The Martial Artist’s View of Freedom

You’ll never know what freedom really means, until you’ve been pinned against the wall with no hope for escape.

Google defines freedom as “the condition of being free; the power to act or speak or think without externally imposed restraints.” Popular culture and public schools promote this childlike view of freedom, wherein our supposed inherent rights are actually another person’s liabilities.

By declaring health to be our inalienable human right, we would compel a doctor to treat us; by asserting the right to a minimum standard of living, we compel another to provide the necessary wealth; and so on. Such entitlements are clearly not inherent, or universal, or inalienable, as they are entirely dependent on the action (or inaction) of someone else.

It is not these wishes-cum-rights that are truly inherent and universal, but the limitations they seek to overcome. Paradoxically, we come to understand genuine human freedom through the experience of poverty, sickness, danger and death. For example, the danger of unarmed combat.

Although sparring is often regarded as a mere cardiovascular conditioning routine, its real value is disillusionment. As our opponent is raining blows upon us, we realize that our most basic guaranteed “right to safety” is a soothing but meaningless proclamation. Aside from ourselves, there is no party with the motivation, means and opportunity to guarantee it.

In the end, the only freedom we possess is that which we can personally hold onto while under attack. For those who lose their composure and give in to fear—on or off the mat, inside or outside the dojo—there is demonstrably no choice and no freedom whatsoever.

Our sole inalienable liberty is not a freedom from circumstances, nor is it a freedom from consequences; those are only childish fantasies. It is not even the right to life, which is in all cases temporary. Our most basic freedom is self-determination—for those who can keep it.


  1. Sometimes I think you have to march right in and demand your rights, even if you don’t know what your rights are, or who the person is you’re talking to. Then, on the way out, slam the door.

  2. Even if we were completely legally liberated to define our own destiny, we’re still restricted by our own social stigmas and biases, much like martial artists are limited by rules, codes of conduct, and personal inhibitions.

    In truth, there is no real, complete freedom.

  3. Great article. Bam.

    The first time I head the distinction was in the Handmaid’s Tale, where Margaret Atwood separates freedom-from, which is what governments and authorities either pretend or at least convince us that they’ll deliver, and freedom-to.

    Freedom-To is the thing…and I’ll need self-determination to keep it.

  4. Freedom is just a word, isn’t it?
    A word, which implies choices that simply aren’t there.

    Who you are, what you do, are these things you really have a choice in?

    Are you free to be not yourself?

    Are you free to change your opinion?

    Letting go of the concept of freedom sets one free.

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