Understanding the "A" in WMA
by Tom Leoni
As we all know, the acronym WMA stands for Western Martial Arts - an
expression that has become intimately familiar to anyone who practices our disciplines.
We call our arts Western (or European) because they flourished in Europe; we call them
martial because they had defensive, offensive and military applications. And we call
them arts mostly because... we are used to it.
After all, donít our friends who practice Kung Fu call their discipline
a martial "art?" So if theirs is an art so must be ours. And donít the masters who wrote
the historical treatises call their disciplines "arts?" So arts they must be.
Indeed, professions such as swordsmanship were called arts in the
Renaissance - by the very men who created them and passed them down to posterity in the
form of treatises. For instance, practically all the historical Italian fencing texts
that I have examined make a reference to fencing being an art - sometimes even in the
title. Monte (1509) names his treatise Artis Militaris Collectanea (compendium of martial
art), while Capoferro devotes a long paragraph to the definition of fencing as an art as
opposed to a science. But oftentimes we are in such a hurry to see how to acquire a few
tricks to defeat our opponents that we completely overlook these consistent definitions
and their implications - thereby severely impairing our ability to achieve the very goal
we strive for.
As with all definitions, understanding why swordsmanship was called an
art is indispensable towards understanding its essence and structure. This is especially
true in light of the fact that the modern mind often associates the word "art" with things
that are only tangentially related to what this term meant from the time of the Ancient
Greeks to the end of the XVIII Century.
So what is art? In the commonsense understanding of the word, we call art
a whimsical creation of our free spirit - a form of unfettered self-expression designed to
please our senses - generally our sight and hearing. Thus an artist is often imagined as
an eccentric beau esprit who wears a French beret and creates out of sheer inspiration,
free from any fetters imposed by mores, society, science or tradition.
The dangers of understanding martial arts in this light are twofold. First
of all, this concept of art is utterly anti-historical. Secondly, there is the risk of r
egarding the rules of a martial art as arbitrary conventions or creations of the masterís
sense of aesthetic - and consequently discarding them as "unfit for a real fight" or other
such nonsense Iíve heard all too often.
The correct way to approach the definition of art is strictly philological.
By discovering what "art" meant to the men who wrote the period treatises we also discover
how to study these texts. So, letís turn to the Vocabolario Della Crusca, the standard
authority on the Italian language since 1612. Here is the definition given:
- ART: Derived from experience, it is the use of reason to tackle any matter,
as is the case with the seven liberal arts and the mechanical arts. Latin ars.
- Albert[i]. c. 46. Arts serve Nature, and knowledge rules them. Art comes from
the Latin arcere, which means to force or constrain. Art is a finite disposition of infinite
things. Put another way, art is a collection of rules all aimed at the same end. Knowledge
of all things can be obtained through practice [uso], and what man knows, he knows through
either art [arte] or practice [uso]. Likewise, arduous strain satiates man, while sleepless
art often gives him great riches. Apply yourself to study, so that you may learn art, whose
rules will help your mind as practice helps your hand: art gives, while practice has. If
you join art and practice, a difficult journey will appear short.
This definition is complete and gives an idea of the very essence of how art
was understood in the late Renaissance. So, letís analyze some of the salient points of this
definition of art to see a) how it stacks up against todayís commonsense understanding of the
word and b) how these points may be relevant to our martial disciplines.
[Art] is the use of reason to tackle any matter. Immediately, this goes against
any notion of arts being just a free, childlike expression of something whimsical. Arts are
instead founded upon the use of reason, and have a specific purpose - the purpose of tackling
matters and situations. This is also why arts (martial and otherwise) are not just a mere
performance of "whatís natural," since reason has to first filter whatever observation of
nature we derive through experience, and then order such observation into rules. Rules, in
turn, are designed to achieve a specific goal in a repeatable manner.
Arts serve Nature, and knowledge rules them. Arts are to nature what a
gardenerís shears are to his plants, or what a tutor is to a growing child. In each of my
analogies, the first term "serves" the second in the sense that it "forces" or "coerces" it
(just like in the Latin sense of the word arcere) to grow or develop in a certain way - a
way contrary to randomness. We all know that defense is in our nature - even an infant,
as Alfieri reminds us, will raise his hands in defense of his face when he perceives that
physical harm is imminent. But a martial art serves our natural self-defense instincts in
the sense that it channels them into the margins of repeatable efficiency and effectiveness.
In turn, arts are ruled by knowledge - how would a gardener or a tutor be able to ply their
professions and "serve" nature without it? And how could a martial artist achieve his goals
without a conscious knowledge of the rules that allow him to obtain repeatable results?
Art is a finite disposition of infinite things. What makes it hard to travel
on sea (or in a desert) is that the excess of freedom can get you lost. Instead, driving
through the perpendicular grids of Americaís numbered highways is easy because the finite
geometry of these roads helps you maintain your bearings at all times. So the finite disposition
of roads and paths enhances the possibility of your reaching your destination safely and
quickly. Likewise, the rules of art are nothing less than a roadmap against the randomness
of fields that can admit infinite combinations between the elements it comprises. For
instance, the rules of musical harmony are a hedge against the infinite combinations that
are possible between notes, and the rules of grammar serve the same function to restrict
the infinite combinations possible between words and word-forms. And the rules of a martial
art do the exact same thing. Arenít Fabrisí four guards or Silverís four governors ways to
confine an infinite thing into finite parameters? These elements or rules are what makes
Fabrisí and Silverís systems arts.
Art is a collection of rules all aimed at the same end. Please dwell on these
two words: rules and end. Art is not an end-in-itself proposition. Its rules are the arrows
in the artistís quiver - arrows that are all to reach the same target, or else they are
ineffective. And this goes to the heart of the argument on whether the rules of a martial
art are just whimsical dictates of a masterís fancy - they are not, because they are aimed
towards achieving an end. They are the most direct way to achieve the artís goal, which in
our case is to remain unscathed while presenting the most formidable threat to the opponent.
This means that an art cannot, by definition, be an art unless it has both rules to follow
and an end to attain - and that the masters who wrote the treatises we study very likely
went by this very definition.
Knowledge of all things can be obtained through practice [uso], and what man
knows, he knows through either art [arte] or practice [uso]. This is one of the most salient
parts of the definition - and not only for the obvious appearance of the two words arte and
uso in Capoferroís treatise (isnít it amazing to what understanding a good dictionary can lead
us?). What this sentence means is this, put into a more prosaic paraphrase: direct experience
(practice) of a subject eventually leads to learning what we call the "ropes" of the subject;
these ropes (if they work in a repeatable manner) are nothing but the rules of the art. Thus,
these "ropes" or "rules" can be subsequently taught, saving the second generation of learners
a little trial and error in their learning through practice or experience alone. Along these
lines, we can surmise a greatly simplified genesis of martial arts from what must have been
mere individual combat experience into sets of teachable rules designed to spare the novice
some dangerous dead ends (pun intended).
Likewise, arduous strain satiates man, while sleepless art often gives him great
riches. Experience will give you a good working knowledge of your discipline, knowledge that is
perishable as daily experience diminishes. Art, on the other hand, will give you a thorough command
of what you do, thanks to the permanent understanding of rules. An experienced instinctive fighter
will have a good idea of what to do and what not to do in many situations, and the focus of his
understanding will be directly proportional to his direct experience; while a martial artist will
always know what the right thing to do is, with the certainty of a mathematician. And even though an
artist remains inactive for a period, his understanding of the discipline will remain steady even
when his reflexes and body-mechanics start becoming less sharp.
Apply yourself to study, so that you may learn art, whose rules will help your
mind as practice helps your hand: art gives, while practice has. This is the direct consequence of
the previous sentence. If you learn the rules of your art, your practice will be pointed and extremely
efficient, because every action you learn and rehearse will be designed to fulfill a very precise
tactical purpose. With the knowledge of the art, your mind will lead your hand like a knowledgeable
coachman leads a team of well-trained horses. In this sense, art gives the directions, while
practice has the physical means to feel them and actualize them. Dwell on this principle, because
it is extremely important.
If you join art and practice, a difficult journey will appear short. Letís
remain with the analogy of art being the coachman and practice the team of horses. The higher
the quality of both coachman and horses, the more efficient and bump-free the journey. If either
element is lacking, we fall into two equally unacceptable situations. If the horses are strong
and fast but the coachman is not knowledgeable, the power of the team is applied randomly and
aimlessly, and the many wrong turns can lead the coach astray. Worse yet, the very strength and
speed of the horses will make the coach reach the wrong destination even faster. Conversely, if
the coachman is top-notch but the team is lame, his knowledge of the road is useless against the
many stops and tentative starts. Martially speaking, this sentence means that if you want your
learning journey to be efficient you need to join a rock-solid knowledge of the theory with
assiduous and well-pointed practice. Swinging a longsword or a rapier four hours a day without
knowing exactly whatís right and whatís wrong is all but a waste of those hours; as is reading
texts in your room for 4 hours a day without spending an equal amount of time sword-in-hand
against an opponent.
So why are our disciplines arts? Because they are a collection of rules (derived
from experience) designed to achieve a repeatable result - that of hitting without getting hit.
Direct experience is what allowed the masters of the past to build the self-contained blocks of
the art (the rules) so that they could teach them directly to their students or pass them down
in the form of treatises.
Next time you hear the expression "martial art," think of art as what it meant
to the Renaissance mind, and apply that concept to the way you learn and practice your discipline.
Be aware of the need for rules: identify them in your art - even when the master does not alert
you by saying "this is an important rule" he may still enumerate a list of rules in a more or
less obvious fashion. It is up to you to find them, so that you always know whatís right and
whatís wrong in any given situation. And be aware of the need for practice - rules without
practice are like a coachman without a good team of horses. Make the horses strong and keep
them lean and well-nurtured, and your journey will indeed be shorter and more trouble-free.