About seven or eight years ago, I crossed On the Warrior’s Path: Philosophy, Fighting, and Martial Arts Mythology by Daniele Bolelli in a bookstore and was surprised to recognise the author’s name as one of my professors from college. Considering how fond I had been of him and his [completely different topic than the book] class, I immediately picked it up. I absolutely loved the book, and have gone on to buy copies for several friends. Since the second edition was released in recent years, I thought it deserved a re-read and a look here.
I always struggle with how to describe the book to people. Calling it a “martial arts philosophy” book is probably the most accurate, but that label probably only appeals to a very tiny demographic, while this book is truly for everyone. It is a philosophy book but it’s not the kind of airy, mental masturbation that the genre can lend itself to, and the philosophy can be extrapolated to so much more than just the martials arts. I suppose one could even call it a “self improvement” book, but that description makes me want to stick my head in a blender. It’s wise but never condescending. It’s silly and funny, but it’s also practical. It is chock full of eclectic references to everything from Nietzsche to sports to Star Wars. It is accessible but not at the sacrifice of intelligence. It may be impossible to summarise everything it encompasses, but here is my best shot:
At its core, the book is about the warrior archetype. Not just about the ubiquitous warriors from tribal cultures and feudal societies, but also those metaphorical warriors who exhibit the same fiery spirit and fearless attitude. Bolelli argues that this isn’t just some abstract mythos to muse over or read about in books. The samurai you see fighting in the movies more than thrilling entertainment; he’s a hyperbolic manifestation of something that is absolutely critical to human experience. The book is not saying we should be picking up swords and fighting each other, but that the mythology of the warrior has something to offer us, something valuable that transcends culture and time and class and career and gender. There is a reason those martial arts movies speak to us, and it isn’t because we find the plot engaging, it’s because there is something about that archetypal figure that speaks to our souls.
Bolelli looks to martial arts as one means to cultivate a personal warrior spirit. Although it may not always manifest that way in reality, martial arts has for centuries encouraged the essential harmony of body and mind, physical and mental. There is a river of philosophical introspection and shaping one’s character at the foundation of martial arts. But just as an academic who spends too much time divorced from reality in his studies [oops!], this abstract philosophy isn’t enough by itself. Shaping the mind is nothing if you ignore the body. Martial arts has the ability to take that deep insight and ground it in the physical, and therein lies its uniqueness. However, the book doesn’t argue this is the only way to do this (in this respect, the book perhaps is a bit more catered to martial artists since they only need to apply the insight to something they are already involved in).
If the first half of the book is extrapolating the warrior mythology into our lives, the second half — save for one personal chapter — is more about injecting it into martial arts . I suppose that sounds unusual, since you might think that it’s already a given there, but it’s not. Bolelli discusses the different warrior archetypes we find in mythology and media, from the honourbound Samurai to the lawless mercenary, and the strengths they represent and the flaws they must fight. The book is critical of the status of martial arts today and the rigidity of many classic schools of fighting. He evaluates the paradigm shift brought on by things like UFC, MMA, or Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do that have started a revolution to allow martial arts to grow and become more dynamic by applying the philosophy of: “take what works, leave what doesn’t.” For those readers who are unfamiliar with martial arts, don’t feel intimidated. It does not ever assume knowledge and there is even an entire chapter outlining most of the different schools and styles.
This second half is a little more structured, objective, with more concrete information than the early part of the book. It’s also a little disjointed; I believe the latter half was actually previously published as separate Italian publication(s), and was translated and worked into this book for English readers. Although the content is still appropriate and a relevant pairing for the first half, and Bolelli is able to tie it into the overall theme, the writing style is a little less relaxed, and is littered with citations that you didn’t previously see a lot of, so you can definitely feel the transition between halves. I admit to have glanced at other reviews, and some people don’t like the second half. I did. It’s good, just different.
The heart of the book is a lesson about the way we approach our lives. The book is very Taoist, but not in a preachy way (can a Taoist even be preachy?) and a bit Zen Buddhist. It emphasises the importance of balance. It’s about forging our paths bravely, being in charge of our destiny without being totally in control, loving peace but charging fearlessly into battle when required. It’s about living fully: don’t be an athlete that can’t lose herself in a book, and don’t be an scholar that simply thinks of their body as transportation for their brain. A housewife can be a warrior, a soldier can set aside his rifle and cradle a baby, a fighter can write poetry.
If you’re into martial arts and haven’t read this, you should pick it up immediately. But don’t be dissuaded if philosophy isn’t your thing, or even if you have no martial arts background (I don’t): this book can be applicable and insightful to anyone. Our lives are what we make of them, and we owe it to ourselves to instill power and meaning into the experience.