ARMA Editorial - March 2007
Our Martial Tradition
Understanding the "Western" in "Western Martial Arts"

By John Clements
ARMA Director

“The Nation that makes a great distinction
between its scholars and its warriors
will have its thinking done by cowards
and its fighting done by fools.”
– Thucydides, 5th c. BC

Much like the near-legendary 300 Spartans battling to the last at Thermopylae, throughout its history Western Civilization has produced warriors who were free citizens willing to close with the enemy in battle and seek his annihilation. Fighting methods are called "martial arts" after all, as in the "arts of Mars" Roman god of war, whom the Spartans, those most pious of the ancient Greeks, called “Ares.” So when we speak today of the skills of Renaissance martial arts as being "Western" or "historical European" fighting traditions, it is important that we understand within the larger context of Western Civilization just what this heritage is. There is an undeniable problem today with the unfortunate lack of Humanities education which many students suffer. Following from this poor exposure to Western Civilization is a failure to recognize its uniqueness in world history and the special value of its ideas. One cannot study the martial arts of the "West" without knowing what the "West" is and why it came to be. If you don't know from where you came you can't know where you're going.

Quite often historical role-play reenactment efforts result in creating a certain bubble that encircles and strives to isolate a period or era out of the lager story of Western civilization as if to imagine it somehow existed complete on its own, rather than aspects of it having been absorbed, surpassed, or extinguished over generations. The arguable lack of emphasis on the Western Humanities within higher education nowadays only aggravates this. That some enthusiasts today can pursue traditional "Western" fighting arts or the martial arts of Renaissance "Europe" without an understanding of just what this historical "Western Europe" was, is a serious problem. There is the need then to draw, as it were, a “larger circle” around things by making some generalizations about just what elements define the civilization of the “West.”

As the eminent scholar of Greek military matters, Paul Cartledge, observed of this heritage when writing on Thermopylae: “professional historians are at least all agreed that, as things appear to us looking back over the past two and a half millennia, Greece – Classical Greece –  is one of the major taproots of our own Western civilization. This is not so much in the sense that there is an unbroken continuity of direct inheritance, but rather in the sense that there is an unbroken continuity of direct inheritance, but rather in the sense that there has been a series of conscious choices made – in the Byzantine era, in the mainly Italian Renaissance, in the age of Enlightenment and in the nineteenth-century age of imperialism – to adopt the Classical Greeks as our ‘ancestors’ in key cultural aspects.”

In Western Civilization, human progress has ranged from the struggle of Neolithic times to the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, through the challenges of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, into the Age of Enlightenment, past the problems of the Industrial Revolution, through the tragedy and triumph of the 20th century, down to the promise and peril of our 21st century Information Age. Through this we have been continually guided by principles of reason, science, and individual rights. The triumphs of Western Civilization are accomplishments unmatched in World history but resulting from specific ideas and institutions. The civilization of the "West" refers not to those of, for instance, Africa, Turkey, or pre-Columbian Mexico, or the indigenous Neolithic tribes of the Americas, but specifically to those of the European continent that trace their roots to the ancient cultures of Rome and Greece.

Western Civilization produced the concepts of scientific inquiry, religious tolerance, individual liberty, economic freedom, and the rule of law, which have over centuries led to unsurpassed scientific discoveries, a monumental flowering of art and literature, and a standard of living unequaled in history. A salient feature of Western civilization has also been its capacity to adapt, to borrow and absorb, and use ideas from outside itself when necessary to change for the better. Western Civilization alone has developed a tradition that continually strives for better representative government that is transparent and accountable. This stands in direct contrast to societies where leaders are neither elected nor exposed to public audit and do not work for the common good. The legacy of rational empiricism, logical reasoning, inquiry into natural law, and technological progress are exceptional virtues of Western, and in particular, American society with its immense achievements in human progress.

The traditional values of Western Civilization, in particular the Judeo-Christian ethics of essentially Latin Europe, are reflected in our systems of law and governance, which are now the model for those of much of the planet. Though at times it has deviated and suffered aberrations, the values and virtues found within Western Civilization are those of principled disagreement, open discourse, limitations on the power of the state, equality in the eyes of justice, individual opportunity and property rights, capitalism, free markets, and civic pride. These reflect a longstanding tradition of respect for the desire of all people to live free. They uphold the conviction that human progress, human dignity, and knowledge is gained through guided reason, not mysticism, custom, or revelation.

Unlike those squalid suffering regions of the globe that did not embrace reason, science, and individual rights, the West achieved its unprecedented wealth, health, comfort, freedom, and personal opportunity as a direct result of its cultural valuesnot the blind chances of geography or climate. The importance and accomplishments of Western Civilization are demonstrable facts and to point them out or take pride in them is no ethnocentric prejudice. The 18th century in the West marked the "Age of Enlightenment" where respect for reason triumphed over superstition, mysticism, and religiosity. The 20th century marked the victory of science, democracy, and the free-market. These climaxed in the American experiment where for the first time in human history a government respecting the individual was made of, by, and for the people. [Yet now, in the 21st century, despite Western Civilization's undeniable achievements and its advancement of the human condition, despite its unarguable accomplishments in the arts and sciences, it is under attack today as never before by a collusion of religious fanatics, despots, tyrants, nihilist ideologues, and many of its own disingenuous intellectuals all of whom use its tools and technologies, and enjoy its benefits, while at the very same time denounce its values and philosophies.]

The modern nation state inthe West and nearly all our institutions from universities, to banks and corporations are part of a society that progressed from city states to republics, from feudalism to empire, from monarchies to democracies. Western societies championed unequaled feats of architecture, engineering, scientific and medical inquiry, philosophy, literature, music, theater, sculpture, painting, cuisine, sports, jurisprudence, military science, exploration, and so many other areas of the humanities. Western society, bruised but tempered by the self-inflicted wounds of its own civil wars, yet nourished by the unmatched work ethic and creative energy of free-peoples, continues even now to change through the dynamic competition of ideas. While any person of any nationality or ancestry may come to call themselves Western, and still feel justifiable pride in their own cultural heritage, those of us who study history, particularly that of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, understand the unique place Western Civilization's legacy holds in our global community.

Despite the monumental efforts it has made on behalf of liberty and individualism, Western Civilization is often unfairly criticized for past incidents of oppression and imperialism while being damned for its self-absorbed materialism and commercialism-as if such age old problems of humanity were its own invention. Contrary to the multicultural moral relativist ideology, all cultures are not equal. Western Civilization is unique and special. Regardless of anyone's ethnicity, but especially for anyone of European descent, whether their ancestry is Celtic, Scandinavian, Slavic, Flemish, Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, Iberian, Latin, Frankish, or a multitude of others, they should take pride in being a part of the civilization of the West. For the values of Western Civilization now are precisely those that help us ensure that life is good and humane: pluralism, rationalism, science, the rule of law, elected representative government, constitutional republicanism, liberalism, separate and independent judiciary, freedom of worship, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom to bear arms, emancipation of slavery, equality of women, and preeminence of the individual over the state. Society not based on tribe or clan or caste or race or religion.

These are the salient ideas of a long cultural inheritance. They are the core values of Western Civilization—not of Asian, nor Middle Eastern, nor African, nor Pre-Columbian cultures. Nor are they Islamic, Hindu, Confucian, Taoist, or Buddhist ideas. This is a simple observation. They are the values for which generations in the West have long strived and died. The core principles and achievements of Western Civilization (and we might note of the United States of America especially) are something to be proudly proclaimed and championed. They are things to be nourished and protected. Freedom isn't free as the cliche goes, it requires those willing to fight, and when necessary, sacrifice in defense of it.

For the Spartans at Thermopylae, we may note there was a significant distinction at work between the two sides that made all the difference in what they did and why they were willing to do it. On one side were free men, citizens of a state, committed to a harsh discipline as specialists who would volunteer to fight and likely die for the safety of their greater community. On the other side, the conscript slave soldiers and zealots of an autocratic despot demi-god ruling a tribal empire.  There was something that mattered in terms of "values" or "virtues" or "way of life" at work in terms of differences in the ideas and institutions that came from each side having different social structures, governing systems, and a dissimilar sense of the individual. There is much worth pondering in the divergent cultural values that were in play. Such a factor was hardly a matter of the blind luck of whose ancestor’s were fortunate enough to have what livestock or plants or geography wherever they had settled.

What's all this—the roots and modern incarnation of Western Civ—got to do with historical European martial art studies? Well...Our martial heritage existed within a cultural context. When studying Medieval and Renaissance combat methods and noting the societies and cultures they were a product of; we cannot disregard how fighting men of the eras dealt with issues of violence, death, personal danger, courage, fear, duty, sacrifice, etc. These were largely cultural issues of Western ethics and spirituality. They address fundamental questions of when and where and why it was proper and right to use violent force. As an intense student of the subject and practitioner of the craft, it's something I, personally, cannot ignore. These are things which, much as for the 300 Spartans who with courage and sacrifice strived to persevere at Thermopylae, have long motivated warrior fighting men within Western Civilization. In a world governed by the open use of brutal force, the Spartans—flawed as they were themselves (and we are now ourselves) —fought and died not just for their own city and personal freedom, but for all of Greece.

“For that these two, learning and martial exercise,
effect two things most dangerous to a tyranny: wisdom and valour.
For that men of spirit and understanding, can hardly endure a servile State.”
- Sir Walter Raleigh. Maxims of State, 1642

About the Author:
Having studied the craft since 1980, John Clements is one of America’s leading instructors and practitioner-researchers of Medieval and Renaissance fencing having and researched and taught on it in ten countries.  He teaches and writes on historical fencing full-time, is director of ARMA, the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts ( and author of the books, Renaissance Swordsmanship, and Medieval Swordsmanship from Paladin Press.

See also: A Short Introduction to Historical European Martial Arts

Recommendations Further Reading on this topic:
Culture and Values: A Survey of the Western Humanities
Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization - Bruce Thornton
Triumph of the West - J. M. Roberts
Carnage and Culture - Victor D. Hansen
Conquest and Carnage - Thomas Sowell
The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance - John Hale
The Day the Universe Changed - James Burke
Honor: A History - James Bowman
A History of Knowledge- Charles Van Doren
The Discoverers - James Bornstein
From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life - Jacques Barzun
Battle: A History of Combat and Culture - John Lynn
Why We Fight - Bill Bennett
Bonfire of the Humanities - Hansen, et al
Who Killed Homer: Demise of Classical Education and Recovery of Greek Wisdom - Hansen
An Incomplete Education - Jones & Wilson
The Greek Way - Edith Hamilton
History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 - Andrew Roberts


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