Review: Sun-tzu: Art of War, translated by Ralph D. Sawyer - The Objective Standard

Boulder, CO: Basic Books, 1994. 375 pp. $15.95 (paperback).


War is one of man’s most destructive activities (only dictatorship has ruined more lives), and it is not surprising that thousands of books have been written about it. Yet, paradoxically, books on war itself—books concerned with war as a phenomenon, rather than focused on strategy, tactics, or some particular war—have been relatively few. This is due in part to the focus by modern scholars on the minutiae of human affairs, and their reluctance to deal with broad generalizations; but the failure to come to grips with the abstract principles of war goes back to the dawn of historical writing. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides, a soaring intellect obsessed by the great war between Athens and Sparta, identified “honor, security and interest” as causally important principles that motivate men “for all time.” But even Thucydides did not examine the philosophical foundations of these factors; he took them as given in human nature, which left the study of war mired in the vagaries of human desires and without philosophical grounding.1 As a result, important questions remained unanswered: What are the principles of war; what are their philosophical foundations, and what methods of waging war do they imply?

In ancient China, a thriving culture of thinkers tried to answer such questions. They derived principles of warfare from ideas that were fundamental to their own philosophies and applied those principles to the practical needs of military commanders. The extant remains of these works have been compiled into the so-called seven Chinese military classics, the best preserved of which is Art of War by Sun-tzu, who lived sometime between 450 and 250 BC, about the time of classical Greece.2 This was approximately the “Warring States” period of Chinese history, when China was divided among military warlords, iron was first used in weapons, armies grew to more than one hundred thousand men, and commanders needed expert guidance to help them organize their huge forces. Ralph Sawyer has produced a lively translation, with a historical essay and explanatory notes, of Sun-tzu’s classic work. Sawyer also includes new supplementary material, found in graves and carved on bamboo stalks, that adds to our knowledge of ancient Chinese thought.

Sun-tzu has nothing to teach us about the technological aspects of war or the logistics required to feed a modern army, and his work obviously cannot speak to certain complex political relations between modern nations. But Sun-tzu’s book has much value, for it says a lot about how a commander should approach his enemy, how he should decide to attack or to retreat, how to outsmart an enemy, and what it takes to be victorious. He presents his ideas in a logical, principled way that is consistent with his deeper philosophy of nature.

What is that philosophy of nature? Sun-tzu begins with the Tao, roughly “the Way,” a very broad concept that is founded on his basic understanding of the world. Sun-tzu’s widest conception of Tao—his overarching view of the world—is rooted in observations of naturally balanced forces: day follows night, rain follows the drought, cool follows heat, every positive is balanced by a negative. For example, Sun-tzu’s Heaven—meaning the sky and weather—“encompasses yin and yang, cold and heat, and the constraints of the seasons” (p. 167). To understand the heavens, one must understand the ebb and flow of seasons and the shifting patterns of weather. . . .


1 Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner (New York: Penguin, 1972), section 1.76, p. 80.

2 The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, translated by Ralph D. and Mei-Chün Sawyer (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993).

3 The categories of terrain were probably not settled; Sun-tzu offers different interpretations at different passages.

4 Nearly echoing the Prussian theorist Clausewitz: “Force . . . is thus the means of war; to impose our will on the enemy is its object.” Carl von Clausewitz, On War, translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), section 1.2, p. 75.

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