The Art of War is one of the most sophisticated works ever devised on strategy and although the original was written thousands of years ago it remains a timeless classic to this very day.
The work is attributed to a general called Sun Tzu. There is not much known about his life, and there are some that even doubt his existence entirely. The work is believed to be composed around the 5th century BCE.
What is known for sure is that the philosophies and strategies associated with this work have been in circulation for thousands of years.
Although the work is ostensibly about war, the relevance of the information is applicable to the areas of business, politics, economics, sports, culture and leadership.
The Art of War when translated into English is typically divided into 13 chapters, and these cover a wide variety of subjects from being able to strategically plan for victory to being in combat situations with your enemy.
It would require a number of sizable books to go through each of the points in detail, so I’ll give a brief outline of the work although when you examine the work yourself you will discover a wealth of information that will speak to you and the situations that you will manifest according to your desires and objectives.
The Art of War text is set out in a way that could be a series of notes that are attributed to an author. Each section begins with the words ‘Sun Tzu said’ and this style of work can also be found in the works of philosophers such as Confucius (Analects) and Epictetus (the Enchiridion).
1. Laying Plans
This section explores the 5 constant factors when aiming to understand the conditions of battle. They differ according to interpretation, however they are approximately as follows.
(1) The Moral Law
(2) Heaven (contrasting elements and seasons)
(3) Earth (environments)
(4) The Commander
(5) Method and Discipline
The general who understands all of these factors in relation to their enemy will succeed, and those ignorant of those factors will be defeated.
One of the most powerful lines within the entire work is:
“All warfare is based on deception.”
I may put together an entire breakdown just on the previous statement alone in the future. If a person understands that statement then nothing that occurs within the areas of war, economics, and politics will be a surprise if one is able to decipher the specific codes of information.
2. Waging War
Sun Tzu emphasizes the importance of being able to gain victory quickly. Warfare that continues for extended periods of time will end up being extremely costly both in terms of financial and human resources.
“There is no instance of a country having benefitted from prolonged warfare.”
3. Attack by Stratagem
Sun Tzu shares the essential advice to defeat the enemy whole and intact if possible, rather than shattering and destroying them.
Another thing is to avoid undertaking a siege where you will be expending resources for a long period of time to gain a victory.
Next is advice for when you are either outnumbered or in a position to have greater numbers than your enemy.
Here is stated one of the most famous parts of the entire work.
‘It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be fear the result of a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.’
4. Tactical Dispositions
This section looks at the importance of being able to execute victories by making no mistakes as well as the practice of being able to prepare for a victory before the actual event happens.
One of the essential things from this area is being able to focus on and master things and circumstances within your control.
“To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy.”
Here is another essential piece of information that is frequently used to this very day.
‘The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.’
Organisations today are concerned with the question of scaling up in size or being able to be flexible enough to reduce their numbers of people involved.
Sun Tzu also acknowledged the different between knowledge and skill where he states, ‘One many know how to conquer without being able to do it.’
Another salient point that Sun Tzu makes is that the general must not make mistakes if he or she is to guarantee victory.
Another way to prosper in warfare is to use the enemy’s weakness for things that they desire, and use that as bait to divert them from their objectives.
In addition to that the ability to use the right people in the right situations is essential to being able to control your forces.
“In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.”
6. Weak Points and Strong
The importance of being prepared is at the foundation for excellence in warfare.
This will allow your will to be imposed, rather than to have others impose their will upon you.
If you look out in societies across the world today, you will see a number of people and groups that are perpetually reacting to what is happening, and they are never in control. Until they can address this imbalance they will never gain any real strength or power.
Sun Tzu continues to advise on ways to focus on the strong and weak points of your own forces and those of your enemy.
“By discovering the enemy’s dispositions and remaining invisible ourselves, we can keep our forces concentrated, while the enemy’s must be divided.”
Sun Tzu underlines the importance of being able to move yourself into advantageous positions in relation to your objectives.
It is also essential to gain full control of your forces and not allow any disorder in your organization.
An essential thing to do is to study the plans, and strategies of your enemy’s organizations, and work with trustworthy allies. You must also study those potential allies in great detail.
The practice of dissimulation is also essential for success in warfare.
One of the most profound things from the entire work is shared when Sun Tzu states, ‘Do not swallow bait offered by the enemy.
Many people lack self-discipline and self-control and are enslaved even when they are not constrained in bondage, they are enslaved mentally and are poisoned by their foes.
“Manoeuvring with an army is advantageous; with an undisciplined multitude, most dangerous.”
8. Variation in Tactics
Sun Tzu examines the need to be able to adapt to changes in circumstances as they arise. This is an essential part of life, as there are always unforeseen things that can occur at any moment and the ability to regroup and plan again based on new information will be the hallmark of the finest generals.
Another essential point made was the need to be prepared for your enemy even if they may not come. It is far better to be prepared rather than caught out through lazy actions.
Dangerous faults to avoid are:
(5) Weakness for your team
“When in an a desperate position, you must fight.”
9. The Army on the March
Sun Tzu states the importance of understanding the territory that you are going to when about to engage with the enemy, it is essential to choose the most favourable locations, otherwise it is wiser to avoid combat in those situations.
Also be aware of signs in nature and from the enemy to judge the situations and gather as much intelligence as possible.
One of the most prudent things that Sun Tzu states is to be very careful about agreeing to proposals of peace when issued by the enemy.
“Peace proposals unaccompanied by a sworn covenant indicate a plot.”
Sun Tzu deals with the various types of ground that a general needs to understand in order to succeed.
(1) Accessible ground
(2) Entangling ground
(3) Temporizing ground
(4) Narrow passes
(5) Precipitous ground
(6) Positions at a great distance from the enemy
‘The next section is a controversial section where Sun Tzu states, ‘if fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even if the ruler forbids it; if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight even at the ruler’s bidding.’
This stand taken by Sun Tzu could lead to a break down in the social order if the general can disobey orders whenever the desire is there. Also, if there is a need to protect the state or organization, even if it may lead to defeat an organization should fight until the end.
“The experienced soldier, once in motion, is never bewildered.”
11. The Nine Situations
Sun Tzu explores the nine varieties of ground, and if these are understood properly they will be applicable in a number of other areas of life.
(1) Dispersive ground
(2) Facile ground
(3) Contentious ground
(4) Open ground
(5) Intersecting grounds
(6) Serious ground
(7) Difficult ground
(8) Hemmed-in ground
(9) Desperate ground
“We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country.”
12. The Attack by Fire
Sun Tzu mentions the ways that it is possible to attack with fire and the ways that are appropriate for each situation.
“The enlightened ruler lays his plans well ahead.”
13. The Use of Spies
In this final section Sun Tzu lays out the uses and application of spies that can be used to gain vital information from the enemy.
“Spies cannot be usefully employed without a certain intuitive sagacity.”
Those are just a few extractions from the work and a detailed analysis could be written on each of the sections in detail.
There is always something new to discover and as the ages change, seasons change, cultures change, societies change, the world changes, the words of this work will speak to us in different ways at different times.
Ultimately the real test is the application of these ideas in real life because not all wars are fought on battlefields with weapons of mass destruction.
The most important battle of all is to have complete control of your own thoughts and actions.
A thing that causes confusion for many is the idea of ‘knowing yourself’ and this idea is foreign to those who have only been taught how to think from external sources, and for those people their idea of self is located within the ideas, beliefs and opinions of other people and institutions.
In the future I will examine and share our insights into the area of self-knowledge, and this is possibly the most profound area of study that a person can ever be engaged in. Our concept of self controls every aspect of our lives and there is no area of success or failure that we experience that is not controlled by the conception of self that we perpetually cultivate.
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
Author: Sun Tzu