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The forgotten secret of the ancient Greeks

By Dave Smith - posted Tuesday, 8 November 2005

Four of the boys at training were preparing themselves for their first fight at our Christians v Lions promotion, scheduled for three weeks hence. All of these lads are boxers.

Three of those four - Joel, Daniel and young Dave - are friends, finishing their last year of school together. They are a great example of how guys from different ethnic backgrounds (Australian, Latin American, and Lebanese, respectively) can still be the best of mates. The fourth guy, Louis, is an enormous Islander. I’m not sure whether he’s Tongan or from the Cook Islands, but he’s a gentle giant. He reminds me of Mahenda, a regular here at the Youth Centre. They’re both big, black and burly, but with gentle hearts. Louis has a few years on the other boys. He’s a natural in the ring, and plays the role of the older brother very well indeed.

These four boys are the cream of our crop in the fight club at the moment. They are all capable pugilists. But more than that, they are each a good embodiment of what our club is on about - courage, integrity, self-discipline and teamwork. This isn’t to say that none of them have ever been troublemakers. Indeed, I had a court appearance coming up with one of the boys, scheduled for shortly after his fight: he was up on quite serious charges. Even so, I’ve seen nothing but positive growth since he joined the club, and I hoped for positive results both in his fight and in his court case.


What is it that makes fight training such a powerful tool in the moulding of young lives? There was a time when I thought of fighting as just another form of sport. I have, however, come to believe that fight training taps into something deep in the male psyche, in a way that no other sport does.

When I used to talk to my old girls in the church about the problems we had with our young people, they often said, “What we need is another war”. I always thought that was a terrible thing to say - a war is the last thing that anybody wants. And of course they didn’t really want a war. They had just experienced the benefit of being part of a community that had learnt to pull together through difficult times. And they had seen the positive effect soldiering could have on the lives of young men.

I believe men were made to fight. It’s part of our genetic makeup. We may have managed to emerge from the jungle but there’s still a bit of the jungle in each of us. Pugilistic activity keys right in to those ancient impulses, releasing the wild man within.

This theory isn’t original to me of course. It’s part of the fabric of the Bible, there behind every great warrior-king who showed himself to be a “mighty man of God” in battle, and behind Jacob, who went toe-to-toe with God himself and yet lived to talk about it (Genesis 32). These were men who knew how to fight and pray, and bleed and serve.

For a more philosophical exposition on the significance of fighting, we need look no further than Plato’s Republic. For those who haven’t read it, Socrates explores the concept of justice through examining both the just society and the just individual, and delineates their common elements.

On the societal level he notes that a just community is made up of a number of vital components parts - rulers who govern, workers who labour, and an army that functions to protect them both. In the individual he finds a similar configuration - the mind that governs the body, the limbs that do the work, and themos (often translated as “temper” or “aggression”) which plays a parallel role in protecting the individual. In the Republic justice is achieved by having all of the component parts (in either individual or society) being present and working together properly.


In the wisdom of the ancient Greeks then, themos is the vital third component in the human constitution, along with the mind and the body. Without themos, no individual is complete, and at a social level, no society will ever achieve a true state of justice.

It is my opinion that one of the negative legacies of feminism in Western culture has been an attempt to deny themos, which seems to be more strongly present in men than in women. This has been for the most understandable of reasons - because of the excesses of male violence. But perhaps it’s time that we realised that trying to eliminate themos from society altogether is like trying to eliminate spiders and snakes because we find them distasteful. We soon discover that the created order needs all of its creatures - even those that some of us find ugly - if it is to function properly.

My experience with a vast number of men is they tend to either function as doormats to their wives and girlfriends, or beat up on them. This is a reflection of the same crisis in dealing with themos. When we attempt to repress themos, it often spurts out in the most horrible and destructive of forms. When we successfully repress it, we emasculate men so that they’re no longer able to stand up for anything. Ironically, such men are not only unable to offer any strength to society, they’re unable to even be attractive to the women they seek to please.

The only constructive alternative is for us to reharness themos and channel it creatively. We need to get in touch with that distinctive male energy, recognise it, affirm it, and then learn to bring it under control so that it can be put to good use. Perhaps when we can do this we will see this country produce leaders of the calibre of Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, or Mahatma Ghandi - strong people of principle who stand up powerfully for what they believe in. As it is, our leaders seem to come across as being either “wooses” or criminals, or both. God knows we need some real men in this country who know what it means to love their women, be fathers to their children, and serve God and their community with their strength.

Fight training, I believe, is a means to getting at that themos and learning to bring it under control. When done the right way, fight training can help young men discover who they are and help bring their futures into focus. They can then come to see their role as societal warriors who are able to stand up and use their energy to build better communities, and to fight for things worth fighting for.

What about these boys who I watched train with me tonight? Will they go on to become “mighty men of God”? I don’t know. But they’re on the right track, and they’re further ahead now than when they first started their training.

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Article edited by Leah Wedmore.
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First published on the website of Father Dave.

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About the Author

Father Dave Smith is Parish Priest, professional boxer, human-rights activist and father of four. He was part of the Mussalaha (reconciliation) delegation to Syria in May 2013. Join Dave's mailing list via his main website - - and read his updates on Syria on

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