Systema, when taken seriously, becomes an ethical practice. Ethical because it relates to one’s ethos, that is, to the elements of your character which determine action; and a practice because it is something that you work at, like a skill.
In a strange way it is an ethical practice similar to, even if outwardly very different from, that of René Descartes. Descartes, as you may recall, is famous in the history of philosophy and ideas for his cogito, ‘I think therefore I am.’ Back in the day, prior to the time when mathematics was considered a respectable art, Descartes and some of his contemporaries argued for its value as a means of training the mind’s attention on objects of the intellect. Mathematics, particularly geometry, taught one how to form ‘clear and distinct’ ideas that would lead one to truth and thus goodness.
The problem with mathematics in Descartes’ era, in his opinion, was that its insights had either been acquired by chance or according to the whims of genius. University students looked to past techniques, believing them to be the essence of mathematics rather than mere instantiations of past achievements. These students and their teachers, argued Descartes, learned nothing of their own and thus knew little of value.
Something similar exists in the world of martial arts. Students and their teachers practice techniques born of chance and genius, mistaking these admittedly powerful and effective tools as the essence of martial arts. Systema, although I would never consider it to be as significant or revolutionary as the philosophy of Descartes, views the techniques of traditional martial arts as epiphenomena of the practice of martial arts, as things that can be found at the surface of a deeper practice.
Descartes held that only a systematic approach to mathematics, in which one learned how to recognize the interdependence of steps in a formal mathematical proof, could give a practitioner an intuition about mathematics generally. Geometry offered a powerful training in the development of this intuition, providing geometrical acts that would teach one how to act geometrically, so to speak.
Systema likewise treats the acts of martial arts not as an end but as a means of learning to act like a martial artist. We learn to focus our mind’s attention on the objects of the body, particularly our emotional states and tensions. Only through the ethical practices of breathing, relaxation, movement, and conflict can we come to understand the interdependence of our actions and behaviours, developing within us an intuition towards bodies generally.
One virtue that Descartes believed would be acquired through acting geometrically would be ‘generosity.’ Having learned to perceive ‘clear and distinct’ ideas, one would—through his Meditations—be led to see the truth of the self and of God’s necessary existence. As such, like the Jesuits among whom Descartes lived and practiced, the mathematically-trained philosopher would see that nothing belonged to man beyond his or her own will. Such a philosopher would be inclined to use their will only to pursue the best, most worthy goals. This in turn would lead to generosity, the act of treating others well.
The practice of Systema-acts, in their own way, like Descartes’ geometry, seeks to produce in us the virtue of generosity. I cannot say that I have learned it. I probably never will. But I do see generosity in some of my fellow students and in my teacher. Unlike me, they appear to be willing to allow the formation of ‘clear and distinct’ ideas regarding the body to lead them toward a belief in either the existence and providence of God or at least toward a belief in the necessity of treating others well. You can only practice healing yourself and others for so long before it starts to soften you.
I do not write this either to disparage my fellow travelers or to demean myself. I commend their attitudes and skills, which are greater than my own, even as I—for my own reasons—refuse to join them. My metaphysical commitments are incompatible with those of my beloved art. This is neither good nor bad. There are lots of different ways to come to virtue in this world, lots of ethical practices. Systema’s are not unique, but they are powerful and worth having in your life.