When Royce Gracie first burst on to the American Martial arts scene in the first Ultimate Fighting Championship, it was a “The Emperor has no clothes” moment for any martial artists not too blinded by their own training to see the truth. What remains little understood, even today, is why. Only by understanding the answer to this question can we avoid repeating the same mistakes and creating a whole new generation of people with years of martial arts training who do not know how to actually fight.
Before that day the average American male when confronted with a fight had one simple plan, pummel his opponent with strikes until they have received enough damage that they were rendered unconscious or at least could no longer fight back effectively. Conditioned with a long tradition of boxing, a common ethic of a “Stand-up fight” as a fair fight and several decades of Kung-Fu theater, the idea that serious martial arts were synonymous with striking arts was taken for granted by the majority. Victory after victory by grapplers in those early contests went a long way to change this paradigm.
The fact that it existed in the first place, only to be proven wrong when put to the test, can teach us a lot about the martial arts if we are willing to learn. Culture, training methods, methods of competition and more played into why. Understanding these factors, the roll they played in creating the mistaken ideas of the era and how these same pressures, albeit with different manifestations are effecting martial arts today and will continue to do so in the future is the key to a real understanding of the martial arts as well as how to avoid being led unknowingly down a similar tangential path.
Hoplology is, in the words of its founder Sir Richard Francis Burton, the science of "arms and weapons of offense and defence, human and bestial" This was later refined by Don Draeger, who tried to revive Hoplology as an academic study in the 1960s, as "the study of the basis, patterns, relationships, and significances of combative behavior at all levels of social complexity." I would update that definition again and say that Hoplology is the study of not only fighting methods but also training methods and the ways that they are passed from teacher to student over the generations. This includes not only the methods themselves but the ends to which these methods are focused and the way these systems interact with the cultures that produce them.
Much of what we think of as martial arts is essentially an anti-intellectual exercise. What passes as martial arts “study” amounts to little more than uncritical copying of teaching methodology. Students come to class, do the exercises and training drills their teacher shows them and drill the techniques and for the most part accept them as they are. Students and teachers within these martial arts are either attempting to preserve a system of training as it has historically been, as in the case of traditional martial arts, or in the case of martial sports to be innovative with the goal of being more competitive within the rules. The word “Study” can only realistically be used in the sense that a violinist studies the violin. This can be compared to studying music theory. Although there is certainly a large overlap in the knowledge attained, and learning to play music is a very large help to learning to understand music, there is a vast amount of understanding that will never be reached by the learning to play alone. The goal is simply different. The same can be said of a martial artist that masters a particular martial art as opposed to someone who studies hoplology.
Unlike anthropology, which at its corps is based in cultural relativism, the doctrine that “A cultural system or any aspect of that system can only be evaluated on its own terms” (Blanchard, 1995), Hoplology can rest upon actual combat effectiveness as its gold standard. This is not to disparage or pass moral judgment on arts that diverge from combat effectiveness as their animating principle but rather, since it can be assumed that all martial arts start out with a focus on winning actual fights, can be used to gain understanding of why they have become what they are. This is because of a central truth of hoplology and that is that all martial arts evolve. Understanding combat effectiveness as the gold standard means that we have a central point on the time line of any martial art. Martial arts develop and become organized to reach a point of highest combat effectiveness and then many times become focused upon some other goal and drift away from it. Evolutionary pressures come to bear on both portions of their life. When my friend John Clements, who is a researcher attempting to recreate the European martial arts from medieval and renaissance manuscript evidence, was once asked what happened to the European arts he replied that they continued to evolve based upon the demands of war and became the use of machine guns, tanks and nuclear weapons.
Also unlike many areas of science, hoplology has a higher purpose than simply understanding. The purpose of hoplology is to understand elements and processes of its subject matter to an end. That end is producing better warriors and fighting organizations. This is similar to the idea behind medical science that it would gain understanding toward the end of better medical treatment. This is different than many scientific disciplines because the moral good of better medical treatment is self-evident. This can be compared to scientific disciplines such as Anthropology which has an entirely different focus.
Hoplology is in many ways on an almost a directly opposite evolutionary path itself from anthropology. In its infancy as a science anthropology suffered from the conceit that the European cultures of the time were the apex of cultural evolution. Thus studied cultures were classified according to evolutionary stages in what was assumed was a uni-lineal process, progressing from savagery to barbarism and eventually to civilization, the highest order of which was naturally that of the scientist’s own culture. Elements of each culture were classified as inferior or superior according to which stage their parent culture was at in the process.
There is a lot of draw from Anthropology; however, combat effectiveness as a gold standard is quite different from cultural relativism. It also gets around the problems they have had with an evolutionary model because it isn't based in any assumption of cultural superiority. It gives us a spine for a comprehensive model that explains and categorizes what is going on in any manifestation of martial art and also gives different research azimuths.
This is not to hold martial arts who maintain a focus on actual fighting as superior or to pass judgment on “lesser” arts that are focused on different goals. It is however beneficial to all practitioners to have a deeper understanding of martial arts and how they relate to their personal or organizational goals.
Victorian Naturalists v Biologists
Much of what has passed as hoplology in its more recent manifestation has been more akin to ethnography. Researchers attempt to give understanding of a martial art or training system by providing a qualitative analysis. Many times a similar emic perspective, or insider’s view, is sought after with supposed researchers training in the studied system. In ethnography the inherent difficulty of such study, the cultural biases of the researcher, are somewhat mitigated because of the educational path of the researcher. Typically years of academic study precede the work and the bias is recognized from the outset. In hoplology the educational path of the researcher is usually quite different.
Hoplologists usually come to the study of a particular martial art or martial arts in general because they have experience and maybe even expertise in one or more martial arts, rather than in an objective social science. In fact
What has passed for hoplology has in fact been keen observation and description of studied martial arts. While valuable from a preservation angle, much like cataloging and describing animals or plants in their environment before they become extinct, this approach is akin to Victorian era naturalists who, lacking an understanding of the evolutionary process, produced very detailed descriptions of the various plants and animals they studied but had no idea how or why they were what they were. Likewise, training methods and cultural aspects of studied arts have been described in great detail with little understanding of why they are what they are and what the results of them are.
Just as Victorian naturalists were transformed into biologists by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, my goal is to transform Hoplology into an actual science through a similar understanding of the mechanisms that produce and change martial training systems. The first step it would seem would be to understand evolution, how it works and how its mechanisms apply to the martial arts.
Darwin observed that biological organisms all have the potential to reproduce themselves exponentially, that resources within an environment, however, do not increase significantly over time and that organisms must then compete for these limited resources. He also observed that every individual organisms is unique and that therefore the competition to reproduce will favor certain traits within a species and slowly change the species over time.
Let us now see how this model also applies to the martial arts. If every martial artist is a potential teacher, just as every organism has the potential to reproduce, and if potential students are limited just as resources are within an environment, then those that successfully attract students will win the competition to reproduce. Each “Offspring” will of course not be exactly like its forbearers so that over time those that are more suited to reproduction within their environment will continue to reproduce. In other words the mechanism that shapes martial arts is almost exactly comparable to that which produces biological organisms. Natural selection, or nonrandom unequal reproductive success, determines which martial arts thrive and what form they will take.
Evolution can be defined as descent with modification to fit an environment. This is a better definition than most because it does not have within it a preconceived judgment about the value of the modification. This is important to point out because discussions in the past have often been tainted by this judgment by practitioners of the evolved systems who, naturally enough, believe what they do is superior to what came before. An example of this can be seen with the numerous works on fencing that have been produced over the years when they speak of earlier systems of fence. Specialization is mistaken for progress. The pressures that are in fact causing the system to diverge from its original purpose are overlooked or not understood.
These pressures, however, can be not only understood but classified. What causes them and their outcomes, in terms of how they change the art, can be predicted. Martial arts, therefore, can be understood at a level not done in the past in how they relate to each other, how they became what they are and where their evolutionary path will lead them. This knowledge can be used by martial arts leaders to steer the evolution of heir arts in their desired direction.
This is what real martial arts mastery means.
In subsequent posts we will look at case studies from various martial arts as a window to begin to understand these forces. See you soon!
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Kratophobe – A person who claims to be a warrior and yet has an irrational fear of realistic hand-to-hand combat training.
Etymology, from the Greek...