Book Review: The Art of War by Sun Tzu

On the face of it, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, may seem like an unlikely object for the attention of Catholics.

After all, what relevance has a 6th Century BC treatise on war, written by a Chinese General in Taoist rhetoric, during a time of ongoing feudal conflict, to Catholics living today?

Wisdom

The answer lies in the secular wisdom that is in abundance throughout this short military manual, that is applicable in many areas of our daily lives.

Proverbs 1:7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Fools despise wisdom and instruction. 

And so when we recognise wisdom in any source, Catholic or otherwise, it would be imprudent not to take instruction from it, as scripture dictates.

The Art of War is a short treatise on military wisdom, divided into 13 short chapters.

The book recognises that the first step a person must take in any situation is to assess the existing circumstances that they find themselves in.

For the reader, this might be a in a workplace or a social situation for example. Taking particular note of the existing conditions in any given situation, allows the person to make plans accordingly.

Sun Tzu articulates key elements that must be accounted for which in the end, dictate the difference between success and failure.

These include

  • Knowing the enemy
  • Awareness of one’s own strengths and weaknesses
  • Understanding the material factors involved
  • Knowing your intended outcome

There are many everyday situations that a Catholic might face in his life. At work for instance they may be in a situation where their line manager is a bully. Or it might be a competitive business environment that requires strategic decisiveness to achieve a winning outcome.

Whatever it is, it is not enough to rely on the other person being a model of virtue. There are plenty of Machiavellian weasels running around all too happy to take advantage of those who would try and live a more virtuous life.

Therefore the Catholic must be equipped to outwit these types and this little book is better than most, in its clarity and brevity, in showing how.

Essentially The Art of War  demonstrates how to win success against an opponent of whatever nature, using clever management and any resources available.

Know thyself – Know the enemy

The book highlights the importance of decisiveness and constant deliberation and consideration during a campaign.

Famously, the manual tells the reader that…

  • If you know the enemy and know yourself then you can always win.
  • If you know only yourself then you may win or lose.
  • If you know neither the enemy or yourself then you are doomed to defeat.

The applicability of this work is as previously described quite broad.

For the boss, he might learn from the book that when he hires incompetent or weak subordinates, they will cripple him in the end.

For the criminal lawyer he might appreciate the necessity of being decisive and quick when he opens up a vulnerability in his adversary.

For the teacher, it might be a lesson learnt in knowing when to fight and knowing when not to fight in a situation with a colleague, a parent or a student.

For the student, it might be the wisdom to only do what is necessary and that which will help you.

Prudence

The Catholic reader will recognise that The Art of War is essentially a book on the virtue of prudence.

There is a danger that the man who lacks virtue will arm himself with such a manual for selfish reasons and hope to gain advantage by cunning and guile, very much in the same vein as Machiavelli’s The Prince.

However, it’s important to understand that this book is one not only of secular wisdom, but one of honour too.

The prudent Catholic will use the wisdom within this book to create positive and virtuous outcomes whenever possible, when the situation arises, to not only protect himself but to demonstrate strong moral leadership.

As St Thomas notes in the Summa on Aristotle’s Ethics, prudence is right reason in action. It is the virtue that disposes practical reason to find our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.

Proverbs 14:15 The innocent believeth every word: the discreet man considereth his steps. No good shall come to the deceitful son: but the wise servant shall prosper in his dealings, and his way shall be made straight.

And this is exactly the essence of The Art of War. 

The prudent man is one who has the ability to learn from experience, be open minded, understands essentials, is quick-witted,  holds reasoning ability, has good foresight, brings circumspection to all factors, and proceeds with caution.

This book is recommended for senior high school students and adults alike. It is preparation for inevitable situations that will present themselves at some point to the reader.

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