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Why a Fencing Philosophy?

Nick Evangelista

                    Fencer and sometime philosopher Rene Descartes.

                  Fencer and sometime philosopher Rene Descartes.

Why a Fencing Philosophy?

By Nick Evangelista


If, when you read the title of this essay, you find yourself saying, “Fencing philosophy? I don’t need no stinking fencing philosophy—I just hit the other guy!” you have a fencing philosophy. It’s not a good one, but it is a philosophy nonetheless.  Unfortunately, you will find this particular philosophical slant endemic in modern fencing circles. You can see it in the faces of grimacing “champions” as they bellow their bull-ape superiority at the world from the winning fencing strip. Since a philosophical view, in one form or another, is inescapable, having some lucid thoughts on the subject is perhaps a good idea.

A philosophy is a way of seeing the world, and how we see the world informs our interaction with it. Our philosophical perceptions become our road map, guiding our thoughts and behaviors throughout our daily endeavors. Sometimes we fashion our own philosophies, sometimes we adopt the prefabricated worldviews of established philosophers. Some people may only think of philosophers as people without real jobs, or ancient Greeks drinking poison to show their disdain for society, or men sitting around trying to decide whether or not they exist. “I think, therefore I am,” is a good example of this latter type of philosophical reflection.1 But whatever we may think of philosophers, in their quest for truth, they have helped shape the central beliefs of mankind for centuries.

But back to fencing and fencing philosophies.  

As a fencer, just what will having a well-defined philosophy do for you? Well, for one thing, a philosophy will determine both your approach to the fencing process you are following, and how you translate it on the piste. An I-want-to-learn-and-master-this-amazing-art-and-science-for-my-own-personal-growth approach will take you along different lines than, say, an anything-for-a-touch notion of fencing. Your philosophy will, like the tinted lenses in a pair of glasses, color your entire fencing perspective. It will influence all the choices you make throughout your fencing life, everything from what school of thought you follow (i.e.:  Italian, French, or Sport), to your avoidance or worship of the electric scoring box, to sportsmanship and the reliance of skill or cheating and the use of performance enhancing drugs. It will determine how deep or shallow your understanding of the game will be, the level of your attained skill, your personal behavior on the fencing strip, how you handle winning and losing, the length of your tenure in fencing, and how others see you as an athlete. Later, if you become a coach or fencing master, it will determine how many students you help, or how many you turn into raging monsters.  All this from your worldview.

When I began fencing many years ago, my thoughts went no further than I wanted to learn to fence. By that, I mean fence well. That was my only goal.  I was in awe of fencing. To me, it was other-worldly in a magical way. The day I first stumbled across fencing equipment in a Hollywood sporting goods store, I felt like I’d discovered a hidden treasure. I wanted to learn to fence no matter how long it took, or what obstacles or unpleasantness I might encounter along the way. I didn’t set out to win medals, or to become a fencing teacher, or to write books about fencing. These things simply happened. Like an excellent touch, they flowed naturally out of a specific mindset, how I saw fencing. More than anything else, my love of fencing.  I am sure if I had tried to aggressively force the issue and push my way to these ends, I wouldn’t be discussing this subject with you right now. I would have failed, because that is not me, or how I see the world. And in nearly forty-six years, my feelings about fencing have changed very little. I take fencing seriously, and I very much respect fencing. This is at the core of my fencing philosophy. But, in my later years, I also regard fencing as great fun. I enjoy fencing for its multitude of wondrous possibilities. I see it as an art to continually master, a science to explore and re-explore, and, the older I get, as a fountain of youth.

You might look at the above, and say, “Well, forget him. He’s just a classical fencer.” And you know something? You’d be wrong. Please do not confuse what I do with classical fencing. I do not talk like Cyrano de Bergerac or pose like a musketeer. I do not engage in ceremonial artifice that has no meaning in the present. And I do not accept the classical label.  I could not spend 45 years of my life walking around with my nose in the air, like I had Domenico Angelo, full grown, shoved up my backside.  I fence hard. I teach my students to fence hard. Also, do not imagine I am some sort of hybrid sportie. There’s no running, leaping, or contorting in my fencing room.  I teach a thinking game, a controlled game, a practical game, all of which is based on conventional fencing wisdom. However, if you’re not giving it one hundred percent, it’s not fencing. We don’t uses a scoring box, because I want my students to rely on skill rather than artificial crutches to produce discernible touches. To my way of thinking, if you are on the fencing strip, weapon in hand, shouldn’t you know what’s going on? Shouldn’t your opponent know? My goal has always been to create fencers who are aware, fencers who are on purpose.  This is woven into my philosophy as a teacher. And not strangely, when brains are exercised, they excel at defining the moment.  Sometimes mistakes are made, but we accept that in the name of being human. It’s a philosophy that places the responsibility of winning and losing on the shoulders of the individual fencer.2

Over my years in fencing, I have known a zillion fencers, all of whom have had their own distinct philosophies about the nature of fencing, some full of agreeable self-awareness, some not so much, expressed more as primal urges.  The best are always joy to bout with. They are supportive to beginners, and inspiring in both their skill and demeanor. Their philosophy always seems to be: fencing for the sake of fencing. The other type of fencer is another story. As I grew up in fencing I encountered them as visitors to my teacher’s school, and as opponents at tournaments.  There were those for whom fencing was nothing more than a dodge or an ego trip, a way to dominate and control situations and people in a world where they otherwise may have had no real power. This includes both fencers and masters. Others were difficult when it came to the realities of competing: some were angry and argumentative, some fearful and complaining, all of them attempting to substitute the burden of emotional blackmail for real skill. There were cheaters and bullies, and those who never gave the dynamics of fencing a single thought, or even, in their ignorance, realized there was a whole fencing world to be perceived and employed beyond the limited reactive abilities they possessed.

All of these individuals were off-kilter with their doubtlessly unconscious philosophies. I don’t believe one of them enjoyed fencing for its own sake. All I ever saw in their actions was a profound lack of respect for fencing. I never cared to know any of them beyond the occasional bout, but I’d venture a guess that their view of life was as dim as their relationship to fencing. I don’t think any of these fencers had any concept of fencing tradition, history, or manners. Generally, they never lost a bout, because they always had an excuse for their poor performance.3

Today, the lack of philosophical grounding is even more pronounced. One might call it rampant.  Many fencers ignore saluting, refuse to shake hands, argue over touches, display aggressive behavior to judges in an attempt to influence calls, throw tantrums, and generally engage in all sorts of unorthodox nonsense to make a touch. I have the feeling that, to their way of thinking, fencing did not, in fact, exist before they chose to honor it with their presence, and so everything is fair game for their inspirational interludes. I see this sad behavior in many of the present generation of kid fencers.4

My students come to me with questions about unusual fencing they see on the internet.  They say, “What is this? What is that?” I tell them, “If it doesn’t have a name, don’t touch it.” To my way of thinking, if you respect fencing, you take the time to learn to fence to the very best of your ability. This makes you the best fencer you can possibly be. That has been the goal among the serious of all disciplines for centuries.

Without a real philosophy, fencing simply descends into the single-minded acquisition of the designated meaningless “somethings” before somebody else gets them first, because that, according to modern sensibilities, is what winning is about. To get more or the most is an established mantra of our time.  The question is, for today’s fencer, do you want to learn to really fence or count beans?  The philosophically-friendly mind says, learn to fence well, and the touches will take care of themselves. Quality leads to quantity.  A sound philosophy, then, provides a positive point of reference.

In the end, having a healthy philosophical sense provides the fencer with all the tools he or she needs to form a foundation for a lasting and satisfying attachment to fencing, allowing anyone to weigh and judge and explain those foreign or questionable things that may be pushed on them by others. Philosophy is not consensus, nor is it the loudest, most insistent voice; but it can provide a successful buttress against oppressive, overwhelming opposition. Knowing where you stands in a storm gives anyone the ability to find firm, reliable footing. Today’s traditionally-minded fencer needs that.


1            Interestingly, Rene Descartes, the Frenchman who uttered those famous words during the 17th Century, also fenced in his youth. He once wrote a friend, confessing that he was enjoying fencing so much, he was neglecting his studies. By the way, I have taken Descartes’s aforementioned statement, and refashioned it for my fencing students, to remind them of one of fencing’s great necessities: “I parry, therefore I am—still.” Philosophies can also be practical, as well as speculative And just so you know, this reworking of Decartes is mine, and it is copyrighted. © Sorry! If you want to make T-shirts, you have to pay me.

2            Interestingly, the fencing world doesn’t seem to know who I am. Historical fencers call me a sport fencer, sport fencers call me a classical fencer, and classical fencers call me a modernist. I call myself a traditionalist, because, in my fencing philosophy, I am driven by traditional human values.

3            The great fencer Aldo Nadi once said, “The fencing strip is the mirror of the soul. Unerringly, it portrays the character of the individual."

4            The Federation Internationale d’Escrime (FIE), the world organization governing fencing, has had meetings to discuss the breakdown of etiquette in modern fencing. This from the minutes of the International Fencing Federation 86th Ordinary Congress Madrid, Spain, 24 and 25 November 2007: The President of the FIE, René Roch: “…..We have got used to not saluting at all, and we have since been able to make the fencers salute. If we also ask them on top of that to place themselves on guard in the middle of the piste before saluting, it is going to be difficult. We will succeed, but it will be a long process. It is not something that will happen overnight as old habits die hard…..” Nancy Anderson (USA): “Mr. President, I understand why we want there to be order in our sport, but I think the emotion, the joy from winning and to be able to express emotions, we do not leave this expression (sic) . Sometimes, with the television, they want to see the joy of the winner and the sadness of the loser. With this situation, we will lose some of these expressions….I believe that we must not forget that it is a sport; there is a winner and a loser, and it is important to see their emotions…..”René Roch: “We are not going to discuss this here. We have different positions regarding ethics. I understand you do not have the same ethics as others. I do not have the same ones either…..” The FIE also has an ongoing concern with the use of performance enhancing drugs.