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 142):
And so one skilled at employing the military
Subdues the other's military but does not do battle,
Uproots the other's walled city but does not attack,
Destroys the other's state but does not prolong.
One must take it whole when contending for all-under-heaven.
Thus the military is not blunted and advantage can be whole.
This is the method of the strategy of attack.
The first four lines summarize the
chapter so far.
Only with the strategy of taking whole
will the general find complete victory. This means assuming the perspective of
the whole at the outset of the campaign. Thus you keep your military intact,
preserving both the advantage that leads to victory and the advantage that comes
At times you may have to destroy the
enemy's state. If so, do it quickly. There is no simple rule on this.
From the commentary section, Chapter IV (page 147):
Of old those skilled at defense hid below the nine earths
moved above the nine heavens.
Thus they could preserve themselves and be all-victorious.
Here the standard text has: "One skilled
at defense hides below the nine earths; one skilled at attack moves above the
nine heavens." This obscures the more powerful message of the bamboo text,
which points instead to a defense not based in conflict.
In the best defense, one goes outside the range of
enemy insight, becoming ungraspable and thus unbeatable. Victory need not be
achieved by will or devastation. The all-victorious general resides beyond
From the commentary section, Chapter V (page 155):
The fight is chaotic yet one is not subject to chaos.
One’s form is round and one cannot be defeated.
tangled cords and the confusion of battle. Hwun-dwun is the word for a
whole whose pieces cannot be individually identified. Roundness suggests
In chaotic conditions the usual patterns, which
constitute the orthodox world, are not discernible. One order has gone, and the
next has not yet arisen. Chaos thus offers continual openings to someone who can
perceive its deeper order.
One’s form is round because all possibilities are
included in it. One can respond without confusion to whatever emerges. Thus one
cannot be defeated.
From the essay titled "Taking Whole"
Shih exists only moment to moment. But one
can learn to recognize it and thereby act effectively. Although in some other
military traditions, victory may be attributed to the commander’s will, a
perfect battle plan or overwhelming weight of numbers, in the Sun Tzu
it comes from mastery of shih. Like the squirrel crossing the stream, we need
to measure the situation carefully, assess whether the water is placid or
rushed, and if rushed, whether we are strong enough to cross. We also need the
ability to assess it for its potential shih, as someone with a good eye knows
which way water will flow through a range of hills, just from seeing the form
of a valley and its surrounding spurs and ridges. Then we can determine where
to place a dam in this landscape—seeing the simple and easy thing that
changes the whole configuration.
The Sun Tzu teaches us shih in
many ways. Three are especially important. The first is using a short phrase
to summarize a complex argument. We have already seen several examples of
this: "And so one skilled at battle seeks it in shih and does not demand
it of people." The text also uses this mode to teach us the larger view:
Taking a state whole is superior.
Destroying it is inferior to this.
That passage continues with a
generalization and then a set of further principles:
Therefore, one hundred victories in one
hundred battles is not the most skillful.
Subduing the other’s military without battle
is the most skillful.
And so the superior military cuts down strategy.
Its inferior cuts down alliances.
Its inferior cuts down the military.
The worst attacks walled cities. [Chapter 3]
These statements derive from a perspective that takes whole.
If we didn’t know them from within that larger view, we’d think of them as
no more than tangentially related individual insights.
Second, the text teaches by metaphor and image:
"The rush of water, to the point of tossing rocks about. This is
shih." Shih is "like drawing the crossbow," "like rolling
round rocks from a mountain one thousand jen high." These images
remain with us, shaping our thought in ways we may not consciously recognize.
Their power cannot be reproduced in linear prose.
The third way of teaching shih is simply showing
examples of it. Thus the text says things like "In crossing mountains,
hold to the valleys," or "In crossing water, one must distance
oneself from it" (chapter 9). We could read these initially as simple
admonitions—in situation A do R. They are good advice from the front lines,
simple and clean. More fundamentally, however, they express the world in terms
of relationships. They describe what a circumstance looks like if we assume
the view and what we would automatically do in response. Instead of
enunciating these as principles, it instantiates them—gives us examples of
them concretely embedded.
Much of chapters 8 to 11 consists of this kind of
information. Sometimes it’s presented as typologies of action. The nine
grounds, for example, are nine types of terrain; a certain pattern of activity
is appropriate to each. Much of the content seems rather obvious. These may in
fact be the earliest strata of the text, with data arranged into groups of
five or nine to facilitate memorization. But they are no less profound than
the more conceptually complex chapters at the start of the book, for they
derive from and express the same view.
And they teach shih just as surely, steeping us in
the examples until we intuit the relational view, entirely bypassing the
concept-based training of other chapters. This is the way one learns Aikido or
karate, working with the kata, or form-sequences, repeating them until
they are second nature, or first nature. It’s also the way an oral tradition
sustains a culture. Its maxims slip in under our consciousness, and their
wisdom enters the mind-stream. This approach becomes problematic only when we
try to reproduce the behavior of the maxims, instead of using them to trigger
insight for the present circumstance.
Through these forms of training, we come to
experience the world differently. All the time the nature of things is being
pointed out to us. From this we learn to act spontaneously and appropriately
in any new situation.