Learn the key ideas of the book by Sun Tzu

The Art of War

Strategies you can use to win a battle

Written by the legendary Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu, The Art of War is considered to be the longest-running military strategy treatise in the world, as well as one of the most popular and widely read to this day. With its simple and direct style, the book provides a wealth of advice on how we should enter into battle: thus, one learns that the most important principle is not only knowing yourself and your army perfectly, but also your enemy, their intentions, and the lie of the land in which the battle will take place, so as to gain the upper hand wherever possible, and see the battle through with steadfast determination, courage, prudence, and wisdom.

The Art of War
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To be successful, a general must use a few cardinal principles as their guide, which must never be forgotten

First and foremost, it is important to familiarise yourself with the five fundamental principles that will lead a wise general to glory and success. The first among these principles is The Moral Law (Tao), which gives rise to the unity of thought, and inspires all the members of a group to follow a unique code by which to live and die. The second principle is Heaven, or climate and time, and is governed by the two great elements, yin and yang, which are interdependent, and the point of origin of every natural element. The third principle is Earth, which is to be understood as the knowledge of places, distances, and dimensions. The fourth is The Commander, which stands for the typical virtues of those in charge: leadership, sincerity, benevolence, courage, valour, and strictness. Finally, the fifth principle is Method and Discipline, that is, the art of organising troops effectively, and enforcing the laws.

Knowing and practicing the five principles will allow you to better organise your battles, and put you in a position whereby your followers will admire your worth, share your opinions, and always respect you.

For your part, you will be able to recognise your limitations and, therefore, you will not embark upon any venture that you are not certain to be able to see through to completion. You will experience moments of fear, and even defeat, but you will always be able to keep your troops alert and defend your projects from prying eyes. As a good general, you will be able to feign disorder, which will be used as a lure for the enemy who, driven by anger and arrogance, will fall right into your trap. You will know how to divide an enemy who is united, and how to hit them where they are weakest, but above all, you will never forget that only the most careful calculations will allow you to achieve victory.

The most important thing that a general must learn is this: each day of battle, or spent lying in wait, will present different opportunities, each of which will require that you apply one principle rather than another. Circumstances themselves will determine, blow by blow, what manoeuvres a good general should make.Therefore, a good general must master the art of change and flexibility: in fact, they must reach a level of wisdom whereby they know precisely how and when to tweak their actions as a consequence of a change in events. If their methods are not bearing fruit, they know how to fix them.

There are various different protocols to be followed, depending on the circumstances:

  • If you are in a place where it is difficult for you to receive help, such as a swamp or steep mountainside, try to get out as soon as possible. You must find a wide-open space where troops can camp comfortably, and escape easily, if needed. 
  • Avoid camping in isolated places. If this is unavoidable, ensure that you remain in that place for as little time as possible.
  • Do not hesitate to move on from places where it is difficult to find food, or that lack sufficient water sources. 
  • If you are in a place where you can easily be attacked, and escape is difficult, do not move on the enemy; if the enemy attacks you, fight to the death: don't settle for a semi-victory.
  • When you know that a city is well fortified and well stocked, avoid besieging it: you will soon be forced to give up, and this will bring you shame.
  • When presented with the opportunity to gain a slight advantage, only ever pursue it when you are sure that you can obtain it safely, and without any losses.
  • Before trying to gain any kind of advantage, carefully consider what this action will entail in terms of labour, effort, expense, loss of manpower, and ammunition.
  • If there are cases in which it is necessary to act against the orders received, do so in a courageous manner, and without hesitation.

The key ideas of "The Art of War"

To be successful, a general must use a few cardinal principles as their guide, which must never be forgotten
The traits of a good general: understanding the enemy and the territory, and treating your army justly
The army is the most important asset: you must be able to govern it in the best way possible
It is essential to know the enemy, their plans, and their movements
The fundamentals of military strategy: knowing when to attack and when to defend
The general must know how to conduct the battle with firmness, competence, and prudence
Knowledge of the territory should never be overlooked, so as to choose the right place for your encampment
Different types of areas require different ideas and tactics
Take-home message

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