John ClementsThe Contextual Dilemma of Learning Self-Defense

By John Clements
ARMA Director

I came across an article where a philosophy professor and martial artist was complaining about two professional martial arts instructors conversing over street violence and self-defense in a podcast. In their talk, they discussed how virtually anybody you’re going to come across today has some sort of martial sport training, and that rather than fighting it out when threatened with physical assault, running away is often the first best option. The author thought that the other two were doing a tremendous disservice to potential students and their listeners. More or less, by stressing the function of martial arts originating as war skills —or as we know it, the Arts of Mars— the author argued that self-defense students must learn to confidently deal with the inherent fear of violent confrontation, and that conveying this crucial lesson first and foremost is the primary role of a good martial arts instructor. He more or less contended that teaching students to just run away is telling them to give in to fearfulness. Making the student afraid over how dangerous everything out there is only serves to make them frightened, timid, and therefore weak and possibly more vulnerable —the very antithesis of what competent martial arts instruction is supposed to provide.

If you have no fighting skills, then you have no option but to try to flee. By contrast, having those skills does not just give you the option of fighting effectively, they give you the chance of winning when fleeing is not an option. Yes, you should learn to be aware of your environment and surroundings and appraise possible threats, but that doesn’t mean instantly attempting to flee in fear over every perceived danger (not to mention that displaying weakness in response to aggression never deters it).

I do understand where he’s coming from, because when you try to convey to students the reality of violence, whether historical or modern, it can often be quite disturbing and overwhelming for a certain portion of them. It can be quite discouraging to some when they begin to be cognitive of just how vulnerable they really are and how much effort is required to viably defend themselves in most all life-threatening encounters. This is especially true for female students, younger students, elderly students, and physically less capable students. The necessity of developing a certain martial spirit is therefore crucial. And this was expressed eloquently by Master Fiore, who at the dawn of the 15th century first warned that if you do not have audacity, do not study the Art of Defence. Decades earlier, Master Doebringer specifically warned to never fight either in fear or out of anger. And there are many other Renaissance fight masters who addressed the critical factor of emotional control in having the proper attitude to effectively employ fighting skills (as well as the ethical component involved).

The development of this kind of mindset, this kind of martial character, or Kampfgeist as it was then known, is the most challenging, time-consuming and, indeed, intimate aspect of the teacher-student relationship. Many students will bring some of this with them when they start training, particularly if they are younger athletic males culturally wired toward things martial. But many students do not have this discipline whatsoever. They come to the craft with a larping attitude, sport-play mentality, or just some abstract recreational conception oblivious to the nature of real violence.

In my experience, this truth is even more dramatically obvious in our training precisely because we work directly with formidable weapons whose power and ferocity are so self-evident. And yet, in lessons we typical struggle at educating students to overcome a century of pop-culture nonsense polluting their views of how these weapons actually function in earnest violence—and how human beings will genuinely respond to it. This is why in my courses I have always stressed the universal core principles at work, and how a weapons-based system is inherently about equalizing vantages. The lethal immediacy of weaponry, whether it be a simple baton or knife or a historical sword for war or duel, follows underlying rules that apply across the board (there is a reason after all why we find the same fundamentals appearing in ancient Greek artworks, 15th century fight books, and modern military combative programs). This is also why I put so much emphasis on the unarmed techniques involved and never teach the craft in a vacuum of merely “fencing” weapon against weapon.

So the author’s essential criticisms are correct in my opinion. The whole point of the Art, taught Master Liechtenauer in 1389, is to overcome a stronger opponent —or as Master Vadi put it in the 1480s, cunning defeats any strength. However, Liechtenauer himself also expressed there is no shame in running away from four or five opponents —or retreating by “Cobb’s traverse” from an adversary too dangerous to engage without incurring injury, as Master George Silver put it in 1598. Avoiding unnecessary danger (as well as provocation) is itself a tremendous part of martial knowledge. But, the author is also right that so much of today’s popular martial arts and sports styles do not prepare the student for sudden personal assault under either civilian or military conditions. One cannot use these methods, especially the grapple-centric ones, in most street situations (and certainly not against multiple assailants or hand weapons).

So, as he criticized the two professional instructors for suggesting that most of the time in self defense it’s just best to run away, I concurred. It takes shrewd judgment to discern when the optimal move is to withdraw, and that decision should not be made out of fear—in the same way the decision to fight should not be made from bravado. Liechtenauer taught that when you understand that no one just defends except out of fear, then you understand how to prevent attacks, adding that for those who just look and wait and do nothing but defend it is disastrous. He added that of the defense he would not speak, for there was nothing to be said other than if your opponent attacks you attack, because a defensive attitude means you are already beaten. Master Altoni observed in 1550 that defense is comprised of offense, while the soldier-duelist Ghisliero in 1587 instructed that there is no defense except that we offend and no offense except that we defend. The entire concept at work was best expressed in 1610 by the Master Capo Ferro as “offense is defense.” In this regard, just running away is ultimately self-defeating because you can always be chased down, as George Silver pointed out about rapier fencers invariably retreating if you kept pressing in on them.

Dutch c1520Yet, a fundamental truth of self defense that the two professionals were reasonably expressing is that to be able to act offensively, one must first also have the tools—physical as well as mental. And there is no question that this very often is simply not possible for most students that a fight instructor commonly comes across today. At the same time, I think that the element being overlooked by all these gentlemen is that martial arts are contextual and situational. There is no universal fool-proof system or tactical solution for all combatants on all occasions. Not every self defense solution is optimal for everyone every time. Not every method is fit for the aptitude of every particular type of student, just as not every method (or weapon) is ideal for every particular encounter. The same is true for whatever manner by which any instruction is being provided. Each lesson will not always match the mindset of every type of practitioner. Pragmatic as any fighting system must be, in responding to the chaos of close combat it nonetheless is as Master Nicoletto Giganti observed in 1606, “a speculative science.” The only constant at work in any of this is human nature itself.

Master Meyer wrote in 1570 that everyone is built differently, therefore everyone fights differently, and everyone thinks differently, therefore everyone fights differently, but all must attest that all fighting skill derives from the same common principles. This truth is exactly why there are so many different styles and theories, and indeed, diverse weapons, throughout history around the globe. As a student you must learn which method and approach is appropriate for you—for your physical and mental dispositions. And as a teacher, you must help the student find it. Or as the master François Dancie expressed in 1623, a good teacher must strive to match the Art to the individual student’s needs and nature.

All of this presents a certain dilemma and is exactly why the wisdom of the Renaissance Masters of Defence preserved in volumes of their remarkably well-developed fighting systems is still so extraordinarily valuable. Devoid of the civilianization, theatricalization, commercialization, and hyperbolization which plagues so many self defense styles now (modern and traditional), their teachings on the Noble Science hold tremendous value for us in how they speak to us now. As I’ve expressed many times: Everything in martial arts is about defence, except for defence, which is about offence.



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