The Martial Artist as Hero and Artist: Part 2

Tony Annesi

In Part One, a martial artist discovers what motivates him and whether or not it is ultimately in his own self-interest


There are four prime motives for taking up a martial art: combat effectiveness, physical conditioning, self-control, and aesthetics. These are the four with which most of us are familiar. Few martial artists recognize, or few of us state, a fifth underlying motive: we want to be heroes, to fulfill an ideal of ourselves.

Children playing at martial arts (or any adventure game) play at being heroes and heroines. Even that child who takes the role of the villain does so in order that the hero may exist and thus fulfill an image, a possibility, an ideal.

Being a martial artist-hero has something to do with mental swashbuckling, perhaps. It is nice to envision yourself as the protagonist in action, swinging from a chandelier or jungle vine to rescue a fallen comrade. Action confirms one’s ability and ability in action is a standard of judgment by which we recognize the superior, the heroic. I said, “ability in action is a standard” because there is another.

Ironically it is the opposite: “ability in inaction”, i.e. self-control. In the motion picture Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee’s character is being ferried to the villain’s island, along with other martial artists from various countries, to compete in a triennial tournament. We have seen earlier in the film that Lee is a consummate fighter, with unbelievable abilities. A roughneck named Parsons is passing time by pushing around a few small Chinese workers, and then turns his attention to Lee, who is calmly observing the seas.

The bully asks Lee’s style. Lee replies that one could call it the style “of fighting without fighting.” The burly antagonist asks to “go a little” with Lee and will not take no for an answer. Lee points to an island, then escorts the bully to a dinghy. The audience awaits the tension of the boat rowing to the island. Who will row? Will the fight occur on the boat? How will Lee dispose of this large ruffian? Mr. Parsons enters the dinghy and Lee simply lowers it to sea. He hands the lead rope to one of the workers whom Parsons has victimized. The bully floats helplessly behind at the mercy of his little victim. Battle won without physical interaction. Self-control has proven who is the hero.

The heroic motivation is ego-centered. In fact, every one of the motivations previously mentioned is ego-centered. That is because the concept of motivation itself is inextricably linked with ego. When we study a martial art for self-defense, we do not expect to first defend our great-grand-mothers, but ourselves. If we are motivated by physical development, whose physique are we expected to develop? If we perform a physical discipline to get mental discipline from it, or to control anger, whose anger do we want to control, whose mind is to be disciplined? And if we wish to practice a martial art “for the art’s sake” (an expression as misleading as it is clichéd,) for whose enjoyment are we to become an artist? Is the artist not at once the creator and the created? And is the artist not his own audience as well?

The hero and the artist are in fact quite strongly linked. Both are men or women of action and inaction, that is, of judgment, or self-control — and of egoism. In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s brilliant philosophical novel, Howard Roark is an architect who refuses to be compromised by the suggestions, the pressures, the threats of others. He lives his life as an artist and as a hero, not because he is stubborn, not because he is talented, but because he is ego-centric. He is not breast-beating, not self-aggrandizing, not greedy to have what others have, but singularly concerned with his own pride, his own ideals. He wants to be what he would like others to be. He refuses to be what they are.

Like Howard Roark, the hero acts selfishly because he acts according to his ideals; he does things the way they can and ought to be, thus proving to others that it is possible to live life by ideals. But before he proves this to others, he first proves it to himself. If he is in error, if life cannot be lived according to his ideals, then although he might still be worshipped by blind fanatics, he cannot be a hero to himself. Heroes are human beings and must function in reality. If they ignore reality or have a false view of it, they are struck down as was Icarus flying too close to the sun.

So it is with the martial artist. He who attempts to emulate Lindbergh, the hero, must guard against becoming Icarus, the fool. The first tested his limitations, the second ignored them. Reality produces limitations. The hero pushes himself to the limits of reality, but not beyond. he may have more daring, more insight, more drive than the average human being, but he is never super-human. If he were, he could not be honored as a hero, rather he would have to be fearfully revered as a god. In Enter the Dragon, Lee was a hero. Those workers whom he avenged recognized that Lee could have lost, and being human and subject to error, he was like them, but greater because he could overcome the fear or error, and because he dared to try to overcome it. Following his own ideals, the hero pushes himself to the edge of reality. He risks himself for himself.

In The Fountainhead, the dramatic foil to Howard Roark is Peter Keating, a bright young architect who is afraid to making up his own mind and who chooses societally determined goals at any cost rather than decide for himself what he would like to do, and, as importantly, what sort of world he would like to live in. He is afraid of both risk and of his own identity. He is not artist enough to mold himself in his own image, so he cannot be a hero. Submitting to the ideas of others, he loses their respect, and because he depends so much on others, losing their respect means losing his own. he is a pitiful imitation of The Ideal Architect, failing because he tried to imitate success. Imitation is not identity. Roark, conversely, is successful on his own terms because he risks himself for himself. He does not try to become a hero, rather, he tries to live his ideal, regardless of what other think.


Professional sports produce heroes and make many of us hero-worshippers. But unlike the literary hero, the sports-hero is valued for her/his physical ability only, seldom for any other quality. (Perhaps the public’s insistence on knowing inside information about their heroes is an attempt to find other qualities to value.) The sports-hero is romantic without being realistic. Like the protagonist of a pulp adventure novel, he or she does not seem to have qualities other than skill. The pro’s using her/his skills to succeed in such a limited struggle as a weekly game says very little about the ideal world the hero is to represent. The athlete therefore become a half-hero.

The readers of The Fountainhead can feel elated at the sight of Howard Roark’s world and know that it is possible — he has qualities which they feel they can and should possess; but sportsfans feel no desire to live in a world of purely physical skills, although these skills can be admired as part of a whole. Pro-athletes have few qualities which fans could possess even if the wished to. The only way a sportsfan can truly identify with an athlete is to become one. The fan can then see that there is more to sports than a two hour weekly presentation, and that physical skills are often made up of a great deal of mental skills which, together, form a definite ideal which the fan is more likely to feel that he/she can and should possess. Through activity in sports, the fan can be his or her own hero.

But there is a problem. As many contemporary exposes written by former pro-athletes reveal, the business of sport is not exactly deserving of our aspirations. We should be aware that it is not professional or collegiate competition which we should emulate in order to find the hero in ourselves, rather it is the athletics of George Leonard’s Ultimate Athlete. In this book, Leonard never fully defines his Ultimate Athlete, but his presentation of a self-motivated, self-competing, self-determining player who follows the slogan, “PLAY HARD, PLAY FAIR, NOBODY HURT”* is definition enough. The Ultimate Athlete is the Suburban Tarzan of Part I of this essay. The Suburban Tarzan is a martial artist.

- Read Part 3 -

Images and content copyright — All Rights Reserved | Site design by WadeInCreativity