With no meaningful relationships in his young life, he set out to “barrow the battlefield,” a term used by swordsmen wanting to prove themselves in combat and win a position within that domain. The cause, the lord under whose banner he fought, even the reason for war was not horribly important, but rather proving oneself by killing others was paramount.
Let’s think about this: No meaningful relationships, a self-selected loner, intense focus to the point of obsession, and a willingness to kill. Of course we love Musashi, he is Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris, Jason Statham, and Bruce Lee all rolled into one badass mercenary who roamed the land with a three-foot razor blade searching out prey to slaughter… Wait a minute, on a movie screen that’s that makes for a rousing good time, but in real life it sounds an awful lot like something a psychopath might do.
Was Musashi a functional psychopath? We believe the answer to that question is a definitive yes. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Let’s examine some of his behaviors: To begin, Musashi was ruthless. He
sought out other men to murder. He didn’t kill to defend his life, his property, or even his liege-lord; he killed simply to test his skill in battle. He killed to improve his reputation and status in life. He killed because he could. And, he was very good at it.
Musashi was fearless, another common attribute of functional psychopaths. Fearlessness can be good or bad, it’s not the trait so much as how it is used and perceived. An example of this might be the “Zodiac Killer” who terrorized Northern California in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The Zodiac Killer, in at least one documented instance, walked up to his victims in broad daylight and shot them to death. Then he taunted police with cryptic messages. Fearless for certain, but not in a good way… Contrast this with members of elite military units or law enforcement operators who overcome long odds and complete hazardous assignments in part due to fearlessness that lets them focus on the job despite the dangers they face. It’s not that they never get scared but rather that they never let their fears stop them. Musashi clearly embraced the adage, “A samurai never fears death.”
The ability to be and stay mentally focused was a key to Musashi developing and honing his skills as a swordsman. This mental discipline led to the development of his innovative two-sword system, a style that was unheard of in the orthodox sword-schools of his time. In fact, Musashi’s focus was similar to that of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. It is said that while sculpting the famous renaissance artist would not bathe or change his clothes for weeks at a time. When Michelangelo would finally remove his footwear, layers of skin would fall off of his feet and remain with the boots. Just as Michelangelo’s focus was so intense that it caused him to forget about simple hygiene, so was Musashi’s. Wild unkempt hair, rumpled sweat-stained clothes, a disfiguring skin condition, and a thousand-yard stare were common descriptions of the master swordsman.
An absolute lack of conscience is another attribute of a psychopath. At no time does Musashi speak about being fair or just in his writings. His only focus was on how to win. He saw the world as a very utilitarian place. At no time did he ever express remorse either. It is our belief that Musashi never lost one moment of sleep over the people that he killed, the families that he disrupted, or the damage that he had done. Sure, he lived in a different time, was held to a different set of standards and ethics, but even in warrior societies it’s not easy to wantonly go around killing people with no remorse. Insofar as we can tell the only remorse that Musashi ever experienced was not being even better, more efficient at slaughtering other human beings.
Musashi’s actions throughout his life benefited himself first and foremost. Some might point to his writings as a deed designed to assist his disciples, and we would agree, but in many ways they were self-serving too. While his books may not have been propaganda per se, everything was described through the lens of his own perspective. Musashi’s life was about himself, his swords, and finding increasingly efficient and effective ways to use them. He was detached from society, rarely stayed long term in the company of others. He did not depend on others, never formed any lasting romantic relationships, and lived alone the majority of his time. In fact, in his last writings he addressed the fact (in his opinion) that one should never be guided by love, filial or romantic.
In today’s world we are able to obtain vast amounts of data about crimes and criminals over the internet. When we search for the information on serial killers, or read news reports of violent crimes, we can get information almost immediately. While early reports can be suspect, much of what is reported in the early minutes and hours ultimately proves to be accurate later on because reporters have an easy time finding relevant and meaningful information near instantly. Pick a criminal, any violent criminal, and perform a background check. Within moments we can find a history of antisocial behaviors. Sometimes they originate from nature, other times from nurture, but they’re virtually always there. Every violent crime has a back story, and oftentimes the criminal has a history of antisocial behaviors that originates from his or (rarely) her childhood.
It is well known that Musashi’s father was an autocrat, he dictated the terms of his household and his martial arts school. From our modern minds it must have been very hard to live in that household. This is speculation on the part of the authors, but requires consideration. Is it possible that Musashi’s father, a teacher of martial arts and observer of people’s temperaments, saw something in his son that was not desirable? Is it possible Musashi’s father saw a nascent psychopath, yet his father only knew to call the behaviors arrogance since modern psychological science was unknown to him? Is it possible that this father chose to be hard on Musashi because it was the only way he knew how to squelch the undesirable conduct that his son exhibited? And finally, is it possible that his father’s actions only fueled Musashi’s antisocial behaviors?
So, what is a psychopath really? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary is a fine place to start with their brief and clear definition: “A person who is mentally ill, who does not care about other people, and who is usually dangerous or violent.” This is a simple template in which everything we know about Musashi simply fits. However as much as we would like to make it that simple, placing Musashi into the category of functional psychopath still has some, well… wiggle room. Let’s look at it this way: On July 22, 2011 Norwegian national Anders Behring Breivik killed eight people with a bomb and then hunted down and shot 69 participants of a Worker Youth League summer camp. Two court-appointed psychiatric teams who extensively examined Breivik in prison came to two different conclusions about the state of his mental health. If nothing else these differences prove that even what we might conclude as an “open and shut case” of insanity, of aberrant psychopathic behavior, may not be.
However, even though we are not psychologists and obviously spent no time examining Musashi in the flesh we stand by our conclusions. Musashi was a functional psychopath. To prove our point we use a checklist that comes from a guy who is a psychologist and far better versed in the subject matter than we will ever be, Dr. Kevin Dutton. He’s also writer and postdoctoral researcher at University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology. His definition, which should sound eerily familiar to our earlier description of Musashi, includes the following elements:
- Ability to be and stay mentally focused
- Lack of conscience