:06 AM

Wow! Seriously good piece, Cass. There's a lot to digest, but I'd like to hit a few points that caught my attention.

Reading Grim's post, I had to ask myself if I had raised my sons all wrong.

First off, from everything I know, I'd say your boys turned out to be mature, well-adjusted men. So The answer is "no". Now, if they turned into spaghetti-spined yes-men, then maybe you would be right to worry. But that really doesn't sound like the case.

I told them that if they couldn't avoid a fight, to hit as hard as they could, knock the other person down, and walk away. But to try reason first, and above all, to show no fear and no emotion, because my big theory was that it is really, really hard to haul off and hit someone who is just dead calm.

Frankly, I think that's a piece of solid advice. The harmful advice is what schools are trying to tell kids "don't fight back, or you'll get in trouble". You gave your sons permission to defend themselves, and I imagine that if it had come to it, you'd stand up for them before school administrators if it came to it (and if the facts supported that they had followed your directives). And that's really the best thing. A child who fears getting in trouble more than protecting themselves is set up for a lifetime of passivity. And I am a firm believer it is better to die fighting than live on ones knees. I thank God that I have never had to put that to the test, but it is my belief.

And finally, as for the premise that fighting can be good for boys. I think that may be slightly overstated, but the core principle is solid. First off, I myself have been in a few fights. I had brothers, I had friends, and I dealt with bullies in school. My experience directly confirms the age old advice that a bully does not want to be confronted. When faced with passivity, they become more aggressive. When confronted, it may lead to a fight, but afterwards, they tend to leave that kid alone.

And I think it can be a valuable thing to learn that while a punch hurts, it's not something to fear more than tolerating a bully. Fear of the unknown is worse than fear of the known. Knowing that you can take a punch allows you to evaluate whether what you are being faced with is better or worse. If they're calling you names, chances are that it's not worth fighting over. If they are abusing you (or someone else) then it likely is. But until you've been in a fight, you don't have any way to measure that.

And finally, one thing I will stand by is that once boys reach about 16-18, the time to wink and nod at fighting has ended. When they approach adult size, they are capable of doing adult damage to each other. It isn't particularly easy to kill someone with your bare hands, but it isn't terribly hard either. And the problem is, kids have no idea where that line is. Littler kids can't do serious harm to each other, barring a freak accident (one falling on concrete and splitting his skull), nor are they likely to cause a concussion. Older boys certainly CAN cause such damage.

And among grown men, it absolutely cannot be ignored. I know exactly how dangerous an adult fight can be, and as such were I forced into one, my objective is to end the fight as quickly and decisively as possible (preferably without it becoming lethal). If that means breaking a knee or arm, then so be it. But this is for the same reason that the expression "it's better to be judged by twelve than carried by six" exists. I do NOT want to get in a fight with another adult. If it comes to it, I will, but as you advised your boys, it is an absolute last resort (save that whole "living on your knees" thing).

Posted by: MikeD at October 8, 2014 11:26 AM

If "Manliness . . . is a quality that causes individuals to stand for something," but women's job is to be a civilizing influence, where does that leave us: with the conclusion that standing for something is uncivilized? What about women who stand for things? Shouldn't they do that? Are they failing to be civilized when they do?

I would have preferred it if the author had said, "manliness is a quality that causes individuals to be willing to *fight* for something" :p

He goes on later to note that both men and women possess thumos, which I think is broadly true. IN every day life, I see women fighting for a great deal of things. We just don't do that physically.

I didn't take his meaning to be that fighting itself was uncivilized, but rather that fighting/aggression is a trait that needs to be directed to civilized ends. A man might naturally fight for resources or women, or he could fight to protect his land and/or family, or his country.

The fight itself isn't a terribly civilized thing, but the channeling of aggression into socially productive ends is a large part of what civilization means: not that we're not willing to fight anymore, but that we try to shape and direct the impulse.

I think that's a large part of what women bring to the table: we fight to promote those civilized ends. And when moral suasion fails or is insufficient to the task we work in concert with men and our natural talents complement each other.

In reading this old post, I thought that I would be less likely to express what I still believe so forcefully today - my original stance has been tempered somewhat by disappointment with a lot of what I consider to be reactionary and ill thought out backlash from the right against feminism. Too much of it spills out as dismissal/denigration of all women (not just feminists).

You alluded to that the other day in that wonderful comment I didn't fully respond to, mainly because I couldn't trust myself. But nastiness and disrespect breed a reciprocal response. This is true when feminists diss men and it's equally true when some on the right disrespect and denigrate women.

#NOTALLWOMEN!!!11!! :p

As I've written many times, I do think that on average there are differences between men and women that are basic. But I think the area of overlap is far larger than many of my right-leaning fellow bloviators. I think we see life through a lens of expectations that distorts reality to a certain extent, and so we cherry pick examples that confirm our views and ignore/dismiss contrary evidence.

A large part of what little writing I do these days consists of trying to resist that natural impulse, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

But to be intellectually honest, we do have to try. I'm not afraid of doubt, because facing and dealing with doubt is a critical element of faith and conviction.

I wonder if the problem with inflexible virtue is not the virtue itself, but the failure of another virtue that should be there, too. It may not help a Shakespearean character to be admirably honest if he fails in other, equally necessary virtues such as charity and humility.

I think Shakespeare would agree (or at least his characters are written that way). Part of their problem is a lack of balance: there's an outsized virtue or talent that isn't counterbalanced or kept in check. In some circumstances, that lack of balance is a tremendous asset, but over the long haul it's a tragic flaw.

Posted by: Cass at October 8, 2014 11:29 AM

Ripping good post and I would not attempt to make it better for lack of having found even some small dot or tittle about which to be contentious. I believe our contentions in the past, over the male/female pneuma, amount to not a scintilla of disagreement but are merely of a human propensity to spar – just for the animal spiritedness of it.

Posted by: George Pal at October 8, 2014 11:31 AM

I would have preferred it if the author had said, "manliness is a quality that causes individuals to be willing to *fight* for something" :p

And I would have liked it even more had he not needed to source being willing to fight in masculinity. There is some basis for this - men and women both have testosterone (just as we both have estrogen/progesterone/oxytocin). Same chemicals, different balance.

And the balance shifts in response to environmental cues, values, and life choices.

Posted by: Cass at October 8, 2014 11:34 AM

I would have preferred it if the author had said, "manliness is a quality that causes individuals to be willing to *fight* for something" :p

Beautifully stated! I agree that women are/can be a "civilizing" on men, and that part of that is tempering and redirecting our aggressive impulses to more positive channels. Which is NOT to say that men (or their impulses) are inherently uncivilized, just that it is. Like the example of Coriolanus, to much (or too little) of a virtue is vice. Untempered aggression is uncivilized. Too little aggression is passivity.

And do not misunderstand, I fully believe that too much of the masculine is bad, as would be too much of the feminine. Nor do I imply that all men are/can be masculine, nor that all women are/can be feminine. We are all individuals and differ in various ways. That is not a bad thing. But in general, the virtues most inherent to most women (i.e. that which we call "feminine") are best when tempering/tempered by those virtues most inherent to most men (i.e. the "masculine"). We are two halves that make a whole. And without trying to sound too Taoist, when these haves are out of balance (as with the Islamist example Cass points out) then bad things can happen. Or when taken to the other extreme, you end up with societies too afraid to be judged "offensive" to defend themselves against truly existential threats (see many nations in Western Europe).

Posted by: MikeD at October 8, 2014 11:44 AM

We are two halves that make a whole.

*halves... dammit.

Posted by: MikeD at October 8, 2014 11:45 AM

**when these haves are out of balance


Posted by: MikeD who can't form a coherent thought... at October 8, 2014 11:46 AM

That old post is no longer at that link, so I'm not sure what exactly I was talking about eight years ago! But I don't think (Mike) that I was talking about 'winking at fighting.' I was talking about making a place for it that allows for a healthy and civilized expression of it.

I still think that is important, and I'll give you an example of why. A few years ago, I was working at a military command I won't name, and there was a late-20s civilian contractor there named J. Now J was the kind of metrosexual, weaselly character our society tries so hard to produce today -- but down deep, once you got past the smarmyness and wheedling, he was a good guy. He'd just been taught all his life to be this kind of primped, fluffed character who won't stand up for himself but is always trying to scheme something.

We also had this very grizzled Major, a combat vet several times over, who was also a good guy. But he couldn't stand J, whose approach to life was everything a life in the Army had trained our Major to despise. And he let J know it on a regular basis, in ways that clearly made J miserable.

So one day I had a barbecue, and J came over with his girlfriend and his kids. At one point in the afternoon, we were talking about all this, and I said something like, "Well, you're tougher than you think you are," and I hit him. Not super hard, and not where it would knock him down, but hard enough that he had to deal with it. So he hit me back, probably as hard as he could, and I smiled and shook his hand.

Later that night he called me and expressed a lot of confusion and upset about the exchange. He was especially worried that his daughter had seen me hit him, and what would she learn from that?

"Think again about what she saw," I said. "She saw her father take a blow from one of the strongest men she knows, stand good for it, and give back just as hard. Then she saw us drink beer together and laugh. What she learned about you today was that her father is a man among men. That's good for her to know."

He thought about that for a while, and we went on to become very good friends while that posting lasted. It didn't fix everything for him -- you can't fix another person anyway -- but I think it showed him the way to the confidence he needed.

Posted by: Grim at October 8, 2014 12:10 PM

Since you're talking about this in terms of Eastern philosophy, Mike, you can think about that in terms of the Wild Fox Koan. The Wiki commentary is not good; it suggests there is some 'ostensible' self-defense going on. Read the text itself, though, and you'll see that's not what is happening at all. Huangbo struck Baizhang not to defend himself, but because it was the right thing to do to provoke enlightenment.

I didn't hit J out of anger or because I wanted something he owned, nor to defend myself nor out of sadistic pleasure. I hit him out of friendship. He had to talk about it and think about it after, but it woke something up in him that he needed.

Posted by: Grim at October 8, 2014 12:23 PM

But I don't think (Mike) that I was talking about 'winking at fighting.'

It wasn't directed at you, sir, nor indeed at any here. It is my own thought, formed in my head as I typed my comment. I tend to ramble (both in text and conversation) and operate on a very 'stream of consciousness' system. So I hope no offense was taken (I don't think any was, but want to be sure) as it was not directed at you. I hope you already know that you have my utmost respect (and NOT just because I am sure you can punch like a freight train ;) ).

Posted by: MikeD at October 8, 2014 12:29 PM

Wild Fox Koan

I had never heard this one before, and it's interesting for sure. And while I was not actually trying to speak in Eastern Philosophies, I am passingly familiar with them, and part of that (as I understand it) is that the point of a koan is not so much about teaching a lesson directly, but getting the reader/listener to examine his reactions to it. And I am getting several things (more as I think about it) from this one.

It is a koan inside of a koan. The tale of the monk turned fox is one in and of itself. The tale of the disciple slapping the master in reference to it is another. The immediate lesson from the fox's tale is that none are above cause and effect, not even the enlightened.

Unless the implication is that the fox had not been truly enlightened until after he recognized that he had only been turned into a fox for denying cause and effect because he had not yet been enlightened... a sort of paradox. The monk had to acknowledge the supremacy of cause and effect in order to transcend it.

And the second half of it I can read one of two (or even both) ways. One, the student slaps the master showing he understands that the effect of his asking what would have happened is that he would have been slapped. Or two, the student had asked several dumb questions in the past and been rewarded for it with a slap, and shows that he has learned that lesson. Or as I said it could be both, thus also demonstrating that the student had truly learned the lesson of acknowledging cause and effect.

Interesting reading.

Posted by: MikeD at October 8, 2014 12:46 PM

Well, the thing about koans is that you start by working out all the contradictions in it: but you end by suddenly realizing that this is how things are.

One of the things I've worked out in the last couple of years of pursuing philosophy is that logic is a lot more limited than we think it is. This is the point I've been making lately about logical versus analogical problems. Once you've made the jump from the logical to the analogical, cases are distinct even where you think you see similarities or 'types' at work. So there's a sense in which what really is going on is something like what the Zen Buddhists are doing: direct grasping of reality, which comes from dropping the thought-guards and directly encountering reality.

That's what this koan's slap is about. It's about bringing you into the moment so you can confront something powerful and true, something that you might have all the reasons in the world to think shouldn't be true. But it is.

And after that wakes up, you begin to change. The world isn't what you thought it was, and maybe you aren't what you thought you were either. So what are you? Well, you're here: with a friend you can suddenly see for the first time.

Posted by: Grim at October 8, 2014 01:26 PM

That post has certainly withstood the test of time, hasn't it? (No surprise that, inspired as it was by those timeless bards Shakespeare and rdr. :-P)

"Fighting" is maybe the one part of my youth that I can honest admit to not missing much anymore. It wasn't like I intentionally went looking for fights, I just couldn't/wouldn't walk away from if one happened to find me. Won a few. Lost a few. Most were draws, though. Once everyone has delivered and taken a few shots whatever it was that started the fracas seems far less important than the pain then being experienced. The point's been made, so if anybody can still walk away, why not? Declare victory and offer the other guy a ride to the emergency room. It's the manly thing to do.

But when your back is to the wall... you've gotta fight, and keep fighting until it isn't. (Manachem Begin summed it up perfectly, remarking of the Israelis: "We fight, therefore we are!") As for myself, I've spent the last thirty-odd years learning how to avoid walls altogether.

Posted by: spd rdr at October 8, 2014 01:40 PM