Sunzi's First Lesson

Sunzi's First Lesson
Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust / Unsplash

"None of my quotes/citators are actually authentic" - Sun Tzu, Art of War (probably)

This is the type of sentiment many have when it comes to the Art of War. They consider this book a theoretical treatise reserved for military strategists and history buffs.

When applied in the context of everyday life by some, the book is reduced to a compilation of trite platitudes like “Be nice to your employees” and “Don’t start a fight”.

But this book contains profound value and timeless wisdom.

The Art of War is not just a dusty relic of the past.

For over 2500 years, The Art of War famously influenced Chinese leaders such as Cao Cao, Mao Ze Dong and Sun Yat Sen.  

It is a battle-tested practical guide that leaders throughout history used to achieve victories in war, the marketplace and their lives.

The Inescapability of War

Financial Times (Ingram Pinn)

Not all of us are soldiers, but, admittedly, we cannot help but use war as a metaphor in our daily lives. Try this on for size:

  • The emergence of anti-science politics in the Western World is called, “The War on Science”.
  • The intensifying economic conflict between nation-states characterised by escalating trade restrictions by both sides is called a trade war.
  • The fierce commercial rivalry between Apple and Microsoft, stretching from the 1980s to today, is coined as a tech war.
  • Our modern distraction sickness caused by our ‘addiction’ to social media results from the corporate wars on our attention.

War is conflict expressed in its purest and most brutal form. Our cultural obsession with using such analogies reveals that conflict is embedded in everyday life. Even if we wish to, we cannot escape conflict. It is then incumbent upon us to study the principles and dynamics of war.

A Matter Of Life And Death

Here is a quick breakdown of Sunzi, the man behind the book.

Sunzi (Nat Geo)

Sunzi was a highly influential military strategist purported to have lived during the late Spring and Autumn Periods of ancient China.  During this period, central states subsumed smaller states, and each king was racing to consolidate his power so that they may unify China and become the emperor.

As the different states started to gain strength, these rivals for the throne of a unified China understood that the stakes were increasing exponentially. Naturally, the brutality and intensity of warfare would increase too.

Now more than ever, rulers needed to act wisely. One mistake could cost the state thousands of lives or, worse still, the entire kingdom.

His philosophy can be summed up in the opening line of the book,

The art of warfare is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a path to either preservation or ruin. Hence, it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.

At the core of his thinking, Sunzi advocates for a sober and objective attitude towards warfare.

War is existential.

Please do not treat it lightly or indulge in wishful thinking.

Ground yourself in reality by objectively studying the principles of War.

In 2023, this comment might seem obvious. But, Sunzi was proposing to his target audience, the rulers, to thoroughly consider the effect of war on not just themselves or the Army but the entire state.

Throughout history, rulers have started wars for selfish reasons. Rather than apply reason in managing conflict, they allowed their base desires and ego to dictate their actions. They fail to foresee the enormous toll war would extract on their people.

The Heavy Toll of War

Take the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War as an example.

As Greek city-states, Athens and Sparta had been traditional allies. As Athens emerged as a formidable naval power, Sparta became wary of its growing strength and sought to contain Athens as much as possible. However, war was still avoidable.

Bust of Cimon (Wikipedia) 

Within Athens, a general named Cimon sought to reverse the deteriorating relations between the former allies.

He was known to be a loyal Athenian citizen and a firm admirer of Sparta.

Once, Pericles, the Greek politician and General, prosecuted Cimon for allegedly accepting bribes from Macedonia. He responded firmly, “ I was proud, attending to the Spartans, whose frugal culture I have always imitated. This proves that I don't desire personal wealth. Rather, I love enriching our nation, with the booty of our victories."

Cimon even served as Sparta’s honorary consul in Athens. He actively promoted friendly relations between Sparta and Athens at his own expense.

In 462 BC, when the helots revolted against Sparta, many members of the Athenian Assembly wanted to watch from the sidelines. Cimon painstakingly convinced the Assembly to provide military support to Sparta. He personally commanded the soldiers in this mission to demonstrate his commitment to improving Sparta-Athenian relations.

A friend in need is a friend indeed.

One would think the Spartans would welcome an ally like Cimon with open arms. Astoundingly, they turned down his assistance, instructing Cimon and his troops to go home - a disastrous diplomatic snub that inflicted a devastating blow to Cimon's standing among the people of Athens.

His sincerity was dismissed as naivety, and the price he paid for this humiliation was a decade-long exile. With no ally in Athens advocating for Sparta, Athens allied with Sparta’s enemies, unleashing a series of brutal battles between the two military powerhouses for the next fifteen years.

Copper Engraving (Natgeo)

What if they took a step back?

What if the Spartans gave careful consideration to alternative strategies for containing Athens?

What if they thought about leveraging Cimon’s standing to build a stronger allyship with Athens?

We would never know. But we know that the Peloponnesian War ended the Golden Age of Greece, and Greece never returned to its former glory of literary, artistic and intellectual achievements.

You see, it is precisely that a war could spell civilisational consequences that rulers ought to study it. Those of us who live in peace must accept that war (or conflict) exists on several levels - in competition, our relationships with others and even within ourselves.  

As Robert Greene puts it simply: “War is not some separate realm divorced from the rest of society. It is an eminently human arena, full of the best and worst of our nature.”

This is Sunzi’s first important lesson: Be a student of war.

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