The common definition of the Martial Arts stems from the semantical meaning of the two words;


Martial:            belonging to war

Art:                  skill acquired by experience, study or observation.


“Martial” stems from the Latin term martialis meaning, “of Mars” or “Mars-esque”. Mars was the Roman God of war and represented aggression, war and conflict. He was, like all pagan gods, the personification of an idea. Fighting, or anything associated with fighting, whether en masse in the form of a battle or in single combat, the term covers all classifications. However, we know at this very basic stage, that Martial Arts, as a human construct, are distinct from the concept of fighting as a biologically universal phenomenon.


“Art” comes from the Latin word Ars which became “Arts” in Old French, finding its way into English as “Arte”. Art can be defined as “personal interpretation, or beauty”. “Personal interpretation” is a perfect summation of the meaning of “art” which we shall take with us on our journey. However, in Medieval Scholasticism (perhaps the earliest use of the term) “Art” implied any skill based upon a system or database of knowledge (i.e. “experience”). In effect, “Art” was somewhat synonymous with the modern term “system”, yet the former implies much more of the “doing” and “skill in doing” the system by an organism rather than the redundant structure of knowledge which a “system” can often imply.


Although we use the term “Martial Arts” as an English name for ritualised fighting, it is by no means an ancient name. In fact its general and widespread use is fairly modern, believed to have stemmed from a 20th century translation of “Bu-Jutsu”, and its application is generally associated with the Martial Arts of the East for that reason[1]. Terms such as Ars Dimicandi (Art of Combat), Flos Duellatorum (Flower of Battle), Ars Gladiatoria (Gladiatorial Art), Verdadera Destreza (True Dexterity), Kunst der Fechtens (Art of Fighting), Art of Fence, or Science of Defence, Self-defence and Personal combat were all used around Europe to describe ritualised fighting, but rarely the association of the two terms “Martial” and “Art”. Each of those aforementioned were commonly used as adjectives to describe the phenomenon of ritualised fighting rather than a formal noun, as the modern term “Martial Arts” is now recognised.


However, etymology can only take us so far, as we know from before that language is simply a form of communication of an idea, and so it merely represents or describes an idea, but is not the idea itself. In China, Martial Arts are known as Wushu meaning “Stop-Spears Skills”. It contains a nuance of prohibiting force and aggression, and in other words, they are defined as defensive in nature; a resolution to the problems of physical offence. The term used in Japan as Bujutsu, and the term used in Korea as Musool all have similar connotations as the Chinese name. It matters not what name we use, or where the name comes from, since defining the term “Martial Arts” here merely tells us the meaning of the English words, or the meaning of any equivalent translations in other languages.


We must subsequently consider a definition of what Martial Arts represent, and what lends us the opinion that they are more important or nobler than fighting, or brawling. There could be many definitions of the Martial Arts, from martial sport to military training. With such a large basis to draw a conclusion from the etymology, we need to define it more precisely.


Using the etymological description of “Martial Art” we may define it as anything related to or involved with war and combat. Using this idea, we may define the modern military gun training or fighter plane training as “Martial Arts”. As we might expect, some Martial Artists would not consider military ballistic training with modern technologies as “Martial Arts”, but only those which involve interpersonal, or hand-to-hand combat skills.


At the other extreme, Martial Arts which are defined variously as “martial sports” or “combat sports” can also fall into our definition of Martial Arts. Fighting, within the context of a rule set is still fighting – if an organised and controlled version. Boxing, Judo, Mixed Martial Arts, or the Pankration of the Ancient Greeks could all be considered as “Martial Arts”.


It has already become difficult to define exactly what a Martial Art is with so many connotations and interpretations. So perhaps what we need to do first is identify exactly what makes “Martial Arts” different from “fighting” or “brawling”.  We have looked at what defines fighting as a phenomenon, which gives us something from which to draw differences. Since Martial Arts create a form of fighting in their use, it is even more difficult to pin-point the differences. We need to state that Martial Arts, due to their use of modified behaviours, create separate forms of fighting from primal and instinctive forms of fighting.


As human beings, we learn best via experience. It is possible that, from our own experiences (and a great deal of scientific observation and questioning), we will be able to construct a Combat System. We may be able to come to conclusions about fighting from our own discovery.  Due to the fact that fighting existed long before you or I existed, we have a wealth of knowledge left by human beings who had already made these discoveries. The accrued knowledge of mankind as a species in regards to fighting exists in the body of data known collectively as the “Martial Arts”. A Martial Art is therefore a vestige, a capsule of knowledge with a built-in system of pedagogy designed to transmit that knowledge to future generations.


Therefore instead of using the ambiguous “Martial Arts” perhaps we should invest in a new more definite term. That term I propose should be “Combat System”, which would refer specifically to the;


“sum of all subsets of devised strategies, technical behaviours and long-term training [i.e. “preparative modification”] methods for generating advantages in fighting; specifically, to exploit the opponent’s weaknesses, so that we may impose without the possibility of resistance, and our opponent cannot impose, or at least do so with strength”.


Such a definition might initially seem long-winded, yet it effectively combines modern definitions from Hoplologists (Combat Anthropologists), with those of our historical experts, the Cybernetic perspective (which we shall discuss in due course), as well as the Biological necessity for the invention of Combat Systems.


The Biological Necessity for Combat Systems


Fighting is the event which happens as a result of neither sides’ ability to exert decisive force. In terms of existence, fighting is a purely biological phenomenon. It is a result of the need to survive. Organisms are animate bodies which seek, as defined by their existence, to secure their life (i.e. continued existence) by means of acquiring required resources (albeit territory, mates, food sources et al). All organisms, on their own terms, seek these things – and are therefore defined as Life-forms.


The presence of organisms in the outside world generates another sub-set of behaviour in the organism. Organisms’ sharing the same environment causes competition for resources and therefore what we term “conflict”. Conflict is the term used to describe the interaction of organisms due to direct competition. This conflict exists largely in a social dimension, but can escalate to a physical dimension. Whether verbal, body-language, proxemical or physically based, this conflict consists of both organisms contending against each other based upon the following imperatives:


  1. To protect their interests
  2. To expand their interests where possible (to exploit opportunities presented)
  3. To impose upon other organisms where their presence imposes upon a. and b.


Organisms have generated two operational strategies designed to cope with conflict known as Fight, or Flight. The former is the escalation of the conflict wherein the organisms exert physical force in order to win the resource; the latter is based upon exiting the conflict and seceding the resource to the opposing organism. This choice is made based upon a pay-off decision whereby the risks of such a conflict are weighed up against the potential “pay-off”.


This means that there are two opposing aspects to all fights whereby an organism might be (in compliance with our assessment and corroboration made earlier):


  1. Imposing – Expanding their interests by instigating Conflict
  2. Protecting – Defending oneself or one’s assets from the interests of other [competitive or predative] organisms.


The evolution of mammals has been based upon the driving forces of interspecies competition and intraspecies predation. Both are the principal catalysts for preservation of individuals and the groups in whom they cohabitate their living-space.


Notable examples of academic work in this field has already justified the evolutionary function of such behaviours (Armstrong; Lorenz, 1966; Eibl-Eiblsfeldt et al) which does not require too much re-iteration here. Maynard Smith (1982) outlines a sufficient case for the development of Combat Systems by utilising Game Theory, building a schema by which we may recognise the long-term and short-term benefit of certain behaviours. Consider the following hypothetical example to support the basis of those behaviours, and the requirement for a Combat System;


Group A (consisting of N individuals) lives near a natural resource R (a lake for example), and therefore X is considered the “territory” of A.


Group B (consisting of N individuals) lives near a natural resource R, but due to the presence of A, X is not considered to be the “territory” of B.


R gives A greater probability of survival, offering a source of sustenance, and to an extent, shelter and protection. B do not have this privilege, and because of pressures upon them caused by lack of this convenience, their probability of communal survival is lower. A natural inclination in Group B will form wherein they will feel “entitled” to R and will attempt a bid at competing with A for R. There are no laws, and no sanctioned or recognised social basis upon which B may stake its claim on R, other than the most natural basis there is; to take it by force. Amid the clamours of verbal staking one’s claim on an asset, there is a single form of communication which speaks louder than all others – that of Physical Force.


A suitable method for this transaction of resource will be to plan an action in order to acquire R, but because A has natural protection and greater access to resources, they are in a much stronger position than B. In order to ensure the minimum loses possible, B must have a plan which limits the possibility of damage to its own constituents, and also maximising the chance of success. Smith offers the following equation;




V refers to the Value of R, and C refers to the potential cost of its acquisition (i.e. injury, maiming, or death).


Archer (1994, p2-18) demonstrates this to have a correlation between Resource Holding Power (RHP) and Resource Value. As a fight begins, both constituents take on an “assessment role” wherein each assesses their RHP and the potential gain divided by the cost of such a gain. Where one constituent’s RHP is high, then the potential cost of fighting is also high, and therefore inclination to fight will be low. Where one constituent’s RHP is low, then the potential cost of fighting may be worth the risk. This “assessor role”, using the Simple Assessor Model, has been proven to exist amongst newts, hummingbirds and spiders (Archer, 1994 11) observing that constituents escalated the combats when the resource value was high. In compliance with the Parker & Rubenstein (1981) model of Assessment Strategy, spiders competing for territory uniformly withdrew when posed with a larger opponent, but escalated when the spiders were equal in size. Essentially, the spiders comply also with the logic outlined in Strategic works which state never to oppose greater strength. Due to the fact that initial assessment of the opponent is not possible, and decisions to escalate are often based upon inaccurate information, more recent theories have taken into account a Sequential Assessment Model. As exchanges of force take place, each constituent is able to build a more accurate picture of the opponent’s strengths, weaknesses, strategies and RHP.



Figure 2 – A figure demonstrating the decisions to escalate from a low-intensity combat to a High-intensity combat based upon estimates of RHP. From Archer, 13.


As we can see, this will theoretically and logically lead to the pre-planning and design of behaviours and actions for securing safety in imposing, and protection from being imposed. Archer and Benson further mention how the Assessor Role is fulfilled in many different contexts, amongst animals of many different species, and use the moments prior to a fight to assess the strength of an opponent, the presence and size of weapons to correlate with the opponent’s possible previous experiences and successes in fighting. Number of allies as well as other conceived advantages (surprise, weapons, environment, size etc) may also contribute to the decision to Escalate or Withdraw.


Game Theory and the studies of biologists and ethologists effectively support the opinion of many historical eskirmologists such as Godfrey, DiGrassi, Silver (1598), Carranca (1589), Pacheco de Narvaez (1612), Gordon, et al; as well as Modern eskirmologists (Kernspecht, 1985, 2010; Thompson, 1998; MacYoung, ….; et al) that a Combat System’s true teleology is to maximise the risk to the opponent (in imposing) and minimise the risk to ourselves (in protection).


Based upon these studies, Ethologists have been able to identify the kinds of Strategies which animals use instinctively in fighting by using six mnemonics;


Mouse – highly inhibited to fighting, never escalates, always escapes at the first sign of a fight. Tendancy to freeze if threat is unavoidable.


Dove – inhibited to fighting, will display (i.e. look bigger than he actually is) to intimitdate, but will not escalate and will escape if fight escalates.


Retaliator – will not instigate fighting, but at the first sign of a fight will instantly escalate in order to overwhelm and exploit the advantage.


Bully – Will instigate fighting like a “Hawk”, looking to provoke a fight, and will escalate a fight, but at the first sign of resistance will instantly capitulate.


Prober-retaliator – Mixture of Bully and Retaliator; instead of capitulating at the sign of resistance, the prober-retaliator will seek escalation relative to his resistance.


Hawk – the most extreme, will instigate, escalate and fight ‘till the death.


Each of these instinctive strategies is based upon conditions, which when fulfilled qualify the cue to action. Although these are recalled as quite instinctive amongst animals, the human race has sought to sanctify the logic of these Strategies by idolizing those experts who recognized the importance of them. Sun Tzu for example, based his work The Art of War on these same strategies. Compare the above with the conditional strategies of Sun Tzu; 3.8.

It is the rule in war,

·         if our forces are ten to the enemy’s one, to surround him;

·         if five to one, to attack him;

·         if twice as numerous, to divide our army into two.


3.9.  If equally matched, we can offer battle[2]; if slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the enemy; if quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him.


3.17. Thus we may know that there are….essentials for victory…He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight[3].


Although the “Assessor Role” (assessing the likelihood of success and the potential cost of escalating a fight) is quite logical, the human race has been inclined to deify those who have recognised and codified them. The deification of Sun Tzu has lasted hundreds of years, and his tactics have been used from marketing strategy to actual warfare, yet his Strategies actually betray a much more ancient logic; one which can be traced within evolution of biological organisms.  The literature on the history of conflict, and specifically literature on the pre-designed behaviours for imposing and protecting known as “Martial Arts”, attest to the fact that these strategies have always been known, and the selection of one, or more instead of all others is what defines the particular Combat Systems which exist.

[1] From the Random House Dictionary, italics are my own;


Martial Arts – noun, any of the traditional forms of Oriental self-defense or combat that utilize physical skill and coordination without weapons, as karate, aikido, judo, or kung fu, often practiced as sport.

[2] Li Ch`uan, followed by Ho Shih, gives the following paraphrase:”If attackers and attacked are equally matched in strength, only the able general will fight.”

[3] Chang Yu says:  If he can fight, he advances and takes the offensive; if he cannot fight, he retreats and remains on the defensive.  He will invariably conquer who knows whether it is right to take the offensive or the defensive.


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