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Finding The Truth In Violence: A Review of Matt Thornton’s ‘The Gift of Violence.’

With a title like, “The Gift of Violence,” Matt Thornton’s first book opens itself to a host of expectation. One thing I did not expect was a chapter exploring the nature of truth and its relation to violence. This chapter, called “The Search For Truth,”  jumps between examining truth, how that the truth applies itself to martial arts theory, and martial arts actual. Bringing me to my question, “why examine the nature of truth in a book about violence?”

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Don’t get me wrong, I love a good search for meaning and an unflinching gaze into the “capital T” (truth), but what does it have to do with “capital V” (violence)?

He draws his conclusions (as he does in most of the rest of his book) by detailing his own personal experiences and then backing them up with hard, provable data. The way Matt Thornton recounts his life and frames it within the broader context of his subject matter lends his work a much needed gravitas, and keeps it from falling into the land of boring stat recitation.


Thornton writes, “Let’s consider the nonfunctional martial arts, such as Aikido. If the Aikido master is sincere with himself and others about his intentions, and those intentions revolve around maintaining a cultural tradition, getting exercise, or performing a two-person dance, then the activity of Aikido may be a very healthy thing for him.  If, the Aikido master has the intention to learn functional self-defense, whether that intention is held privately or proclaimed publicly, then the activity of Aikido becomes something that moves him farther from his objective. In both cases, the man is engaging in conditions designed to bring about an outcome. However, when those conditions don’t actually match the actions required to achieve that outcome in the world of noncooperating opponents, the activity itself can become deleterious to the goal. It becomes inauthentic. It becomes unhealthy.”

He also draws, a not at all spurious connection, between religion and the martial arts. Both are activities that can bring the best out in people, or can be instruments of damage from con-men and hucksters. Thornton highlights how misuse of the tools that make both activities appealing can erode the greater truth both need to be effective. To do this, Thornton engages in the lofty goal of defining truth, and he does so with the acuteness of a man who has spent a lifetime searching for objective truth. To Matt, this exercise is as well practiced as a perfect scissor sweep. He uses examples of logic and physics.

Truth and Martial Arts

The search for truth and the search for the perfectly effective martial art are inextricably linked. This is because they are the same thing. As beautiful as a kata can be, it is only a cultural dance, all art and no martial. For a martial art to be true, it has to be tested against a resisting opponent. While many philosophical and postmodern exercises in the relativity of truth cannot be tested, martial arts must be.

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Here is where a good sceptic would question, “why does this matter?” Thornton writes, “Because when it comes to self-defense, if your beliefs about reality don’t correspond to reality, the end result will be painful at best or fatal at worst.” 

In the earlier quoted paragraph, Thornton highlights how if a martial art is used for a good workout or a cultural tradition, good on the practitioner, but the person practicing has to be honest about that martial art. The conditional statement that Thornton puts forward is as follows; IF the martial art can be considered for self-defense, THEN the martial art must be tested against a live and resisting opponent. If that martial art is tested against people going along with the guru’s flamboyant moves, offering no feedback, then it can be many things, but effective for self-defense isn’t one of them.


If I haven’t shown my bias already, let me do so now.

Matt Thornton’s philosophy of “Aliveness” is what attracted me to BJJ. As someone who has been a student of his, I consider it a gift that he outlined and expanded upon his philosophies and put them in a book that I can describe as dense and insightful. It’s full of information without feeling weighted down by its own self-awareness or touchy subject matter. It’s personal without feeling fluffy. Probably best of all, it dispels the “woo-woo” and the “boy-speak” while giving us readers something to replace it with – truth.

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