Why Study the Martial Arts?

A Portrait of Adam Smith 1790
Adam Smith might be a saint of modern Economics, but he was far more than that.

This week, I was reading How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman (2001) and it got me thinking about why we study the martial arts. [I have studied them myself, starting at age 13 and up through much of my adulthood.]

In a discussion of Adam Smith (yes, I mean the founder of modern economics) and his fellows, Dr. Herman explains why Smith backed the idea of a citizen militia — as a counterbalance for the effects of living in a commercialized society. Adam Smith argued that when we live in a commercialized society, we lose touch with the more rough side of our nature.

And it’s true, in my experience. When we work office jobs that require high levels of cooperative effort, there is certainly something lost.

Culture and Human Nature

Cubicle land
This is not the land we were adapted for.

Since this is often a blog on human nature in Western culture — specifically the parts of human nature that come from our primate biology — I want to draw the link that Smith inferred all the way back in the 18th century. Culture and society do not always fulfill every aspect of ourselves. In fact, they suppress parts that make us play less well with others.

But, just as entertainment can provide safety valves for us, as primates, so too can hobbies. Many hobbies can be clearly defined by their links to such primate behavior. Gardening, camping, and combat simulations all provide ways for us to express parts of ourselves “lost” under modern specialization.

That such drives are still powerful are doubly proven by the fact that we actually spend vast amounts of money, time, and effort in studying these “old” forms of knowledge. Yet we have no true desire to fight, to live in the wilds, or to grow all of our own food.

Studying War for Peace of Mind

Two men practicing Tae Kwon Do
Reach out and touch someone — yourself.

So why do we study the martial arts? Perhaps because expressing that part of ourselves, and more so being recognized for it, connects us more deeply with who (and what) we are. That doesn’t mean we need to solve our problems by using them.

When we’re connected to these parts of ourselves, we become more confident in ourselves. We don’t use such training to prepare for being drafted as soldiers — we have formal military training for that.

But for those of us who live the everyday life of a commercialized society, some kind of training is necessary. Truth be told, we don’t study for utility’s sake. We study for peace of mind. Not the peace of mind that comes from meditation, but the kind that comes from discipline, yes, but also from being in touch with ourselves more completely.


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