Few people in the United States are familiar with "the noble science of defence," as we sometimes refer to the art of fencing. And of those who are, most have only glimpsed it in theatrical form, in the movies or on television. Errol Flynn. Zorro. The Three Musketeers.
Some others have had a brief introduction to it via high school or college physical education classes, in which fencing was presented as a "sport," usually taught by an overworked, underpaid teacher, who was, at best, a well-meaning amateur with extremely limited knowledge or experience.
This being the case, before describing the benefits you may derive from the practice of fencing, I should do well to provide you with a bit of background so that you may better evaluate my assertions.
The emergence of fencing coincides with the decline of the feudal knight and the appearance of the bourgeois genleman. It is important to remember that fencing is emphatically not a military art. We do not concern ourselves with the use of the sword by soldiers in battle, but rather, we study its use as a civilian weapon for self-defence "on the street" as well as an arbiter of private disputes in the formal duel.
Today there are two quite distinct philosophies in fencing. First, there is what I refer to as the "olympic style" or the "sport" of fencing. This high-tech game bears only the most vestigial resemblance to an actual duel, being solely and exclusively concerned with fencing as an athletic contest.
"Classical Fencing," on the other hand, is the direct descendant of the 500 year evolution of the sword. In it, we strive to simulate as closely as possible a "frank encounter," that is, a real fight with sharp swords. Like classical music (according to the Harvard Dictionary of Music), classical fencing strives toward a particular ideal of "poise, balance, proportion, simplicity, formal discipline, craftmanship, and universal and objective (rather than idiosyncratic and subjective) expression," affording us a "standard or model of excellence that has enduring value."
Classical Fencers certainly play contests "in sport" to exercise their virtuosity, but this is the least part and the least important part of practice. Instead of placing the focus on "athletic contests," classical fencing emphasizes the practice of the sword as an art, a science and as recreation.
It can rightly be considered an art in that one strives to creatively execute highly specialized skills with an unusual degree of ability and in accordance with established aesthetic standards.
Fencing is a science, too, in that it concerns a systematized body of knowledge demonstrating the operation of general laws.
As a life-long recreation it provides the practitioner with relaxation, fellowship, enjoyment and a refreshment of body, mind and spirit.
With this understanding of what I mean when I refer to "fencing," let's return to the matter of its value.
On the simplest level are the physical benefits of practice: improved balance and coordination, and to some extent, strength, flexibility and muscular endurance. With our population increasingly overweight and underfit—the lucrative fitness industry notwithstanding—if this were the only thing fencing had to offer it might well be reason enough to practice it.
But fencing also produces a mens sana in addition to a corpore sano, improving concentration, sensitivity, responsiveness, decisiveness and overall mental acuity and flexibility. As undeniably valuable as these qualities are, there is yet more, at an even deeper, and perhaps more subtle level.
My teacher, Mr. Logan, sometimes referred to fencing as "applied axiology." For him it was the physical manifestation of chivalric philosophy. The more I practice, the more I find this to be true.
For example, it is a long-standing tradition in fencing that the person who "receives a touch from" (is theoretically wounded by) the adversary, must acknowledge it openly. Perhaps you're familiar with the call, "Touché!" which means "I have been touched!" A fencer never claims a touch against his/her opponent—or even inquires about one that has not been freely acknowledged. But if the adversary concedes a touch you do not believe was valid, you must decline credit for it by replying "Pas de touche," meaning "Not a touch."
Even though there are as many as five officials presiding over a fencing contest, fencers are still honour-bound to acknowledge all hits they receive. This, I believe, makes fencing quite unique in two ways, one very intriguing and the other very important.
The intriguing thing is that if fencing is only a "sport" (as some might insist) then it is the only one in which your opponent determines your score for you.
The important thing, however, is this: fencers acquire the habit of being honest, gracious and, above all, self-responsible. The presence of an official does not relieve the fencer of his/her obligation of honour. A fencer considers it elementary, in fact, that nothing and no one can absolve you from personal responsibility for your own actions.
In our present national climate in which, apparently, no one is responsible for anything, I think our citizens could stand a giant helping of this particular trait.
While a Classical Fencer places honour above all, even when it might cost him/her a touch, or bout or a tournament title, it is equally vital that fencing students come to appreciate the difference between "ego" and "honour." Ego says "Whatever I do is right." Honour says "Whatever is right, I will do." (You may recognize in this, as I do, the distinction between nationalism and patriotism.)
Another lesson fencers learn early on is to accept their adversary on his/her own merits, without bias or prejudice. In a fight, after all, it matters little whether your opponent is male or female, young or old, black or white, Christian or Muslim—Earthling or Martian, for that matter. All that really counts is how skillful that adversary is with a sword. It should be no surprise that fencers the world over are noted for a camaraderie that transcends nation, religion or race.
When crossing blades with a worthy adversary, there is a three-stage process a fencer learns to use to solve the living, breathing tactical and strategic puzzle facing him/her. It consists of gathering information, making a decision and taking action. Each action results in more information, upon which is based another decision for another action, which in turn brings more information and so on.
A fencing match, therefore, is nothing if not an exercise in critical thinking—carried on at a rather smart pace, too, I might add. The fencer soon develops a keen ability to sort out truth from appearances—and to do so under somewhat adverse and rapidly changing conditions. I consider this ability of immense importance off the fencing "strip" as well as on it.
For example, there's an old saw that says "the best defence is a good offence." Now, every accomplished fencer knows that's a lie. Your "offence," that is, your ability to strike your opponent, offers no guarantee that your opponent will not strike you at the same moment. It is only the "parry"—which cannot "wound" your opponent—that protects you. Offence and defence are not the same thing; they are opposite things. No fencer deserving of that appellation could ever be fooled by a term like "Defense Department," or any other similar Orwellian mind-twister.
But of all the lessons the sword can teach, there is one that is perhaps the most important of all and is, incidentally, the principle reason I teach fencing.
The premise of a fencing contest is "to touch without being touched" that is, to theoretically wound the opponent without yourself being wounded. After you've crossed blades with a few good opponents you unavoidably come to the realization that this task is decidedly difficult to accomplish. Not quite impossible, but very tricky indeed.
Combat, the fencer quickly finds out, is extremely dangerous business and even under the best circumstances, you are quite likely to be badly injured, if not well-killed. And doubly so if you are the aggressor. It is particularly unlikely to succeed with an attack if your opponent happens to be ready to receive it. Clearly, fighting is a very poor last resort, to be avoided if at all possible.
I think this is a lesson worth learning and I believe it is learned best in very practical terms, rather than purely as an intellectual or philosophical construct. My theory is that the more you understand about real fighting, the less inclined you will be to fight.