The duel is an idealized fight. It’s one-on-one, on even ground, with weapons agreed upon in advance. Neither party is ambushed or denied a chance to prepare. Other rules may apply in accordance with local standards of honor and gentlemanliness. Based on those standards, a duel should ensure that the best man wins. However, the rules of dueling are necessarily artificial.

A plate from Ridolfo Capoferro's 1610 rapier treatise. Capoferro's system is sometimes criticized for being too duel-oriented.

There is no single set of rules for the duel, because dueling conventions changed over time and by region. We like to think that martial arts will work independently of time and place, given that the principles of physics and biomechanics apply equally to all humans throughout history. However, dueling restrictions are not so universal. When you prepare for a duel, you must prepare for a specific, localized type of duel.

Among the European sword arts, some appear to be optimized for just such an idealized or localized duel. These arts are dependent on the idea that there is only a single opponent, that the opponent has roughly the same weapon, and so on. Any system which is optimized for artificial restrictions will be less realistic as a result. If a martial art only works in idealized or localized conditions, isn’t that an undeniably bad thing? Isn’t a dueling system less useful than other forms of swordsmanship?

Ordinarily, I would agree. But a thought has plagued me recently.

Swordsmanship is not practical. In the 21st century, we can hypothesize a sword fight, but it’s not a reality that we actually prepare for. It’s critical that the system can work, but it’s not important that the system does work. That is to say, it’s important that a system of swordsmanship works hypothetically.

Immanuel Kant would put it this way: If we know that swordsmanship is impractical but practice it anyway, then we don’t care whether a 21st century sword fight is actual, we only care whether it’s possible. When a sword fight actually happens in the 21st century, then it becomes both possible and actual.

We can agree that a sword fight is possible. But it’s also possible to have a totally fair, idealized sword fight. And if we can posit the existence of a non-actual sword fight, isn’t it equally fair to posit the existence of a non-actual idealized sword fight? What difference does it make if we add in one more set of conditions?

How can a dueling system be less practical than a system that’s unpractical to begin with? Is it just that the dueling system is marginally less practical? Is there no way to distinguish between dueling systems and other systems of swordsmanship in terms of practicality?

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