The Art of War (5th century BCE)


Contrary to western bias, Socrates was not the progenitor of the maxim “know thyself”; in fact, this was a truncation of Sun Tzu’s maxim which boils down to “know thyself and know thy enemy”: “…if you know yourself and know your enemy, you will gain victory a hundred times out of a hundred”; “…if you know the enemy and know yourself, you are sure of victory” (21, 69). This is not to discredit Socrates (or rather Plato’s Socrates), however—to be sure, Sun Tzu’s and Socrates’s audiences and purposes were quite different. What we get with The Art of War is an almost entirely pragmatic manual for generals to successfully conduct war.

So direct and pragmatic is Sun Tzu, that I wish modern books like How to Win Friends and Influence People would expose the viscera of their cloistered message: “Successful war follows the path of Deception” (11). And, indeed, this ancient Chinese manual has been appropriated in modern day military strategy and business conduct. If one reads it in the mindset of, say, an office manager, the text is rich with sound advice and consistently urges the necessity of looking to oneself as the source of the collective human atmosphere: “Widespread unrest indicates weakness in the command” (59). It urges ones to be thoroughly prepared, never extemporaneous; and it underscores the weight of responsibility—something I wish more world leaders would heed: “Only someone who understands the perils of waging war can also understand the best way of conducting it” (13).

In addition to the pervasive pragmatism, however, there is an element of the text that keeps it on philosophy. One must undertake to understand what Sun Tzu means by the Substantial and the Insubstantial. James Trapp—translator of my stunning hardcover edition from Chartwell Books (bound in the same manner of the book-binding methods employed during the Ming dynasty)—sums up the idea of opposites nicely in a footnote to the “Momentum” chapter: “…apparent opposites are, in fact, part of the same continuum, and…in harnessing one aspect you are also automatically involving the other” (37). In this vein, the text can be read as a manual for chess strategy: “Lay plans to discover the enemy’s intentions”; “…the greatest skill is in keeping the enemy in the dark” (37).

In the end, after laying all the groundwork for his framework of successful conduct in warfare, Sun Tzu issues the hardest part of any mindset adoption program: “Do not ask them [i.e. the followers/employees/etc.] simply to trust your word, show them with your actions” (sic: comma-splice) (81). It’s easy to read a book full of wisdom concentrated within one pithy statement after another. But it is quite another to endeavor to put its message into action.

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