Biography (544 B.C.E.-496 B.C.E.)

  • Sun Tzu or Sunzi was a Chinese military general, strategist, and philosopher during the Zhou dynasty’s Spring and Autumn Period.
  • A great deal of his biography is uncertain
  • He is best known for his work The Art of War.
  • The Art of War is an incredibly influential text. Sima Qian recounted that China’s first historical emperor, Qin’s Shi Huangdi, considered the book invaluable in ending the time of the Warring States. In the 20th century, the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong partially credited his 1949 victory over Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang to The Art of War. The work strongly influenced Mao’s writings about guerrilla warfare, which further influenced communist insurgencies around the world.

Modern Influence

  • In modern times, The Art of War has become an essential text for the American military and corporations across the world.
  • The Art of War has even been studied by NFL coaches like Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots.
  • The Art of War is a combination of broad strategies and specific tactics for conflict.

His Philosophy

War is a Necessary Evil

  • Sun Tzu believed that war was a “necessary evil” that should be avoided whenever possible.
  • “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
  • He believed that wars must be fought swiftly to minimize losses, writing, “No long war ever profited any country: 100 victories in 100 battles is simply ridiculous. Anyone who excels in defeating his enemies triumphs before his enemy’s threats become real.”
  • One must avoid massacres and atrocities because this can provoke resistance and possibly allow an enemy to turn the war in his favor.

Five Essentials For Victory

  • A general will win who:
    • knows when to fight and when not to fight.
    • knows how to handle both inferior and superior forces.
    • whose army is animated with the same spirit.
    • prepared himself and waits to take the enemy unprepared.
    • is not interfered with by outside counsel.

The Importance of Knowledge

  • The most important thing for a commander is not the size of his force or the technology they possess, but his knowledge of the opposing forces.
  • “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Exploit Indirect Tactics

  • In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will almost always be needed to secure victory.
  • He wrote “Indirect tactics, efficiently applied, are inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, unending as the flow of rivers and streams; like the sun and moon, they end but to begin anew; like the four seasons, they pass away to return once more.”

Exploit Weakness

  • Instead of head-on costly assaults, a wise commander focuses his energy on his enemy’s weak point.
  • Just as water rushes down and shapes its course according to the ground, avoid strengths and strike weaknesses – work out victory in relation to your foe.
  • Because the ultimate aim of war must be victory, the general must be willing to use deception, guile, and trickery to uncover and exploit his enemy’s weakness. Sun Tzu wrote, “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”

Full Notes in PDF

Download these notes from the class presentation here.


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