Sun Tzu’s perennial military treatise, the Art of War, has slid in and out of my consciousness over the years. I don’t remember the exact moment I’d heard about it for the first time, but it certainly was a long time ago.
I never understood why people liked to glorify war. My aversion to war and the inevitable tragic outcomes that come from it kept me from reading Sun Tzu’s (English: Master Sun) magnum opus but I can’t deny that a slight curiosity was always there, tickling the back of my mind ever so gently. It’s enduring status as a classic must-read intrigued me.
To the people who know me: I realize my interest in martial arts and enjoyment in watching fighters pulverize each other’s faces on TV might be seen as hypocritical given my views on war. But that’s another discussion…perhaps best reserved for another blog that no one will read.
The manner in which Sun Tzu speaks of warfare is so contrary to the typical nature of war itself. The stoicism, philosophy, subtlety and even gentleness that shines through in his words were such that I was taken aback to see the word “killing” in the book (re: “Treat prisoners of war kindly, and care for them”).
What I — and others who have read it— love about the Art of War is that its lessons are not restricted to emerging victorious in a war; you can bring them with you anywhere life takes you.
Here are the ones that stood out to me:
Victory belongs to the side that scores most in the temple calculations before battle. — Chapter 1, Making of Plans
Thinking, calculating, planning, strategizing — everything that goes on in between your ears is what counts the most.
I have heard that in war haste can be folly but have never seen delay that was wise. — Chapter 2, Waging of War
Secure victory as fast as you can — prolonging the fight can have grave consequences.
Ultimate excellence lies not in winning every battle but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting.— Chapter 3, Strategic Offensive
No comment needed.
The victorious army is victorious first and seeks battle later; the defeated army does battle first and seeks victory later. —Chapter 4, Forms and Dispositions
You’d better be judicious in your planning if you expect to succeed. Otherwise, you’re fucked (or at least, you won’t get what you aimed for).
I am concentrated into one; he is divided into ten. I am ten to his one; many against his few. — Chapter 6, Empty and Full
I like to relate this to divided attention. If you focus your efforts in ten different directions, you’ll only make small progress on those things. But if you concentrate all your effort into one pursuit, the progress you’ll make on that particular thing will yield significant and meaningful results.
The Skillful Warrior does not rely on the enemy’s not coming, but on his own preparedness. He does not rely on the enemy’s not attacking, but on his own impregnability. — Chapter 8, The Nine Changes
Take charge of your situation to ensure you get what you want. Don’t rely on someone else’s shortcomings, which aren’t guaranteed, to bring you to victory or success.
To the question “How should we confront an enemy, numerous and well arrayed, poised to attack?” My reply is “Seize something he cherishes, and he will do to your will.” — Chapter 11, The Nine Kinds of Ground
Can you imagine being a superhero with a lot of villainous enemies bent on your destruction? The fewer people you care about, the less vulnerable you are.
Anger can turn to pleasure; spite can turn to joy. But a nation destroyed cannot be put back together again; a dead man cannot be brought back to life. — Chapter 12, Attack by Fire
Anger and spite are fleeting, but broken nations and dead men aren’t. Don’t let those emotions control you and lead you to irreversible consequences.
In terms of word count, the Art of War is bare bones. In terms of meaning, it is limitless.