jack of all trades?


Japanese helm and armor, from Metropolitan Mus...
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I just read this passage from the Hagakure:

There are many people who, by being attached to a martial art and taking apprentices, believe that they have arrived at the full stature of a warrior. But it is a regrettable thing to put forth much effort and in the end become an “artist.” In artistic technique it is good to learn to the extent that you will not be lacking. In general, a person who is versatile in many things is considered to be vulgar and to have only a broad knowledge of matters of importance.

The way I read it, Yamamoto Tsunetomo was saying that some people look at teaching, practicing or dedicating themselves in a martial art as the pinnacle of “warriorship” but that becoming an “artist” and being a “warrior” are two different things.

He furthermore says that when learning “artistic technique” it is good to learn only enough to be proficient, but he says that only having a broad knowledge of matters of importance is “vulgar”.

I am a bit confused by this passage. The first part, where he says that it would be “regrettable” to become an artist, I think I understand. It seems to me that he is saying “look..a warrior USES martial arts to accomplish his goals…martial arts do not define the warrior. Don’t get so involved in practicing the martial arts that you forget what your job is.”

I tend to agree with that sentiment. I have stated repeatedly in my writings here that I think that simply teaching or training in a martial art doesnt place you in the “warrior class“. If you want to BE a warrior, you have to get out there and put your ass on the line FOR something. Enlist, become a Fireman, an EMT, a cop, join the Peace Corps…get out there and DO something. Even if you have no martial arts experience I believe that you are closer to being a “warrior” than someone who goes to the corner dojo twice a week.

The people who hone their martial skills, the citizens who attend every firearms school from Blackwater to Gunsite…they are training in the “warrior arts” or perhaps trying to live “AS a warrior”, which is perfectly fine and honorable. Many of them are simply enjoying a hobby, some are preparing themselves to be self-sufficient in defensive skills, and myrid other legitimate reasons. Then there are some who think that practicing the skills of the warrior somehow “makes” them a warrior, but paying to learn all the skills and techniques of a Navy SEAL isnt the “same as” BEING a Navy SEAL.

So I agree…being an “artist” and being a “warrior” are different things. Then again, perhaps I am simply interpreting this writing to match my opinion because Tsunetomo goes on to say:

In artistic technique it is good to learn to the extent that you will not be lacking. In general, a person who is versatile in many things is considered to be vulgar and to have only a broad knowledge of matters of importance.

I can read the first part  in two ways. Either he is saying; “when you are an Artist you can “get away with” learning enough so as to not be lacking”. Or he is saying; “when you are a warrior who is learning an artistic technique it is best to not waste your time honing it too much to the detriment of other skills”.

I think that the last sentence tends to support the first interpretation. As if the writer is saying “well..if you are an Artist then learning enough to get by in many skills is all well and good, but being a generalist is vulgar.”

That tends to run contrary to my understanding of what “artist” means though. I would think that the “artist” would be concerned with refining and honing every minutiae of technique, while the warrior has many skills he/she needs to do their job.

Then again perhaps the authors “artist” was different than our modern interpretation of the term. Maybe he was saying; “Martial Artists are interested in learning anything and everything to do with their art so they tend to learn just enough to be skillful in those many things. The Warrior should not worry about gaining many mediocre skills, he should focus on becoming expert at his necessary skills (i.e. swordsmanship, archery, horesmanship etc.).”

To make a modern military analogy, this is like saying a “military artist” would be someone who tries to learn about everything; artillery, airborne operations, naval operations, intelligence, infantry tactics, armor etc. As such the “military artist” gains a broad but shallow knowledge of all these skills. Its as if Tsunetomo is saying “dont be a Military Artist…focus on your infantry skills. You may not know squat about Tank Warfare but you will be an Infantry expert.”

I wish that Tsunetomo was around so I could ask him to clarify. Does anybody else have an interpretation of this passage that differs from mine?

Any way you interpret it, this passage raises some interesting thoughts about the relationship between your “mission” and your training goals.

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7 thoughts on “jack of all trades?”

  1. I was perplexed when I read this too. My impression is that the Japanese term that is used probably doesn’t translate too well.

    Maybe “artist” in this sense means someone who is more concerned about the “look” of the technique more than the techniques usefulness.

  2. Vulgar–one definition–“lacking refinement or cultivation of taste”.

    In other words, I think:
    “In artistic technique, it is good to learn to the extent you will be lacking” means “get the good out of the techniques so that you have tools in real-life situations” without necessarily having perfect technique (as New Art of War says) or adhering to one discipline of fighting.

    Perhaps I am wrong about this: if I only employ one discipline on the field, it might be easier for my opponent to predict my next move, thereby making me artistically correct but very wounded. Therefore, I choose not to be an artist and perfectly loyal to one type of training/dojo style, but go schlepping around for other skills, unhonored by the experts and constantly proving myself to new academies.

    “A person who is versatile in many things is considered vulgar” relates to a ceremonious culture or, in our day, an ivory tower one. All generalists in such a culture are robbed of some of the dignity that should be theirs. For a police officer or our armed forces, I think that’s a kind of warning that civilians don’t/can’t get what they do and are often horrified by it–also maybe that the most skilled fighters do not end up in positions requiring approval of others. So it could be considered a warning. But mostly I think it relates to academic martial culture versus actual fighting as suggested above.

    How very fascinating a post. I hope I have contributed. I am enjoying your site.

  3. Another quote on this topic can be found in the Hagakure:

    “The saying, “The arts aid the body,” is for samurai of other regions. For samurai of the Nabeshima clan the arts bring ruin to the body. In all cases, the person who practices an art is an artist, not a samurai, and one should have the intention of being called a samurai. When one has the conviction that even the slightest artful ability is harmful to the samurai, all the arts become useful to him. One should understand this sort of thing.”

  4. Essentially, I take this whole passage to mean:

    Don’t get caught up in ONE system or ‘Art’ and become an “Artist” but train to a level of proficiency that is effective/practical and USEFUL in a variety of arts. A VULGAR person will hop from one ‘Art’ to another and become an “expert” only in a wide variety of “ARTS” but will not be effective because his mind is not set on the goal of USEFULNESS and only set on “ARTFULNESS”

    I equate this to the belt hounds today who have so many different black belts in so many different (and VERY different arts) and yet have NEVER put any time into using that level of skill/strenght/courage/toughness to serve others as a “Warrior” (even if it’s as a Volunteer Firefighter or something that requires guts but may not require ‘combat’).

    Also reminds me of the view of the “Armchair warrior” or the “Academic” who has never done anything but sift through the information and never done the deed, never ‘taken up the sword (or rifle)’ so to speak – yet feels free to critique and ‘judge’ the actions of warriors/servicemen/women who do the job for real. Playing airsoft games or paintball won’t make you a SpecOp Ninja basically.

  5. Remember too, that, within the old Japanese cultural sense, “Art” was a high level of mastery and precision that ALSO functioned in some way for the whole/community. Look at sense of ‘art’ in the craftsmanship of a Tsuba or even a modern Japanese manhole cover (yes, the manhole cover is probably stamped out in a factory, but the fact that they are designed in a much more stylish fashion is the point). Compare the aesthetic impression when you look at a Mac/Apple product vs. most PC based technology. Jobs was a huge fan of Zen stuff too so the sleek/elegant simplicity of design that was practical AND functional was inspired by the “Art” in Japanese culture.

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