Martial arts, or fighting arts, is a very broad term, often used
synonymously with "physical self defense" in conjunction with organized Asian systems of boxing and combat, such as Japanese "karate". However, every human society had their own martial arts, and, as its name suggests (Mars being the Roman god of war), also encompasses aspects of military and law enforcement training. The Wikipedia entry offers a good starting point to many of its multifaceted aspects.
The world has, on average and in most places, become a far safer place than in earlier times, when life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short", as famously said in Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, who advocated for the now almost universally accepted social contract theory in which the government should have a monopoly on the use of violence.
Still, everyone knows the world is not a perfect place. My interests lie primarily in unarmed (no weapon) self defense. Like many people, I got involved at an early age, somewhat coincidentally (my friend was gathering some people to start learning from a new teacher), but also because knowing how to fight seemed like a wise idea, having seen violence, threatening behavior, and school bullying from an early age. Also, like many people who stick with it into adulthood, the focus changes: It becomes a holistic sport, an enjoyable hobby for both mind and body, and a way of meeting like-minded individuals.
It is, in fact, a bizarre passion, with the idea being to perfect and optimize methods of neutralizing an opponent, yet (as most martial artists hope) with the full understanding that these tools are never to be used. Many Asian fighting systems, whether Chinese, Japanese, Okinawan, Philippine, etc., embrace this principle, and in earlier times, "karate" was not for sale, and only taught to family members, or outsiders deemed worthy to learn.
At first blush, a possible analogy to the idea of learning and practicing methods that are never intended to be used would be to nuclear weapons: They are not actually supposed to be deployed (or so we hope)! But the analogy fails, because states want others to know their capabilities, and thus serve as a deterrent and ultima ratio (last resort). On the contrary, someone with entrenched fighting skills (and the right mindset) does not attempt to bully or intimidate others with his or her knowledge. The ideal martial or warrior mindset involves displaying courtesy, patience, respect, and modesty to others. Real self defense begins by simply avoiding potentially dangerous situations. Even if violence is seemingly justified, the idea is to suppress the less gregarious nature of our egos, and, despite possible verbal provocations, to just walk away. Aggressive behavior is engaged only when you "cannot just walk away".
After a few years and some (mis-)adventures, I have (finally!) completed my book Become the Dragon!, covering a large range of relevant topics for both (Asian-based) martial artists and anyone interested in self-defense. A preview of the book is available here: