On the Chinese military treatise attributed to Sunzi, literally “Master Sun,” an honorific for a general named Sun Wu from the 5th or 6th century BCE. Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth are joined by ex-Marine Brian Wilson, host of Combat & Classics.
How does a philosopher wage war? The book provides advice both very practical (when setting fires, pay attention to the wind direction) and more abstract (be wise, reliable, humane, courageous and strict). We talk about what kind of philosophy this amounts to; secondary sources describe it as a Taoist text, but it’s certainly a very active type of Taoism that would encourage one to seek a position of power and embrace conflict. However, Sunzi advises to only make a move when circumstances make victory likely; the default is to not make a move at all, and the best kind of war is one that can be won without any actual fighting. Moreover, the picture of virtue is very Taoist: Be calm in adversity, be objective in your evaluation of a situation and in your use of troops and other resources. Don’t let your opponent goad you to attack, but do that instead to him.
We ponder the relationship between the general and the ruler: As general, you’re in charge in the field even if this means ignoring the ruler’s foolish orders to attack. You need to respond to the circumstances of the moment, and you need to discipline your troops to move as one. Most importantly, you need to understand the circumstances, which means knowing your enemy, yourself, and the environment. You need to develop relationships with locals and deploy spies to gain some of this information. You need to use deception so that your opponent doesn’t understand your situation and opportunities. It’s not the full power of your forces that matters so much as what force is applied exactly how and when. You need to avoid protracted engagements that just tire everyone out. Just strike hard and fast when the time is right.
Clearly in outline this advice can be applied to many other adversarial arts beyond physical combat, from business to sports to politics, but there’s perhaps in this text less that’s directly applicable to any situation you’d have to deal with than you might think given the book’s immense popularity.
Buy the 2020 Michael Nylan translation we read, or get the free, older translation online. You can also listen to it. The secondary reading we read was “Sun-zi and the Art of War: The Rhetoric of Parsimony” by Steven C. Combs (2000). A main source for that paper is the commentary that goes with another translation of the book: Roger T. Ames’ Sun Tzu: The Art of Warfare (1993).
Image by Solomon Grundy. Audio editing by Tyler Hislop.