The Warrior’s Path: Becoming the Competent Man

"Specialization is a spiritual disease — a contagious virus of the personality that is hard to escape from."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

In storytelling, the "competent man" is a stock character who has sufficient knowledge and abilities in a wide range of areas. He (or she) is good at everything and essential in any situation — the one we call when are in trouble. In Time Enough for Love, Robert A. Heinlein summarizes the competent man:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

In other words, the competent man is Bruce Wayne/ Batman. Though lacking in superpowers, Wayne embodies the full capacity of what a human being can be (which makes him formidable to even the superpowered). He not only knows it all but can do it all — making him the ultimate problem solver. Intelligent yet physically fierce — equal parts warrior and scholar — giving confidence to anyone he is near, which is why he is always needed.

And that is competence; it is not only the capacity to live but to live a fulfilling life. Those with less than enriching lives do not live lives of competence but, rather, lives of fragmentation. Gary lives one part, Sally another, and Fred another, until each one of them specializes in one insignificant part of a life that was meant to be whole — expendable and replaceable. This is what has been sold to us, not for our benefit but for the benefit of efficiency. Not the efficient path for happiness, but one for profit — and not to be shared amongst ourselves, it is only for the profiteers. This guy makes cogs, this other guy makes sprockets, everybody does their part, and we have industry. Everyone becomes organic machines — competence becomes mediocrity, and excellence becomes specificity.

Horizons should be broad, should they not? A fragmented life is lived and wasted in fragments: "This small fragment is great, but is it worth enduring the rest?"

In On the Warrior’s Path: Philosophy, Fighting, and Martial Arts Mythology, Daniele Bolelli kicks specificity's teeth in and makes a case that warriorship is competence:

An unenlightened social tendency pushes us to become specialized in one field, or at most two fields, and forget about the rest of the world. There are brilliant scientists who don’t know how to massage a beautiful woman; artists who can’t run in the mountains; businessmen who don’t have any idea about how to play with kids; housewives who are unable to shoot with a bow and arrows. Restricting our horizons is encouraged in order to seek perfect efficiency in only one activity, avoid dispersing our energies, and dedicate ourselves to a well-defined career. This is how experts are born and life dies. These goals, in fact, are fitting for an assembly line, not for human beings. Specialization is a spiritual disease — a contagious virus of the personality that is hard to escape from. It forces us to limit the range of our choices and vivisect our global vision to the point where even the most ecstatic experiences lose life and magic; it’s like killing a splendid animal only to place it in a museum.

We live in a mighty cosmopolitan, yet for the ancient Greeks "cosmopolitan" meant "citizen of the cosmos" — not citizen of the cubicle, citizen of a 10-block radius, or citizen only to a specific group. The method, or "methodos" in ancient Greek, meant "way of doing anything." In the East, we would simply call this the Way — a universal way of being. In Western fiction, this is competence.

To Bolelli, these are different conjurings for warrior, one who has mastered it all. He writes:

Only in the synthesis of the most diverse fields of knowledge does life reveal its full intensity. Today, in a time of globalization and collapse of national identities, this is as true as ever. The age of specialization is over. Mixing together aspects of life that have apparently little to do with each other will be the essential talent of the twenty-first century.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe fell into what historians call the Dark Ages. It was a time of disorder, famine, disease, and informational darkness. The Roman pipeline for knowledge and education was no longer. The Dark Ages lasted for nearly a thousand years. Then out of the night came the dawning of the Renaissance — the time of competency and polymaths, that a human can and should be multidisciplined. A human should be developed and groomed. Not only in areas of intellectual accomplishment but also the artistic, social, and physical — to work as well with their hands as they did with their minds. This became the necessary foundation for adventurers and explorers in the Age of Discovery, eventually culminating into the Age of Enlightenment — that humans were destined for greater things and their potential was untapped.

To develop more citizens of the cosmos, universities were instituted. A place to gain universal knowledge, to become universally competent. Universities beget universal people. To further expand the ideals of humanism came the humanities, to advance the limits of what we can accomplish and enjoy as human beings. The humanities create better human beings. (These names have remained intact but their intents have not.) The conclusion at the time was that, with technological innovations, we become free to spend our leisure in self-cultivation.

Then came the Industrial Revolution. Just as the fall of Rome was also the rise of the barbarians, the rise of industry was the fall of the Renaissance (and with it, the Renaissance man). The aim was no longer enlightenment and humanism (the two major movements of the time) but, rather, yield of goods. The aim was no longer to improve ourselves but to improve goods. And to get humans to make cheap goods meant assembly lines where each worker was given one singular task. We went from humans to workers. The ripple effect of that change meant a changing in our thinking — that we should only live to do one task, no longer believing we have broad horizons, but that we are inherently limited to do and only be good at one thing. And just as capitalism rose along with the stock market, so did derivatives. And tasks? They were divided again and again, into smaller and smaller parts, reduced and reduced. Until one day, we were no longer a whole human being, but secular independent parts. (No different from a cow divided by a butcher.) Our minds separated from our brains, our brains separated from our bodies. Body parts separated from each other; to love one piece but to hate another, as if they were not just different names for the same whole.

We want to love ourselves while hating our bodies. But to be adversarial with your body is no different than being adversarial with yourself. A living contradiction, suffering from dissonance, never feeling true or real. What am I? Do I exist? Why do I exist? What is my one purpose? What does it matter?

In the old world, physicality was a given. Of course, you were physical first, it's the bare minimum, then you built everything else up to match your physical depth. We initially start out as evolutionary bodies, then we grow. Now, what we considered a default has been upended. To be sickly, to separate the body from the mind has no evolutionary function, yet that is the current trajectory for this age.

The body has been reduced to a suit our mind wears. Philosophers of the previous ages posited that existence is experience. You are because you think and feel. Physical experience is empiricism, and empiricism is knowledge. To abandon our ability to experience can only divorce us from natural reality. (History moves in cycles, the last Dark Ages lasted from the 6th to 14th century, how long will this one last? Only future historians can know. No one knows they are in the Dark Ages — most of Europe took several centuries to figure out Rome had fallen. And what of the "Jack of all trades, master of none"? A derogatory term coined during the early Renaissance when too many people were trying to get good at too many things — when expectations were at their highest. Now we have the opposite problem.)

Bolelli writes:

The body is not a product. It is an experience.

The reason to improve the body is to improve experience, not just to think or see but to do — yet if we spend all of our time distracting the mind or working on the appearance of our "bodysuits," when will we experience? And if we do, how will we be present in our experience if all we are worrying about is how it looks? "It" being a secular suit, a body we consider outside of ourselves — reduced to a specific use, as an accessory for vanity and status, not as part and parcel of our whole being. Then the chase to improve this "product" is ultimately futile, because what we are waiting for is to experience the bliss of living, and it will never come. Not unless we change:

It is time for an athletic philosophy: a philosophy forged through muscles and heart; a philosophy born out of the union of body and mind, of pragmatism and utopia, of sweet sensitivity and a warrior’s determination.

There is an alternate path for our lives; one Bolelli calls the warrior's path — a path to competency. A human being is a unique and wondrous animal because it can self-learn. School and work have their limits to educate; you, however, have no such limits. You are the multitudes; your purposes are many.

Learning doesn't stop because we decide that we are done: it stops because we forget that we have the ability to learn on our own. Our limits are not ones placed by others or even by ourselves, our limits are determined by how much we have forgotten we can do. So it does not occur to us that we are capable of more. Then, what enriching lives we still have ahead of us.

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