Reviewed in the United States on November 19, 2020
The Art of War, written in the 5th century BC by Sun Tzu is, was, and remains to be, one of the greatest military strategy books ever written. The text itself is quite brief, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in the countless lessons taught to the reader. For centuries it was available only to native Chinese speakers. It was first translated into French in the late 18th century, and finally translated to English in 1910 by Lionel Giles. It has always been seen as a seminal work of military strategy, but since its translation into English it has taken on new life. Its lessons can be applied to many different disciplines, professions and even daily life. As I leafed through this brief tome, I found myself reaffirming long held beliefs as well as learning new ways to reflect upon situations that may arise in the future. Given its title, The Art of War may sound like a text which deals solely with warfare, and when it was originally published it was exactly that. But its teachings have stood the test of time, and ever since its translation into numerous languages it has been used as a tool for countless fields of study.
The author of The Art of War, Sun Tzu, is somewhat of a mystery. In fact, many scholars question whether or not someone by this name ever existed. What is known, however, is that the book itself was written sometime around 500 BC. This was an incredibly chaotic time period in the history of the Chinese empire. War was a constant, and Sun Tzu’s text was meant to help end this period of conflict by outlining a clear strategy for victory on the battlefields of feudal China. As Joshua J. Mark says in his entry for the Ancient History Encyclopedia, “to Sun-Tzu, war was an extension of politics and should be pursued in the interests of the greater good for all, the conqueror and the conquered. In order for warfare to be defined as anything other than a waste of life and resources, however, one needed to win. (Mark, 2020, para. 9) Sun Tzu was equally interested in achieving a favorable outcome for the kingdom as he was in winning the war. In fact, one of his most quoted lines from The Art of War rails against a protracted campaign as this never ends well for the combatants or the land which is being fought over. “There is no instance of a country having benefitted from a prolonged war.” (Tzu, 2017, p.6)
As I mentioned earlier, while reading this book I found myself making connections to things in my own life. I am by no means a soldier, and for the most part avoid conflict entirely, but time and again I would stumble across quotes which I found useful in everyday life. Additionally, since I was reading The Art of War for a course centered on survival, I saw many of the passages as useful lessons if one were to find themselves in a survival situation. One quote in particular was quite pertinent. While speaking on foraging for goods from a defeated enemy Tzu writes, “one cartload of the enemy’s provisions is equivalent to twenty of one’s own.” (Tzu, 2017, p.6) Obviously we aren’t plundering the stores of defeated enemies, but I saw this as a parallel between one’s survival gear and what can be scavenged from your surroundings. I likened it to a bottle of water. If you brought only one bottle of water and found yourself stranded, locating drinkable water and utilizing that is far more useful than simply drinking the one you had brought with you. Other quotes are a bit more fundamental and can be applied to any situation. “Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.” (Tzu, 2017, p.18) This can be applied to nearly every facet of life and simply encourages one to think before they act. The Art of War is full of examples of ways one can insert Sun Tzu’s teachings into everyday life. Perhaps my favorite of his quotes is antithetic to what one may think a military strategy book should espouse. “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” (Tzu, 2017, p.7) While The Art of War outlines battle strategies, it’s author still understands that the death and destruction which result from war are better to be avoided if at all possible.
The Art of War is a book I have wanted to read for quite some time and had just never gotten around to it. When I initially suggested it as the survival guide I wanted to read for class I was bit worried it might not be accepted. I knew it was not a survival guide in the strictest sense of the word, but I had a pretty strong instinct that many of the teachings in Sun Tzu’s manual would crossover into the survivalist realm. I was right. My favorite part of reading this book, which I did three times in a single night, was trying to recognize which excerpts could be applied specifically to survival situations. There is no lack of good advice in this book for someone who finds themselves in a tough spot. From simply reiterating that one should think before acting, to illuminating the idea that high ground and sunny spaces are best for camping, this book runs the gamut of useful information. My only complaint, and one that has no immediate remedy, is I can’t help but feel that some nuance is lost in translation. Some entries are a bit confusing to follow and I can only imagine they read easier in their original form. I won’t be learning Chinese anytime in the near future however, so Mr. Giles’ translation will have to suffice.
I would wholly recommend this book to anyone looking to gain insight on military strategy, business strategy or simply an insight into new ways to look at the world around you. At just under forty pages in length this book can be read easily in one sitting. I do not recommend a one and done strategy in this case though. I found myself picking up on deeper meanings from many of the lessons as I reread the text again and again. This book will be a mainstay on my bookshelf forever, and I encourage people to read it. Sun Tzu says that all war is based on deception. The Art of War too is cleverly disguised as a treatise on military strategy, but after you read it you will find its lessons far-reaching and infinitely useful in all facets of life.