While none of us possess infallible control or perfect virtue, as martial artists, inescapably tied to those warriors who have already walked the path—we owe it to them, and to ourselves to strive towards achieving excellence. Here excellence refers to more than just ones fighting ability. Sadly, so many modern martial artists focus exclusively on their martial skill as a measure of excellence, losing sight of the fact that historically true warriorship was measured as being far more than just ones ability to fight.
Many of these true warrior lessons arose out of mythology and epic poems such as the Iliad. When considering ‘excellence’ then a good place to start and to draw inspiration from would be the Iliad, an epic poem of war, misdeed, virtue, and sacrifice. I believe the Iliad should be mandatory reading for any person seeking a deeper insight into what it means to be a ‘true’ warrior. It is not my intention in this short article to write about the entire poem itself, but rather to briefly focus on one character, that of Hector, and how his deeds and principles epitomise what it truly means to be a warrior embodied both in battle but also in life.
Hector would have much rather had spent time with his wife and child than to take up arms against Achilles and the invading forces of the Achaeans, Dana’s, and Argives. Hector is courageous. Courage is highly regarded in Homer’s Iliad. What makes Hector noble is that he chooses courage as one of his defining virtues. When his people then demand this courage of him, he answers the call—not because they ask, but because what they ask matches precisely what he asks of himself. Rather than merely paying lip service to the notion of courage, Hector lives it. As the old adage reminds us, “Action speaks louder than words”.
Respect For Those You Face
Hector not only embodied personal nobility and honour, but unlike many self-proclaimed “warriors” in the martial arts today, he extended these virtues to his opponents. He honoured his opponents and respected their skills.
Today those teaching reality-based self-defence demonise those they will face on the street. Each night in training halls around the world, on websites, Twitter and Facebook they talk about “criminal scum bags,” “losers,” “predators,” and “vermin”. This has also become prevalent in the mixed martial arts culture, where routinely, fighters talk trash about their opponents, belittling them and dehumanising them. In fact, unknowingly this leads those who take part in such behaviour towards future psychological dysfunction.
This has been well documented among returning Vietnam veterans. Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, author of Achilles in Vietnam, noted that one of the predominant factors contributing to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in many Vietnam War veterans had a large part to do with how those veterans saw and portrayed their enemies, the Vietcong. In a segment in his book, entitled “Clinical Importance of Honouring or Dishonouring the Enemy,” Shay writes:
Restoring honour to the enemy is an essential step in recovery from combat PTSD. While other things are obviously needed as well, the veteran’s self respect never fully recovers so long as he is unable to see the enemy as worthy. In the words of one of our patients, a war against subhuman vermin “has no honour”.
While Achilles later redeems himself once his rage subsides, on slaying Hector, the most formidable of the Trojan warriors, he shows utter disdain for the proper decorum and decency of war. His triumph over Hector is quickly tainted when he desecrates Hector’s body by piercing his ankles, tying them with leather straps to the back of his chariot, and then proceeds to race around the fields of Troy, with Hector’s body mercilessly at the whim of the hard earth. By demonising his enemy, Achilles found no solace in his victory and no honour. Even after beating Hector, Achilles night after night could not sleep. While Hector may have ultimately lost the physical battle, in death he kept both his honour and respect intact.
Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay further found that those Vietnam veterans, who saw their enemy as worthy warriors, had respect for the Vietnamese culture (some even married Vietnamese woman) lived a healthy life and mostly free from psychological disturbance.
The point to make here is that a true warrior does not demonise or dehumanise his adversaries, even when those opponents are in the wrong. Hector was fighting an invading army, on his home ground, yet he never swayed from observing the warrior’s code of having honour and respect for those he fought. He never underestimated his adversaries either. In approaching it in this way he saved his psychological health, arguably one of the most important reasons for having a warrior’s code to begin with.
Integrity was equally important to Hector. When I deal with men these days, this is by far the greatest virtue that seems to be lacking. Integrity leads to everything else. If you have no integrity—which is to display honesty of mind and intention, to be free from hypocrisy, disguise, or false pretence—then you cannot be honourable. In simple terms, integrity is a man’s ability to keep to his word and follow through.
Hector kept to his word. He would rather have not fought Achilles and the invading armies that accompanied him. Hector had much to lose but he kept his word to his people, and, in doing so, retained his honour and integrity. In fact, Hector temporarily shows his unwillingness to fight on facing Achilles on the battlefield for the first time. As the god-like warrior Achilles approaches him, he flees. Achilles sets chase and both men run a high-speed footrace three times around the walls of Troy. At some point, Hector must have realised that having integrity was far more important than his own narcissistic needs, and that as a true warrior and protector of his people, he needed to uphold his honour, be sincere to his convictions, and stand his ground.
Hector stops and turns to Achilles:
No longer will I flee thee, Peleus’ son! Round the great city of the Trojan king thrice have I fled, and could not thy approach abide. But now my ardent soul persuades [me]? Firmly to stand, to slay thee, or be slain.
Hector knew deep within his heart that he might die that day, yet regardless he was willing to stand for what he believed in. This ability to take a stand, to keep to your word, is a mark of a true warrior. Anyone can swing a sword, anyone can throw a punch—this does not by default make someone a warrior. When everything is hanging in the balance and death is imminent, how many can truly stand for what they believe? Hector stood his ground, to not do this, would have meant losing his integrity—something Hector would never have allowed to happen to himself, because he was a true warrior to the end.
One must consider more than courage when evaluating the sharply contrasted characters of Achilles, King of the Myrmidons, and Hector, prince of Troy. Indeed, Hector displayed more courage than Achilles, but he was also the better man all around. Hector is the true hero of Homer’s Iliad.
While Achilles and Hector are both leaders of their people, Hector seems to lead with more maturity. His men respect him because he, in turn, is respectful to them. Hector is a man of action, he leads by doing. His men are inspired to fight because they see their captain doing the same. Hector has more self control, while at times Achilles behaves like a two-year-old who flies into a rage at the drop of a hat.
According to the Iliad, a true hero must have the following qualities:
- Fighting precision, which makes him stand out above others.
- High-quality leadership, which demands the allegiance and loyalty of his men.
- Bravery, which inspires others to do brave, not rash and childish acts of bravado.
- Good ethics and morals, which also inspired others to emulate him.
Hector was the true hero in the Iliad because he possessed all four qualities, whereas Achilles demonstrated only two: bravery and fighting precision.
Hector’s goal was the protection of his home and family during a war that was not of his own making, whereas Achilles’ main goal was to achieve glory and fame through rash bravery and through fighting prowess alone. Hector’s measured decisions and temperament in all his actions gives him the rightful honour that he deserved as the true hero of the Iliad.
The Turmoil of the Warrior
One thing that is not discussed often in the world of competitive fighting is the turmoil of the warrior. Hector was well aware of this. The Achilles shows us that the same man, Hector, that is able to be gentle with his children, and wife, is also able to be utterly vicious and merciless to his enemies.
A fine balance then emerges between the man and the warrior. In martial arts training to not head this balance, to not be conscious of it, to not recognise the intoxicating lure of the red road, and fight its addiction—what started as the search for the good man inside, through the experience of martial arts, then becomes your Achilles Heel. A deadly weakness in spite of your overall physical strength, which can then potentially lead to your downfall. Because in the end, to be a true warrior, is to finally transcend the fight inside.
As Edward Tick, in War and the Soul reminds us, that warrior is someone who is:
“assertive, active and energized. He or she is clear-minded, strategic, and alert. A warrior uses both body and mind in harmony and cooperation. A warrior is disciplined. A warrior assesses both his own skills and resources and those of his opponent. A warrior is a servant of civilization and its future—guiding, protecting, and passing on information and wisdom. A warrior is devoted to causes he judges to be more important than himself or any personal relationships or gain. Having confronted death, a warrior knows how precious life is and does not abuse or profane it.”