By Carlos Fuentes
Classic: A book that people praise and don’t read—Mark Twain
Written by an anonymous Chinese author during the fourth century BCE, The Art of War[i] is a short book in the Taoist tradition attributed to Sun Tzu, of whom no historical records have ever been found. His existence has been questioned by researchers, but legend holds that he wrote The Art of War over 2,000 years ago. Regardless of its mythical origins, this book has been one of the most influential and popular works on strategy, due on the one hand to the timeless lessons it contains, and on the other, to the lack of understanding of the relevant historical context which endows it with an air of faux mysticism.
This article aims to discuss salient points of The Art of War with due consideration of the environment in which it was produced.
Most people’s historical perspective begins with the day of their birth—Rush Limbaugh
The Chou dynasty was founded in the 10th century BCE by the writers of the I Ching.[ii] It collapsed during the Warring States period (fifth to the third century BCE), a time during which would-be rulers availed themselves of any method, including deception, treachery, and cruelty, to advance their personal interests—in the process leaving a legacy of misery and pain.
As the Chou dynasty declined, seven large and five small states contested for power. Each state was a feudal confederation, hence its ability to organize and wage war was hampered by the interests of nobles who saw armed conflict as the means to settle personal disputes. This situation started to change in the mid-seventh century BCE, particularly in the northern state of Qi, which was continuously engaged in bellicose operations. Military success, it became apparent, required a fundamental transformation in the approach of war. Accordingly, the rulers of Qi eliminated the aristocratic fiefdoms, unified the state, enlarged the army by allowing or requiring members of the population to join in, to some extent placed talent and skill above lineage, and established a bureaucratic system to manage public affairs. As a result, loose confederations were replaced by strong central governments capable of creating powerful war machines.[iii]
According to tradition, Sun Tzu was born in Qi at a time when other states had developed similar pragmatic views about war and had become more effective than Qi. Sun Tzu and other military experts were hired by rulers to improve their bellicose machinery. He became famous, so the story goes, and his methods were widely adopted. The opening paragraph of The Art of War should be understood in this context, not in one of imaginary mysticism: “Military action is important to the nation—it is the ground of death and life, the path of survival and destruction, so it is imperative to examine it.” Sun Tzu, to continue the tradition of attributing the text to this warrior-philosopher who may not have existed, strongly opposed the aristocratic view of war. He argued that conflict is a matter of great relevance to the nation and amenable to study: “Military action is inauspicious—it is only considered important because it is a matter of life and death, and there is the possibility that it may be taken up lightly.”
The Art of War is the product of specific circumstances in a unique historical context. Circumstances and context explain why, to the surprise of some, Sun Tzu makes pronouncements with narrow applicability such as: “It is never beneficial to a nation to have a military operation continue for a long time.” Anybody understands that the speed and duration of a military operation depends on the particular circumstances of the conflict and that, accordingly, sometimes it is good to protract while other times it is best to engage in a blitzkrieg. Sun Tzu’s advice is sensible in the context of large, slow-moving Chinese armies, because lasting conflicts left troops open to attacks on multiple fronts. In contrast to axioms with universal applicability, this dictum is sensible under the circumstances in which Chinese armies operated 2,000 years ago. There are many examples, contemporary (as in World War II) and ancient, where protraction has been the best choice. A famous case is the engagement between Quintus Fabius (“The Delayer”) and Hannibal during the Second Punic War in the third century BCE, which marked the turning point of the conflict and, in so doing, shaped Western civilization.[iv]
Pseudo-mysticism seeks to evade reality; authentic mysticism wants to live it—Vernon Howard
Taoist concepts permeate The Art of War. Accordingly, a brief explanation of this philosophical and religious school of thought is in order.
Taoism is a polytheist religion. Gods are not necessarily worshiped but rather seen as explanations of what cannot be explained. Taoism is about the Tao, typically translated as the Way—the ultimate creative principle of the universe to which all things are connected. Taoism is a religion of unity and complementarities: hot and cold, high and low, light and dark, action and inaction—that is, of yin and yang. Taoism promotes balance, harmony with nature, virtue, self-development, meditation, reciting the Tao Te Ching[v] to bring human beings closer to unity with the Tao, learning the Feng Shui,[vi] and fortune-telling.
Early in The Art of War Sun Tzu explains why the Tao is a crucial strategic tool in war: “The Way means inducing the people to have the same aim as the leadership, so that they will share death and share life without fear of danger.” By doing so he endows a religious/philosophical concept with a dose of psychology, practicality, and common sense. Practical aspects of other Taoist ideas are discussed throughout the book while the less reputable elements of Taoism such as fortune-telling and the Feng Shui are absent from it. This characteristic—the focus on practicality and the exclusion of questionable teachings—has contributed to the book’s relevance over the centuries. Indeed, usefulness, not platitudes, is the hallmark of distinguished thinkers such as B.H. Liddell Hart, who in his book Scipio Africanus remarks that “[Scipio[vii] was] a man whose triumphs, whether military, political, or diplomatic, were, above all, due to his supreme insight into the psychology of men.” In a different context and referring to harmony, Thucydides reports that Alcibiades, a flamboyant Greek general, made the following argument in 415 BCE to justify the Athenian expedition to Sicily: “A city that is active would quickly be destroyed by a change to passivity, and those people find the greatest safety who conduct their affairs in the greatest harmony with their existing character and customs.”[viii]
Elements of Taoism permeate the Chinese martial arts. Anybody who is familiar with Kung Fu (the martial art, not in the generic sense of the concept as a skill attained through hard work) finds the following statement reasonable, perhaps self-evident, although it is paradoxical to most of us: “Therefore, one who is good at martial arts overcomes others’ forces without battle, conquers others’ cities without siege, destroys others’ nations without taking a long time.”
Style and Themes
Deep knowledge of principle knows without seeing, strong practice of the Way accomplishes without striving. … Strong action is to grow ever stronger, adapting to all situations—The Book of Balance and Harmony[ix]
The Art of War consists mostly of aphorisms[x] which give it an air of mysticism, allow for varied interpretations and contribute to misunderstandings. Here are three examples, all of them with Taoist underpinnings:
- The opportunity to defeat the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.
- Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.
- Plan for what is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small.
In their article “Rhetorical Technique and Governance,”[xi] Kevin Morrell and Robin Burrow observe that aphorisms are “a highly flexible, powerful rhetorical format that can support claims based on logos,[xii] ethos,[xiii] and pathos.”[xiv]
Historical, cultural, philosophical, and religious backgrounds are central to understanding Sun Tzu. Without them his advice is as good as “buy low, sell high”—sensible but for practical purposes useless.[xv]
The central themes of the book are the gravity of war—not an instrument to gain personal glory but a strategic tool or, to paraphrase Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, the continuation of politics by different means[xvi]—and how to win it if it becomes unavoidable. To be victorious the general must employ what for practical purposes are super-human intelligence, Vulcan self-control, intrigue, deception, discord, even fire—any means that contribute to success. He must understand psychology—better yet, the Tao—and use it as circumstances demand.
The rest of this article summarizes and comments on key aspects of the 13 short chapters that constitute The Art of War. The summaries are not exhaustive and more than one interpretation are possible.
In Chapter I, “Strategic Assessment,” Sun Tzu asserts that war should be the last recourse to resolve conflict. When unavoidable, it should be conducted with strict adherence to strategic principles—there is no place for aristocratic interests or other superfluous considerations. Strategy requires understanding the Way, the weather, the terrain, leadership, and discipline. “Every general has heard of these five things. Those who know them prevail, those who do not know them do not prevail. Therefore, use these assessments for comparison to find out what the conditions are. This is how you can know who will win.” In the context of military operations, the Way refers to leadership and the behavior leaders exhibit,[xvii] including the ability to interact effectively with soldiers—a fashionable dictum practiced by few. Outstanding military leaders such as Julius Caesar and Napoleon applied this principle relentlessly. Assessments of weather and terrain are still relevant if we understand them as part of the milieu in which the army (or a company) operates—the competitive environment, to borrow a business term.[xviii] Leadership, according to Sun Tzu, is to be appraised in terms of intelligence, trustworthiness, humanness, courage, and sternness.[xix] Discipline can only be effective when it is part of a system in which trust has been established and soldiers (or employees) are treated fairly. In particular, the competent general avoids favoritism and never engages in nepotistic practices.
It is as early as Chapter I when Sun Tzu advocates the use of means that some consider immoral, specifically deception, misinformation, fomenting internal conflict in the enemy ranks, manipulating their feelings, even fire—anything that confers an advantage.
Chapter II, “Doing Battle,” reflects the warfare circumstances of ancient China. Sun Tzu advocates speed and efficiency, warning against protracted battles. The student of The Art of War must approach the text critically. Yet, even in sections with no universal applicability there are pearls of wisdom with a recognizable Taoist flavor such as “so what kills the enemy is anger, what gets the enemy’s goods is reward.”
In Chapter III, “Planning a Siege,” Sun Tzu states that it is best to win without fighting and gives advice on how to achieve this objective: It is best to overcome opponents at the outset by foiling their plans; if that is not possible, then the strategist should isolate opponents to render them ineffective. Victories should be total to minimize the expenses of maintaining an army to occupy enemy territory. His practical advice continues when he states that the skilled general should not engage in battle when the odds are against him—it makes no sense to fight for honor, and it is certainly a mistake to let anger lead to defeat. Emotions play a large role in the real world, but not so for the Spock-like Sun Tzu.
He then describes five conditions to determine who will be victorious: (i) those who know when to fight and when not to fight; (ii) those who know when to use many or few troops; (iii) those whose officer and soldiers are of one mind; (iv) those who face the unprepared with preparation; (v) those with able generals who are not constrained by government. Point (iii) underscores the usefulness of treating others well. This strategic principle transcends into a categorical imperative[xx] not only because it is “the right thing to do” but also because it is a tool for success. Point (v) goes against the cherished principle in the modern West that the executive branch of government should preside over the armed forces under all circumstances. Depending on our perspective, we may believe, like Sun Tzu did, that in emergencies the military elite should not be constrained by a president who lacks expertise and sound judgment—or, unlike Sun Tzu, we may assert that the military should always follow the commands of the president, regardless of her ability to lead.
In Chapter IV, “Formation,” Sun Tzu discusses two essential elements of success: adaptability and inscrutability. The opening phrase is characteristically Taoist: “In ancient times skillful warriors first made themselves invincible, and then watched for vulnerability in their opponents. Invincibility is in oneself, vulnerability is in the opponent.” Later on, he makes a statement that was revolutionary in his time, maybe even in our own:
“Therefore the victories of good warriors are not noted for cleverness or bravery. Therefore, their victories in battle are no flukes. Their victories are not flukes because they position themselves where they will surely win, prevailing over those who have already lost.”
The Taoist emphasis is unremitting: “Those who use arms well cultivate the Way and keep the rules. Thus, they can govern in such a way as to prevail over the corrupt.”
One must not be carried away by Sun Tzu’s faith in skill and virtue. Is it true that the virtuous always prevails over the wicked? History and observation show that this is certainly not so. It is more realistic to say that if other things are equal, the chances of winning are increased by cultivating the Way. Thus, despite Sun Tzu’s claims of infallibility, outcomes are influenced by the actions of others and by uncontrollable circumstances. Here we find a major difference between the teachings of The Art of War and the teachings of other famous books on strategy such as Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, Polybius’ The Rise of the Roman Empire, and Machiavelli’s The Prince. Whereas it is natural to be sympathetic to Sun Tzu’s unapologetic belief that intelligence, organization, virtue, balance, harmony, and humility are the infallible path for success,[xxi] reality teaches us otherwise.
Chapter V, “Force,” is notable for two reasons: First, Sun Tzu advocates the use of guerrilla methods[xxii] in war—what can be more antithetical to the chivalry code? Second, he muses about psychological tricks to make the rivals vulnerable. We find aphorisms that invite reflection such as, “Disorder arises from order, cowardice arises from courage, weakness arises from strength.” Shall we understand that order, courage, and strength can be disadvantages? That they cannot be sustained over long periods of time? Or perhaps it means that to feign disorder the troops must be extremely well disciplined to retake their formation as conditions demand? That to feign cowardice and entice the enemy to relax, the general must be brave in the execution of his plan? That if he appears to be weak he must be strong, for otherwise he’ll be defeated?
Chapter VI, “Emptiness and Fullness”—an instance of yin and yang—is about filling oneself with “energy” and draining the opponent. The mystical overtones quickly give way to practical advice: “Those who are first on the battlefield and await the opponents are at ease; those who are last on the battlefield and head into battle get worn out.” “Energy,” in this context, refers to physical, psychological, or any other form of strength, including intelligence. The cunning general—Sun Tzu’s super-military mind—discerns enemy gaps, attacks swiftly, defends at the speed of light—a Sherlock Holmes with powers that beggar belief.
He concludes with a famous phrase about formlessness—the skill to adapt to circumstances and become an enigma to the enemy: “So a military force has no constant formation, water has no constant shape: the ability to gain victory by changing and adapting according to the opponent is called ‘genius.’”
Planning takes center role in Chapter VII, “Armed Struggle.” Sun Tzu would surely have agreed with Napoleon when the latter stated that “meticulous planning will enable everything a man does to appear spontaneous.” The warrior-philosopher urges the strategist to understand the lay of the land (or the industry in which she competes) before engaging in battle and recommends the use of psychology to weaken the enemy: “So you should take away the energy of their armies and take away the heart of their generals. … Using order to deal with the disorderly, using calm to deal with the clamorous, is mastering the heart.”
Sun Tzu’s precepts are not accompanied by examples, but other thinkers furnish them. Polybius describes[xxiii] how Hannibal tried to take away the “energy” of the Roman army: “ [The Roman Senate] recognized that Hannibal’s object was at once to lay his hands on some money and to sap the fighting spirit of the troops opposed to him by suggesting that even when they were beaten they still had a chance of safety.”
Like Scipio Africanus, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon, Sun Tzu teaches that harmonious relationships with everybody, high and low,[xxiv] increase the chances of success. As a corollary, he states that it is preferable to fight against an enemy that is not liked or respected, but if she is, it is prudent to sever the link of loyalty between her and her followers.
Chapter VIII, “Adaptations,” is about conforming to the circumstances and readiness for battle. It also deals with the personal traits that are dangerous in leaders:[xxv] “Therefore, there are five traits that are dangerous in generals: those who are ready to die can be killed; those who are intent on living can be captured; those who are quick to anger can be shamed; those who are puritanical can be disgraced; those who love people can be troubled.” Maybe those who are ready to die have a false sense of honor and are thoughtless? Maybe the way to deal with those who are willing to fight to the end[xxvi] is using trickery? Perhaps a quick-tempered general can be induced to fight on terms that are favorable to you by disgracing him or otherwise intoxicating his thoughts? Is it the case that those who love people can be trapped by attacking their loved ones? When dealing with the enemy, a code of ethics is invoked as necessity requires, and it can be interpreted based on expediency. This aspect of The Art of War is often ignored in lax readings of the text.
In Chapter IX, “Maneuvering Armies,” Sun Tzu recommends to select the most appropriate terrain to do battle. The 21st century “terrain” could be cyberspace or the health care insurance industry. He uses aphorisms such as, “When it rains upstream and froth is coming down on the current, if you want to cross, wait until it settles.” We can try to extrapolate in an effort to extract lessons applicable to our own circumstances … or we may decide that his advice is specific to certain places and conditions, and refrain from imputing meaning where there is none.
The chapter contains shrewd observations: “Those who come seeking peace without a treaty are plotting.” He urges caution when reading enemy signals[xxvii] and reminds the student of strategy about the gravity of discipline: “When there are murmurings, lapses in duties, and extended conversations, the loyalty of the group has been lost.” No doubt he would have admired Hannibal’s ability to maintain a disciplined army in foreign territory for years. After all, it was Sun-Tzu, the warrior-philosopher, who stated that “if punishments are not executed after personal attachment has been established with the soldiers, then they cannot be employed.”
Despite its title, Chapter X, “Terrain,” with its focus on adaptability and leadership, continues to be relevant. Sun Tzu talks again about the usefulness of establishing a solid bond with the soldiers while maintaining strict discipline. He praises knowledge of oneself, specifically an understanding of strengths and weaknesses, as well as intelligence, perhaps gathered through spies, and in particular information about the weak points of the enemy. He does so in Taoist style: “S
o it is said that when you know yourself and others, victory is not in danger, when you know sky and earth, victory is inexhaustible.”
In Chapter XI, “Nine Grounds,” Sun Tzu describes the tactics appropriate to what he defines as the nine grounds—ground of dissolution, light ground, ground of contention, trafficked ground, intersecting ground, heavy ground, bad ground, surrounded ground, and dying ground. For example, when he deals with the last and referring to the troops he says: “Put them on dying ground and then they will live.” Once again, imaginary mysticism misleads. The fact is that when soldiers know that the only way out is victory, they will fight to death.[xxviii] Sun Tzu also deals with the social elements of the conflict. Teamwork is one of them: “The question may be asked, can a military force be made to be like this swift snake? The answer is that it can. Even people who dislike each other, if in the same boat, will help each other out in trouble.”
Chapter XII, “Fire Attack,” is short. It deals with the use of fire in a conflict, discusses the consequences of war and, as he often does, gives advice based on an understanding of human nature:
“To win in battle or make a successful siege without rewarding the meritorious is unlucky and earns the name of stinginess. Therefore, it is said that an enlightened government considers this, and good military leadership rewards merit. They do not mobilize when there is no advantage, do not act when there is nothing to gain, do not fight when there is no danger.”
Even though The Art of War is a text in the Taoist tradition, no price in human suffering is too high when victory is at stake.
In Chapter XIII, “On the Use of Spies,” Sun Tzu is unambiguous about the critical role spies play in conflict: “Foreknowledge cannot be gotten from ghosts and spirits, cannot be had by analogy, cannot be found out by calculation. It must be obtained from people, people who know the conditions of the enemy.” Gathering intelligence through spies and protecting oneself from enemy spies is a matter of leadership which in the context of Chapter XIII involves the abilities to command and relate effectively with the troops: “One cannot use spies without sagacity and knowledge, one cannot use spies without humanity and justice, one cannot get the truth from spies without subtlety.” The teachings can be projected into the business world where competitive intelligence plays a key strategic role.
That position, Mr. Scott, would not only be unavailing but also undignified—Mr. Spock
The Art of War is a short book; its style is direct; it contains aphorisms that can make the mind fly; it is deceivably easy to interpret; it subscribes to the Great Man Theory[xxix] which, although discredited after World War II, has remained popular with the business community and in business schools. Like a trusted confidant, it speaks to each reader privately. The enduring popularity of The Art of War is understandable.
Originally intended as a military manual, The Art of War has been coerced to become an aid to self-improvement,[xxx] love[xxxi], and other matters. Business is a natural extension of strategic military thinking and, consequently, a fertile ground for musings, good and bad, of the classical text.[xxxii] Therefore, a basic but solid understanding of the historical background of The Art of War is useful to the discerning reader.
Carlos Fuentes, MAAA, FSA, FCA, MBA, MS, is president of Axiom Actuarial Consulting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] More accurately, Sunzi Bingfa or Master’s Sun Military Methods but commonly known as The Art of War.
[ii] The I Ching, or Book of Changes, is a divination manual attributed to Confucius. It is based on eight symbolic trigrams and 64 hexagrams interpreted in terms of the principles of yin and yang. The book evolved over time into a cosmological text. Philosophical commentaries about the I Ching, known as “Ten Wings,” became part of the text.
[iii] The subject of centralization and autonomy is at the core of The Federalist Papers. Their authors argued for a strong federal government, pointing out that a loose confederacy could not defend itself against a powerful enemy, both militarily and economically. The authors of the “Anti-Federalist” papers countered by stating that a strong federal government would diminish state and, ultimately, individual freedom.
[iv] The term “Punic Wars” refers to the three wars fought between Rome and Carthage from 264 BCE to 146 BCE. Outstanding leaders were involved in the conflicts, most famously Hannibal, Quintus Fabius, and Scipio Africanus. Although Rome came close to being defeated, it ultimately destroyed Carthage.
[v] A fundamental Taoist text. It opens with the following lines: “The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.”
[vi] A practice that attempts to explain how to use “energies” to harmonize individuals with their surroundings. Harmony is indeed, a Taoist concept.
[vii] Publius Cornelius Scipio was the Roman general who defeated the Carthaginian general Hannibal in the battle at Zama in 202 BCE.
[viii] Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, 6.18.7. Many scholars and military leaders consider Thucydides and Sun Tzu the greatest strategists of all time.
[ix] Thirteenth-century Chinese anthology by the Taoist master Daochun Li. It outlines the teachings and practices of the Quanzhen School (“Way of Complete Reality”).
[x] Terse formulations of truths or sentiments. For example, “Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.”
[xi] Rhetoric in British Politics and Society, 2014.
[xii] Order and knowledge.
[xiii] The guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize a community, nation, or ideology.
[xiv] An appeal to the emotions of the audience to elicit feelings that already reside in them.
[xv] The idea that it is better to compete in an uncontested market (as opposed to a market with several participants) belongs to this pantheon, yet it has found substantial support among the acolytes of so-called Blue Ocean Strategy. See “The Connection Between Business and Military Strategies,” Contingencies, MayJune 2015.
[xvi] See “A Lesson from the Greeks,” Contingences, November/December 2014.
[xvii] For the Classical Greek view of leadership and strategy, see “A Lesson From the Greeks.”
[xviii] Business tools to assess competitive positioning include SWOT Analysis, Porter’s Five Forces, and the ValueNet. See “The Connection Between Business and Military Strategies.”
[xix] Contrast with the dangerous traits of the general in Chapter VIII.
[xx] An unconditional moral obligation that is binding in all circumstances and is not dependent on a person’s inclination or purpose.
[xxi] Sun Tzu is not alone in believing that virtue and success go hand in hand. Plato argues likewise in his Dialogues.
[xxii] In guerrilla warfare a small group of combatants, such as paramilitary personnel, armed civilians, or irregulars, use military tactics including ambushes, sabotage, raids, petty warfare, hit-and-run tactics, and mobility to fight larger and less-mobile armies.
[xxiii] The Rise of the Roman Empire, Book VI.
[xxiv] See Stephen Reicher, Michael Platow, Alexander Haslam, “The New Psychology of Leadership,” Scientific American, August 2017.
[xxv] Cf. Chapter I, where leadership is appraised in terms of intelligence, trustworthiness, humanness, courage, and sternness.
[xxvi] See comment in Chapter XI (Comment xxviii, just below) about burning bridges.
[xxvii] Game theory has much to say about credibility and signaling. In a game of asymmetric information, one player is informed about something and the other is not. The informed player’s strategy is to leak or manufacture information to advance her cause, whereas the uninformed player must try to separate what is true from what is false. See “Winning or Losing the Game?” Contingencies, July/August 2016, and Econ 159: Game Theory, Lecture 23 (Asymmetric Information: Silence, Signaling and Suffering Education), Open Yale Courses.
[xxviii] The strategic decision to reduce options to either complete success or complete defeat is referred to as burning your ships or burning your bridges. Commonly attributed to Hernán Cortéz, the practice is well documented by historians who lived 2,000 years before him such as Thucydides (460 BCE to 400 BCE). Alexander the Great (356 BCE to 323 BCE) convinced his troops during his campaigns in Persia that with no means to avoid a decisive battle, they had to choose between conquering or dying. Agathocles of Syracuse (361 BCE to 289 BCE) did the same in 310 BCE at the Battle of White Tunis when he faced the much larger Carthaginian army.
[xxix] Created by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, the “Great Man Theory” asserts that history is the result of the actions of men and women born with the attributes necessary to succeed regardless of the environment in which they live. The theory implies that success is strictly a matter of merit, and that those in power deserve it. The British philosopher Herbert Spencer argued that this conception of history was primitive, childish, and unscientific. Leo Tolstoy muses at length about the Great Man Theory in War and Peace.
[xxx] For example, The Art of War: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield.
[xxxi] For example, The Art of War and Dating: Master Sun Tzu’s Tactics to Win Over Women by Eric Rogell.
[xxxii] For Example, Sun Tzu—The Art of War for Managers: 50 Strategic Rules Updated for Today’s Business by Gerald Michaelson and Steven Michaelson.