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Thread: Mysticism in WMA

  1. #1
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    Mysticism in WMA

    I apologize if this has been covered before. I was discussing the notion of mysticism in martial arts with someone recently and came to the conclusion that the subject invariably seemed always to drift toward eastern martial arts.

    While I have difficulty finding material on this subject, I would imagine that, while pagan traditions certainly echo through history, a good portion of any mystical tradition in WMA would be rooted in Catholic/Christian mysticism.

    Was there ever a large martial-mystic movement in WMA? Do any mystic traditions still exist in WMA? And are any still existing traditions contrivances, or do they go back to older traditions which can be cited?
    -Mercy to the wolf is cruelty to the sheep.
    -Those who turn their swords into plowshares often end up plowing the fields of those who did not.

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    Althought Im not a very Catholic/Christian practician, I know that there are a lot of symbols around the sword.

    We have a tradition, always salute with the sword before you start practice with a partner and never put the tip of the sword on the ground (respect the weapon)

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    Its an interesting subject but one which doesn't get a lot of attention, mostly because the majority of people are more concerned with technique than anything else. In Irish stick we have some mystical aspects that are not practiced but are part of the lore (anyone is free to do it if he wishes so) like choosing a patron saint, praying before a fight, putting crosses on your soles and some things on soul stealing and curses. I am pretty convinced these aspects would have been part of many fighters approach but were not necessarily put in writing for diverse reasons : it was rather well known, better books on the subject, etc.

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    Chris VanSlambrouck does some really interesting work on this topic that I hope we will learn more about soon.
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    Because the Western mentality is at its heart empirical.

    Certainly, there are spiritual and religious practices related to premodern arts (hear a mass before battle, cross yourself, etc.), and certain practitioners were or are into various types of mysticism, but the Western approach is fundamentally rationalist.

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    Er...not quite in agreement with Ken here. We can also see the relationship in the astrological charts Talhoffer includes for determining the best time for a judicial duel, the use of protective amulets, blessings and "folk charms", the attempt to link chivalry to allegory and spiritual mysticism by writers such as Lull and Renee d'Anjou and the particular symbolic language used in certain sources.

    But I think (and maybe this was Ken's point) it is crucial to understand that we aren't seeing "mystical swordsmanship"; what you are seeing is simply the arts in context of the larger culture and the military class's own relationship to esoterica and mysticism at a given time and place. Swordplay itself was a discipline that was plugged into that intellectual milieu as appropriate to that author or practitioner.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gregory Mele View Post
    Er...not quite in agreement with Ken here. We can also see the relationship in the astrological charts Talhoffer includes for determining the best time for a judicial duel, the use of protective amulets, blessings and "folk charms", the attempt to link chivalry to allegory and spiritual mysticism by writers such as Lull and Renee d'Anjou and the particular symbolic language used in certain sources.
    Medieval astrology wasn't mysticism; it was considered a science and part of astronomy. Likewise, the symbols included in certain treatises (Agrippa for instance) were communication to be "read" by those who could do so.

    Of course, as you said, any martial arts system will reflect its culture, which in the Middle Ages was highly religious and Christian, just as it was Buddhist and Shinto in Japan. Folk charms, etc., are obviously not rational, but theologians militated against them and they are certainly not pervasive in the treatises.

    Fundamentally, though, the attempt to reduce fencing to a science and rationalize it that we see in fechtbücher such as I.33 and 3227a (which were composed by highly educated people) is profoundly rationalist and characteristic of the Western scientific mindset.
    Last edited by Ken Mondschein; 10-25-2011 at 07:58 PM.

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    Hi Ken!

    One needs to look at the *rest* of 3227a (it's a Hausbuch, and the fencing exists purely within that context) before thinking that - it's loaded with magical recipes and formulae.

    Talhoffer's works are rife with what we would call 'superstition' today. This is something its audience wouldn't have batted an eye at.

    As for the astrology in fight books, it's hardly a science by any definition. Read the Planetenkinder lore (which figures in a number of Fecht- and Kriegsbücher) - it's a far cry from the pseudo-scientific astrological charts of later years, but rather clumps together personality types/vocations/destinies by planet in a way that makes daily newspaper zodiacal astrology look detailed.

    Cheers,

    Christian
    Last edited by Christian H. Tobler; 10-25-2011 at 08:45 PM.
    Christian Henry Tobler
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    "Though I love the stout blow and the cunningly placed thrust, my greatest joy when crossing swords lies in those rare moments when Chivalry herself leans over and takes one into Her confidence."

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    Well, there is the image on the title page of Marozzo's 1536 book showing an armoured man transcribing alchemical(?) symbols into a circle on the ground.

    I know that alchemy is kind of a pre-cursor to modern chemistry, so it may be as Ken (Ken Mondschein that is, I haven't started refering to myself in third person) says regarding astrology and this was perhaps viewed as serious science back in the day. Possibly Marozzo is trying to show us that he is an educated, scientific kind of guy.

    But I don't even know what the symbols really are so this is all conjecture. All I can say for sure is that to a modern viewer the image seems to have an air of mysticism to it.

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    interesting thread, and close to what the TOS would say not to do on SFI,

    on that note

    If we consider the 'Quest' stories that surround Chivalry and that they are allegorical of a spiritual jury I think there are lots of examples of Mysticism. The concept of being a 'knight' in history (fact) and story (fiction) cross over again and again. We as rational modern man can say St George never ran a dragon through with a spear but what great evil did he battle? was it an inner dragon or a nasty wild boar that destroyed crops and lively hood? The Round Table stories are full of mysticism as well. Simply put in story 'Knights' were held to a higher standard, one that as humans with frailties we can never hope to achieve but when we either rely on a higher power we become more than the sum of flesh and bone. (saying 'we' is allegorically as well)

    I am typing off the fly at work so I really cant post example links but....

    The early christian church was more 'mystic', I think people believed more in the power of the divine to effect change on the mundane. There are examples of swords with Biblical and Qur'anic quotations, are these examples of pure mysticism to bless a blade or are they inspirational mysticism to remind the wielder of a sword that he represents more than himself, king and country? For that matter look at a modern boxer who kneels in his corner before a match, crosses himself and prays.

    Amulets are a whole interesting topic, I do not have any but I have a knife I have carried for over 20 years, I never deploy with out it because I "know" that as long as I have it with me I am safe. It does not have to make sense, its not even that special a knife, it is an old Cold Steel Recon Tanto factory second, it just keeps me 'healthy'. Odd thing, I have never used it in combat, though it has killed more MREs than I can ever count

    just my uneducated two cents

    Dave

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    Quote Originally Posted by Christian H. Tobler View Post

    One needs to look at the *rest* of 3227a (it's a Hausbuch, and the fencing exists purely within that context) before thinking that - it's loaded with magical recipes and formulae.

    Talhoffer's works are rife with what we would call 'superstition' today. This is something its audience wouldn't have batted an eye at.

    As for the astrology in fight books, it's hardly a science by any definition. Read the Planetenkinder lore (which figures in a number of Fecht- and Kriegsbücher) - it's a far cry from the pseudo-scientific astrological charts of later years, but rather clumps together personality types/vocations/destinies by planet in a way that makes daily newspaper zodiacal astrology look detailed.
    It was the codicological context of of 3227a that I had in mind when I said that: It's chock full of practical knowledge, alchemical formulae for hardening steel, etc. Likewise, I'm familiar with medieval astronomical/astrological texts; I have copies of several MSS from the BnF on my shelf. They frequently combine observation with, for instance, rules for predicting if a sick person will die by the phase of the moon. We see the same in Monte, who classifies adversaries by Galenic humors. That it's not the same as modern science is immaterial; this is the experimental and observational mindset from whence modern science originates. Furthermore, it is the attempt to apply knowledge for practical ends—technology. As the paradigm gets closer to the modern, so, too, do the discourses—but don't forget Newton was also an alchemist and didn't see much of a difference between discerning divine will via discerning the laws that govern the planets or by computing the Second Coming from clues in Revelations. We can not so easily separate medieval or early modern religious belief from "science," but the one clearly leads to the other. I recommend Fanger, Kieckhefer, Watson, and Yates' works, amongst others, for perspective.

    Mysticism, on the other hand, is seeking direct, personal experience of the divine. It is like experimental science in the insistence on direct personal experience, but its ends are different.
    Last edited by Ken Mondschein; 10-25-2011 at 09:09 PM.

  12. #12
    For general reference, we had a good discussion on Talhoffer's curious gematric system way back in 2002 - http://www.swordforum.com/forums/sho...=numerological .

    Tony

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    Hi Ken,

    We're looking at similar data, but drawing different inferences/conclusions.

    The medieval 'sciences', their study, and their goals, show a continuous spectrum from the 'practical' to the 'experience of the divine'. You need to study the Trivium in order to study the Quadrivium. And you need to study that to prepare for the study of philosophy and sacred theology. In short, the 'rational world' is indistinct from the non-rational one of belief in this period. (And one could argue we try today waaaaayyy too hard to make that distinction, but that's a discussion for another day, and in another venue...) This continuum is reflected even in their model of the physical universe, with the liberal arts associated with the seven planets.

    The real touchstone here however, and one I must recommend, is Hugh of St. Victor. Much of how this all comes together apparents itself (particularly in understanding the internalization of knowledge) in his 'Ark of Moral Wisdom'. Hugh's a true mystic - he's trying to 'get it on with God' directly [and, as a sidebar, I use almost the exact definition you cite above regarding what mysticism is, and isn't] - and his process mirrors other thought processes we see in action in the 'sciences', including fighting. Quite unsurprising, really, given the holistic nature of medieval culture and learning - a context where the Hermetic axiom "as above, below" really can be phrased "as within, without".

    That said, what I (and Greg) noted remains: there's a lot of non-practical stuff in Talhoffer, 3227a, etc. Observe the demon creeping out of the defeated duelist's mouth in the Thott Talhoffer, for instance (among many). Further, allegory abounds everywhere.

    Cheers!

    Christian
    Last edited by Christian H. Tobler; 10-25-2011 at 11:00 PM.
    Christian Henry Tobler
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    Freelance Academy Press: Books on Western Martial Arts and Historical Swordsmanship

    Author, Captain of the Guild, DVD: The Poleaxe, In Saint George's Name

    "Though I love the stout blow and the cunningly placed thrust, my greatest joy when crossing swords lies in those rare moments when Chivalry herself leans over and takes one into Her confidence."

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    Hi Tony,

    Yes, I remember that thread well! Thanks for the 'blast from the past'!

    Yours,

    CHT
    Christian Henry Tobler
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    Freelance Academy Press: Books on Western Martial Arts and Historical Swordsmanship

    Author, Captain of the Guild, DVD: The Poleaxe, In Saint George's Name

    "Though I love the stout blow and the cunningly placed thrust, my greatest joy when crossing swords lies in those rare moments when Chivalry herself leans over and takes one into Her confidence."

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ken Mondschein View Post
    Medieval astrology wasn't mysticism; it was considered a science and part of astronomy. Likewise, the symbols included in certain treatises (Agrippa for instance) were communication to be "read" by those who could do so.
    Careful Ken, you are assuming that the author of the post is using mysticism as a medieval would. We could argue quite rightly that alchemy was not esoteric mysticism to many people in 15th and 16th c Europe either, but most people asking about this today would be thinking of just such a thing. And that was my point - arguing something is rationalistic or mystical requires us to define terms: by whose definition? A man of 2011 or one of 1511?

    Of course, as you said, any martial arts system will reflect its culture, which in the Middle Ages was highly religious and Christian, just as it was Buddhist and Shinto in Japan. Folk charms, etc., are obviously not rational, but theologians militated against them and they are certainly not pervasive in the treatises.
    Right, and we are not in disagreement - I was just clarify that the author of the post was probably classifying mysticism in a different way, and also pointing out that we see elements of this material, but not because it is part and parcel of the art itself, but rather because of the personal interests of that author/compiler.
    Greg Mele
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    Freelance Academy Press: Books on Western Martial Arts and Historical Swordsmanship

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    "If the tongue could cut
    as the sword can do,
    the dead would be infinite."

    Filippo Vadi, "Arte Dimicandi Gladiatoria" (c.1482 - 87)

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    Just so Greg. And the OP is really asking about mysticism in the generic "occult/esoteric stuff" sense - not in the specific experience of the divine sense. And of course, in that more broad sense, yes, there are copious connections between period fencing and period esoterica, and if for not other reason than the fact that no sharp line divided 'science' from 'religion' or 'esoterica'.

    Those are modern distinctions, not medieval ones.

    Best,

    CHT
    Christian Henry Tobler
    Selohaar Fechtschule

    The Chivalric Fighting Arts Association

    Freelance Academy Press: Books on Western Martial Arts and Historical Swordsmanship

    Author, Captain of the Guild, DVD: The Poleaxe, In Saint George's Name

    "Though I love the stout blow and the cunningly placed thrust, my greatest joy when crossing swords lies in those rare moments when Chivalry herself leans over and takes one into Her confidence."

  17. #17
    Quote Originally Posted by Ken Mondschein View Post
    It was the codicological context of of 3227a that I had in mind when I said that: It's chock full of practical knowledge, alchemical formulae for hardening steel, etc. Likewise, I'm familiar with medieval astronomical/astrological texts; I have copies of several MSS from the BnF on my shelf. They frequently combine observation with, for instance, rules for predicting if a sick person will die by the phase of the moon. We see the same in Monte, who classifies adversaries by Galenic humors. That it's not the same as modern science is immaterial; this is the experimental and observational mindset from whence modern science originates. Furthermore, it is the attempt to apply knowledge for practical ends—technology. As the paradigm gets closer to the modern, so, too, do the discourses—but don't forget Newton was also an alchemist and didn't see much of a difference between discerning divine will via discerning the laws that govern the planets or by computing the Second Coming from clues in Revelations. We can not so easily separate medieval or early modern religious belief from "science," but the one clearly leads to the other. I recommend Fanger, Kieckhefer, Watson, and Yates' works, amongst others, for perspective.
    The tendency to want to project a modern scientific mindset backwards on all Western thinkers is symptomatic of our time, but not really accurate. Calling Medieval belief systems "scientific" simply because their proponents attempted to explain them rationally and logically (or what passed for logic before the 18th century) dilutes the term so much as to make it meaningless. It would be more accurate to say that science is a modern manifestation of the underlying tendency toward rational explanation that has dominated Western thought for three thousand years. The study and practice of Medieval mysticism/esoterica was a quite distinct manifestation of the same tendency involving fantastical intersections of alchemy, astrology, theurgy, and so on, but it would not be recognizable to any modern practitioner of science.

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    wow, I need to come over here more often. Very interesting thread, thank you. I especially like the specific scholarly references, and apologize in advance that I cannot present any at the moment.
    Many instances in many cultures of holy warriors, or warrior monks. Not sure we can draw a line between mystic and divine, matters of faith, then or now.
    ...Folk charms, etc., are obviously not rational ...
    well, if they work, or if belief in them seems to make a difference, then they are rational. Kind of a 'no atheists in foxholes' kind of thing. Not discussing religiion, or religious belief, just the power of faith or belief in something greater. Much easier to face something awful, potentially fatal, if we 'know' there is a greater power, or powers, that may influence the outcome if we believe and allow it. Karma in there somewhere, too.
    Last edited by Dave Drawdy; 10-26-2011 at 05:32 AM.
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    Then we need to define our terms better. Is there religious practice or connotation in medieval martial arts texts? Yes, certainly: The entire notion of trial by battle was a Germanic idea that got Christianized. Is it mystical, as we define it today, or as, say, esoteric Buddhism shows up in certain koryu? No.

    The medieval 'sciences', their study, and their goals, show a continuous spectrum from the 'practical' to the 'experience of the divine'. You need to study the Trivium in order to study the Quadrivium. And you need to study that to prepare for the study of philosophy and sacred theology. In short, the 'rational world' is indistinct from the non-rational one of belief in this period.
    It would be more accurate to say that science is a modern manifestation of the underlying tendency toward rational explanation that has dominated Western thought for three thousand years.
    Both good surmises, which sort of make my point for me (except, Christian, that the entire point of Scholasticism is to rationalize belief). Things such as the "alchemy" in 3227a and the astrology in Talhoffer are both intended as practical and can be seen today as proto-scientific. In both cases, they participate in rationalist tendencies; that we know them today to be based on fallacious worldviews is irrelevant. (BTW, Michael, that's what historians do: We look for the origins of the present in the past.) Of course I understand that these things are specific to their own time and place, but OP was really asking about modern practices, and thus, I took a historical-positivist tack. Another similar example is Agrippa's (bad) astronomy, intended to show his command of the principles of science and rational thought; another, even weirder one perhaps bordering on true mysticism is John of Morigny, whose Liber Visionum (edited by Watson and Fanger) is intended to produce a perfect understanding of the Seven Liberal Arts by meditating on an esoteric diagram. Roger Bacon likewise turns from laying the foundations for modern ideas of time in one paragraph to discussing transubstantiation in the next.

    My mistake here, I think, is that I am arguing from a narrow and academic perspective and within a historiographical tradition that you are all not privy to, whereas you are all taking "mysticism" as "anything based in spiritual belief." One big theme in studies of medieval religion and magical practice is the "medieval origins of modern science" thread. I'll need to do a lecture on this at the next WMAW, but for now, we need to distinguish our terms between orthodox religious belief and Christian practice (blessing swords, for instance); magic (charms and amulets), alchemy, astrology and other pseudosciences (astrological charts); and mysticism proper. When I think of "medieval mysticism," I do think of Lull, but also more specifically Joachim of Fiore, Catherine of Sienna, and Hildegard of Bingen. Visions, personal visitations by the divine, and ambiguity of intensely personal meaning are characteristic.

    My fundamental point (which is more in line with what the OP asked) is this: There is an unbroken thread of rationalism that goes from the earliest fechtbücher, through Agrippa, and into the modern era, and which is implicit in the entire idea of training in arms. This is characterized by a classification of techniques, an overall theorization of fencing using Aristotle and other paradigm-defining authorities, and the development of a pedagogy. These are universalizing tendencies and characteristic of Western mindsets, and very unlike the intense personal nature of mysticism. Individual use of symbols (Agrippa's hieroglyphs, Talhoffer's demons, etc.) are specific to time and place.

    We should break this out as a separate thread for the esoteric in medieval martial arts; the OP was really asking about modern stuff, thus my reply.

    More later, I have to go teach (origins of Christianity, actually).
    Last edited by Ken Mondschein; 10-26-2011 at 06:52 AM.

  20. One of the major works of German medieval mysticism was written by a Teutonic Knight, but as far as I know it doesn't reference swordsmanship. I can't remember the title, but a modern swordsman interested in religious mysticism would probably find it to be a good source.
    "Am fear a thug buaidh air fhein, thug e buaidh air namhaid."

  21. #21
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    Ken,

    I think in your fundamental point we all agree, and that was why I made my caveat - the question is what the OP was trying to define by mystic/mystical. A lot of that would fall into the early modern idea of "esoteric science" and the medieval/Renaissance idea of science (astrology) and natural magic (herbalism, alchemy), with just a glimmer in the realm of theurgy/magic proper - things like angelic charms. Especially as the later was not approved by the Church, whereas the former two were. (Speaking in generalities.)

    Something like Fiore's segno *seems* a mystical diagram to us today, because of the allegorical symbolism and relationship to the four classical elements, cardinal virtues, etc. But it is allegorical and symbolic, not magical or mystical in any real sense of the term. It's not Lull, it's not Ficino or Mirandola who can be both mystical and "rational" in their work.

    And in that sense, going back to the OP, I would say that there is no inherent link between mystical experience and philosophy and most of the fencing treatises we know of. There is esoteric knowledge, even in a medieval context, but it is *practical*, whether we consider magic charms to be so or not, as Dave Drawdy points to above. And I think in that sense, it is *rational* - it is the idea of "if I take this reading of the stars, or make this charm, then xyz will occur."

    Or to sound like a 19th c occultist, it is "practical magic", as befits a warrior culture.
    Greg Mele
    Chicago Swordplay Guild

    Freelance Academy Press: Books on Western Martial Arts and Historical Swordsmanship

    Chivalric Fighting Arts Association

    "If the tongue could cut
    as the sword can do,
    the dead would be infinite."

    Filippo Vadi, "Arte Dimicandi Gladiatoria" (c.1482 - 87)

  22. #22
    I'd like to add that there was probably some change over time in this subject.

    Our earliest extant martial arts manuals date back from just before the Early Modern period. That period saw huge changes in rationalist thinking - most notably, René Descartes wrote his principal works in the late 1630s and 1640s. Descartes attempted to find a foundation for all empirical knowledge through epistemology, and much of our own rationalist tendencies draw their origins to him. Of course, this would not have had an effect overnight, but Descartes was not alone in trying to apply reason to the world at a fundamental level. Girard Thibault is a great example of a martial artist who applied that sort of thinking to swordsmanship. He was very explicit in appealing to mathematics and human proportion in order to find justification for his system, and in this sense it seems to rest on a fairly strong epistemological foundation. He was a contemporary of Descartes, but he died before Descartes' major works were published, so this would have been a parallel development.

    So it wouldn't surprise me to think that the earlier authors were not as concerned with justifying their arts on a fundamental level. However, the intellectual climate of the Early Modern/pre-Enlightenment period encouraged that kind of thinking from around the 17th century onward.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ken Mondschein View Post
    We should break this out as a separate thread for the esoteric in medieval martial arts; the OP was really asking about modern stuff, thus my reply.
    Modern or ancient- I had both in mind, actually. I was really wondering 1) what kind of mysticism there was which was specific to (or at least oriented toward) ancient WMA, and 2) if any of it has lasted until now.

    The posts in this thread so far are fascinating.
    -Mercy to the wolf is cruelty to the sheep.
    -Those who turn their swords into plowshares often end up plowing the fields of those who did not.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Stephen Renico View Post
    Modern or ancient- I had both in mind, actually. I was really wondering 1) what kind of mysticism there was which was specific to (or at least oriented toward) ancient WMA, and 2) if any of it has lasted until now.
    Do you mean mysticism, esotericism, or religious practice?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ken Mondschein View Post
    Do you mean mysticism, esotericism, or religious practice?
    Any of the three.
    -Mercy to the wolf is cruelty to the sheep.
    -Those who turn their swords into plowshares often end up plowing the fields of those who did not.

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