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Chapter Excerpts

Here we will feature excerpts from various parts of The Art of War, replacing the current selections with new ones from time to time.

From the commentary section, Chapter III (page 141):

And so the superior military cuts down strategy.
Its inferior cuts down alliances.
Its inferior cuts down the military.
The worst attacks walled cities.

         The approach of taking whole first targets enemy strategy, undoing the coherence of their plan. This battle is won in the mind. Next best is to cut down the enemy's alliances, the connections that hold their world together. Next, it may be skillful to engage the enemy's forces, in conventional military fashion. Brute assault is the least effective.

          This military is the protector of the state's integrity, seeking victory rather than conquest.

From the commentary section, Chapter V (page 154):

The rush of water, to the point of tossing rocks about. This is shih
The strike of a hawk, at the killing snap. This is the node.

Therefore, one skilled at battle –
       His shih is steep.
       His node is short.

Shih is like drawing the crossbow.
The node is like pulling the trigger.

          Shih is the power inherent in a configuration. It does not rely solely on powerful components. As Lao Tzu says, water is the softest thing in the world, yet here it tosses rocks about. This water is powerful because it has come together in a particular conformation, cascading through the ravine.

          The node is that small juncture between the sections of bamboo. It indicates the abrupt moment at which something occurs – the present, between past and future. It must be short: its target is always in motion.

          The power of shih comes from combining these two elements. When you pull the trigger of a crossbow, its gradually accumulated energy is released all at once, in one spot.

From the commentary section, Chapter VII (page166-7):

The difficulty for a contending army
Is to make the circuitous direct
And to make the adverse advantageous.

Thus make their road circuitous
And lure them with advantage.
Setting out later than others and arriving sooner
Is knowing the appraisals of circuitous and direct.

          The goal for a contending army is to transform the circuitous and direct. Because the general is not limited by how things are defined for him, he can reverse conditions in various ways, apparently turning logic on its head. He makes the adverse advantageous not by overcoming obstacles but by giving those difficulties to the enemy – making their road circuitous. He offers advantage to confound their perceptions, changing what is easy into what is difficult. Thus he is able to invert space and time, setting out after and arriving before. In these ways he attacks the basic strategy of the enemy.


The opening paragraphs from the essay “Taking Whole” (page 65):

                The simplest way to enter the Sun Tzu is to identify its point of view, the perspective from which it sees things. When we find that view, its world opens before us, and we can more readily identify its parts, their relationship and our own role within them.

                That view is simple to name: the Sun Tzu sees the world whole, composed of a multitude of shifting, interrelating aspects. This is not only a way of seeing; it is a way of acting. Thus one of its best-known statements reads:

                Taking a state whole is superior.
                Destroying it is inferior to this. [Chapter 3]

We can begin to understand this perspective by examining the things closest to us, the ordinary objects of our lives. These interact in ever-shifting ways, of which we also form a part. As we start to sense their configurations, our own actions become synchronized with this. Being connected to the details, moving with their shapes and conformation, we can find victory.


The opening paragraphs from the essay “The Sage Commander” (page 82-82):

                The Sun Tzu is addressed to the general, the person who wields power in the midst of contention and conflict. He is the sage commander, an extraordinary example of human skill and wisdom. He speaks with authority, is effective, resourceful, in tune with larger patterns. He commands the battlefield. In this essay, from a consideration of his individual qualities and their interconnectedness, we begin to build an image of this wisdom as it is embodied in a human being. The text hints at this portrait but never completes it for us. We first describe his being, then show how his qualities manifest in a number of ways, including daring and deception.
                This description is not based on a historical figure of ancient China. Instead we seek to personify an idealized wisdom, making what might otherwise seem distant and unreachable relevant to our everyday life. Doing so enables us to identify genuine examples of people who manifest this wisdom and can transmit it to others. Upon closer examination we can see some element in each of his qualities and actions that reflects our own experience in situations of conflict.
                In this way a semimythical person becomes more human and immediate. We sense the possibility of a model we might emulate and a discipline we can actually practice. Just like the sayings in the text that change our way of thinking with a few words, the image of the sage commander can reshape our actions during times of great challenge. This shows us taking whole, how to conquer without fighting.

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