You DON’T Practice a martial art!

Martial art is a large blanket term that captures many different activities. Everything from old people doing Tai Chi (purposely misspelled) in the park to people fighting in the UFC is labeled as martial arts. These are really different pursuits, and I honestly don’t know if they should be all be under the same umbrella term. So let’s talk about the strictest way to define martial art. Next article, we’ll broaden our horizons, and expand out our definition.

Martial

So let’s start with the first word. Martial is derived from “Mars” the Roman god of war. Anything with the adjective martial should, therefore, be indicative of something from war. This means the sole purpose of a martial art should be in eliminating the enemies’ ability to do war unto you. It also means it will involve the tools of war. In previous times, this would be swords, armor, cavalry, bows, and whatever technology is appropriate for the time period and culture in question. The unarmed portion, that we now tend to think of as martial arts, was a minor portion of a historic warrior’s training. It was a very bad situation if you ever were without your weapons on a battlefield. Unarmed attacks and defense would have been an option of last resort option.

This stricter definition would not include any of our modern martial arts that focus on the spiritual, health, or sport based applications. That is not to say that those activities don’t have merit, but only that it doesn’t fit the definition of martial art in the strictest sense that we’re using here. It also would not include anything self-defense based. Using this really strict definition, 99% of what we do and call martial arts, aren’t martial. Here are some examples of why they wouldn’t be.

Self-Defense

Self-Defense is messy and can be physically violent. However, if it’s a good self-defense school/system, then there should be talk (and maybe practice) of awareness, avoidance, and de-escalation. If your self-defense is only focusing on the physical part, you are missing the broader picture. It has been said that if your self-defense focuses only on the physical part, your self-defense sucks. That all being said, self-defense is not combat. Most self-defense situations are going to be social violence. The root cause of the event is going to be one person proving their bigger and stronger and more right than the other. Usually with witnesses to make sure everyone knows the result. Even if it is resource violence, at the first opportunity, you’ll leave. That’s not the way war-based, martial arts work.

In war-like situations, you may not have the ability to leave. In fact, it might be required that you push forward. The reason you’re in this situation is also, not about the “self.” It’s not a personal attack. It’s about something bigger. You’re in combat for a larger reason, king, country, … money. Whatever the cause.

Sport Martial Arts

They can be called combat sports, or something similar, but these are the martial arts that put opponent vs. opponent in some sort of area, and everyone involved agrees to a set of rules. This would include MMA, Sport Kickboxing, Olympic Judo, and Taekwondo. I guess we’ll now include Olympic Karate, as it will be in the next Olympics. I would also include the Western Sport Martial Arts of Boxing, Wrestling, and Fencing.

The main reason these don’t fit our strict “martial” definition is that there are rules. I understand why there are rules, and although they can be quite dangerous, they are designed to reduce the probability of permanently injuring the other participant. I’m not using the “my art is too dangerous for the ring” excuse, but everything that’s outlawed in, say…the UFC can end things quickly (and cause serious damage), are immediate breaks, like fingers strikes or strikes to the back of the head. Wartime situations would, again, have the culturally/temporally appropriate weapons and armor, and would use any technique that worked, specifically because of the damage it caused.

Civilian Martial Arts

Okay let’s face facts. We live in a world where fighting for survival, or food, or protecting ourselves and our communities from ravenous hordes of rampaging marauders is not a real concern. By all measures, we are living in one of the most peaceful times in human history. It’s not perfect, but it is better than it was before. Besides that, I’m going to bet that most people reading this are going to be in the more peaceful parts of our world. The United States is more peaceful now that in nearly any time in its history, scare tactics from politicians and media aside. This gives us much more leeway to explore the more artistic sides of life. We can use war-like activities as hobbies. We can explore the side benefits of martial training, such as spirituality and physical fitness. We even have the luxury of creating specific activities that, based on the martial practices of the past, concentrate solely on these other benefits of training. However, they are then, no longer martial.

Conclusion

Based on this, the narrowest of definitions, almost nothing that we martial artists practice today qualify as…martial. But that is only one part of the term, and it does not include how the term has evolved. Next article I’ll include the art portion of martial art, and see if we can broaden our horizons somewhat.

Jaredd Wilson

Jaredd Wilson

Jaredd Wilson has been practicing Japanese martial arts since 1996, and currently trains in Nami ryu Aiki Heiho under Brian Williams Sensei, in Nashville, TN
Jaredd Wilson

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Jaredd Wilson has been practicing Japanese martial arts since 1996, and currently trains in Nami ryu Aiki Heiho under Brian Williams Sensei, in Nashville, TN

6 Comments

  1. I’m going to disagree based on a flawed premise. He indicates the term martial comes from the god of war and therefore anything using the adjective “martial” should be indicative of “something from war.”

    The actual definition of martial is “war-LIKE.” A listed synonym is “soldierly” and also “soldier-like.”

    Many people practice their art for self protection and the protection of others, attempting to forge a mindset that will allow them to use the correct strategy, tactics and available weapons to achieve that end, should the need arise.

    There is also the attempt among many to develop the mindset that would allow them to sacrifice their life in the act of protecting the life of another.

    I’m reminded of the guy on Flight 98, back on 9/11, the judo player that said, “Let’s roll,” as he and his group of “soldier-like” individuals stormed the cockpit, brought the plane down, sacrificing their lives to save an unknown, unquantifiable group of people at some assumed target.

    He practiced judo. The first of the sport oriented martial arts. He was one of the first casualties in this war that fought back.

    We practice soldier like skills, and we try to develop soldier like mindsets so that if we ever encounter a warlike environment, we will be prepared.

    I think that is the definition of martial.

    One could argue that 99% of the school’s are not teaching “martial” arts due to a failure of curriculum or methodology, but that is a different premise.

    The next point was that self defense is not combat. Probably a new post.

    • Hi Dave,

      I think you’ve got some good counter-points here.

      What I would like to emphasize as a point of contention would be the author’s paragraph right before the conclusion. There are people all over the world that very much train in their art, in order to be able to protect themselves. Some of us are fortunate enough to follow the path of the martial paradox (training with hopes of never using). Though that is not to say that battlefields don’t present themselves to those with the right skills, at the right time, much like the example you used of flight 98.

      I think the author is perhaps suggesting that the word “Martial” is perhaps taken literally by some. Where I would argue others have adopted the word to be more of a colloquialism with nuanced meaning. Those words “Martial Arts” are going to have different meanings to different practitioners. While some of its definition is subjective, i’d say overall, the term is generally understood to be loosely “Learning how to use one’s body offensively and defensively.”

      I see both sides of the argument.

  2. Combat defined by Merrimack Webster is:

    1 :a fight or contest between individuals or groups
    2 :conflict, controversy
    3 :active fighting in a war :action casualties suffered in combat

    Self defense, or social self defense as the author references, does not meet the criteria of definition 3.

    It does, however, meet the criteria for 1 and 2. Sport martial arts meet the criteria for #1.

    As a matter of fact, all competitive sports meet the definition of combat by Merrimack Webster.

    Arguing meets the criteria of definition 2.

    I think the overall problem with the article is that the author failed to look up the actual definitions on which he based his arguments.

    • Agreed. My disagreement really is more of how he constructed the argument.

      I pretty much agree with the title, but not the premise upon which it is based in the article.

  3. To the 3rd point…Civilian Martial Arts. He uses the phrase “practicing warlike hobbies.” Again, warlike is the definition of martial.

    And then of course, in his author’s bio, he is a Martial Artist.

    To write an article proclaiming to the reader that what you practice is NOT a martial art, then to proclaim yourself a martial artist…, is bad form.

    Overall, thumbs down on this one.

    Sorry.

  4. My intention with this article was not to discredit anyone’s martial art, or any martial artist. As you said, I practice martial arts, and I would like to consider myself a martial artist (if only a poor one). This is only Part I of what I’m going to publish here that will try and define what it meant by the term martial art. It is a slippery definition, that has a very personal connotation to whoever is using the term. I was starting with the strictest definition possible of what martial means. In the following articles, I’m going to expand upon the term to how it is used today. I know it seems as though I’m using the Ambiguity Fallacy to say “you’re not a martial artist” but that is not my intent.

    To discuss the counter-points in order:
    1. The actual definition of martial is “war-LIKE.” A listed synonym is “soldierly” and also “soldier-like.”

    I have looked up the definition, and my definition still fits my argument. Karate, Aikido, Taekwondo, whatever your art, is not the number one choice of soldier on the battlefield presently, or in the past. Samurai would not have put down their swords to throw someone with an aikiotoshi. The arts, as we practice them today are not soldierly. They are individual activities that focus on one specific aspect of violence. I don’t know any art (I could be wrong) that practices group tactics, as soldiers do, and have always done.

    Point 2
    Many people practice their art for self protection and the protection of others, attempting to forge a mindset that will allow them to use the correct strategy, tactics and available weapons to achieve that end, should the need arise.
    There is also the attempt among many to develop the mindset that would allow them to sacrifice their life in the act of protecting the life of another.

    I might not have explained this well enough, but I agree with you. All the side benefits of martial arts, are EXTREMELY important, to civilians, LEO, and those in combat or life and death situations. But the actual, physical skills we train, are not as martial as they used to be. I keep harping on samurai, because the art I practice is Japanese, but the samurai would laugh at the way martial arts at practiced today. The skill set we are developing in Japanese martial arts would be ineffective on the battlefields of 15th Century Japan, and that’s okay. The world has changed, and the culture has changed.

    Point 3
    To the 3rd point…Civilian Martial Arts. He uses the phrase “practicing warlike hobbies.” Again, warlike is the definition of martial.

    This kind of goes back to my first point of defense.

    To use the definitions you gave from Webster, I fully disagree with their first definition. By their definition, a Basketball game is combat. Which I don’t think anyone would agree with. As you said, by the second definition, an argument is combat. Both of those we poetically use the reference of combat, but no one really thinks of them as combat.

    I hope I explained the way I am using the term a little better, and the fact that this is only part I, and I’m going to expand the use of the term next article. I agree that they way this article is using the word “martial” is way to restrictive, but that what we’re doing today isn’t as soldierly or combat oriented as when it was required for actual battlefields. Please stay tuned for the second part where I try to add some depth to the definition of martial arts to include most of what we do as martial artists. Same Bat-time…

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