Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

I was self-conscious reading The Art of War in public, like something was missing. I should have been wearing one of those blue button-up shirts with the white collar and a heavy gold watch on my wrist while squawking into my cell, “You’re breaking my balls, Don. You’re breaking my balls.” But not being this kind of guy, I struggled to discern the text’s metaphorical value to me, a 24-year-old working in retail who doesn’t even play World of Warcraft.

My mother used to dress me up in that, too, before I could go out and play in the snow.

My mother used to dress me up in that, too, before I could go out and play in the snow.

Well, I can proudly say I now know that dust on the horizon, if it is low and spreading, means infantry is approaching, and dust high and peaking means they’re coming with chariots. This came in handy the day Dan Brown’s new book came out last week.

But who reads The Art of War nowadays? I mean, aside from the ROTC and marketing reps on the fast-track to success? Maybe just curious people like me who are simply drawn to its notoriety—as if the ancient wisdom to be gleaned from the spare, often elusive lines can somehow be applied to everyday, non-martial confrontations to our secret advantage.

You may already be familiar with Sun Tzu’s most famous tenets:

Ultimate excellence lies

Not in winning every battle

But in defeating the enemy

Without ever fighting (Ch.3).

The Way of War is

A Way of Deception (Ch.1).

Know the enemy,

Know yourself,

And victory

Is never in doubt,

Not in a hundred battles (Ch. 3).

Sun Tzu has an aura of pragmatism about him, but with his simple win/lose, good/bad, weak/strong dichotomies, he actually begins to sound idealistic. I missed Machiavelli’s occasional shrug of the shoulders when he said you can do everything right and still have your plans go to pot because of some merciless sweep of Fortune. There’s something I find untrustworthy about a wise man, in contrast, who insists that if you follow a handful of his rules in a given situation, victory is 100% guaranteed.

Also, someone who speaks so often in absolutes is bound to contradict himself from time to time.

If I could highlight one surprising point of his, it would be this one:

The Skillful Warrior of old

Won

Easy victories.

The victories

Of the Skillful Warrior

Are not

Extraordinary victories;

They bring

Neither fame for wisdom

Nor merit for valor (Ch.4).

The highest ideal is not to win glorious clashes of brave arms, but to prevent that exciting stuff from ever happening in the first place; it is to simply crumple the enemy with subtlety and stratagem, swiftly applied with deadly results. Effective, but terrible for ratings. Which reminds me—I wonder what Master Sun would say about the modern American military. Perhaps the tactical discipline he might find agreeable, but then there’s that little thing we like called “Shock and Awe”…

Most translations of The Art of War include commentary, and the section in mine is very, very interesting. I’d recommend the edition in my hand for this reason. The text feels like it is being looked over, line-by-line, by a panel of ancient and modern thinkers/historians who offer everything from clarifications of Sun’s meaning to battlefield anecdotes that support his philosophy.

Aside from actual warfare, there are some pretty legitimate modern applications for The Art of War. I used to be a fencer and found his emphases on deception, distance, strength, weakness—nearly everything to be excitingly translatable to the sport. In fact, I can see almost any competitive athlete finding Sun Tzu worth reading.

But what about professionals? After all, you’ll almost always find some version of this book in the business section of your local bookstore. But its usefulness to Brian in HR is, to me, a bit of a stretch. If he truly thinks he can put Master Sun’s treatise on life-or-death conflict into professional use, chances are he’s having melodramatic fantasies about the importance of his job.

But my situation is different. Honestly, if I don’t find out when I’m due for a raise soon, I will use the wisdom of Chapter Thirteen. I will hire spies.

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