Quotes: The Art of War (Sun Tzu)

The Art of War is a classic book about military strategy. While the content may seem, at first glance, to be about traditional warfare, the concepts and principles found within the book can be applied to everything from business and relationships, to sports and other competitive endeavours. It’s also quite a short book, but dense with wisdom. In many ways similar to other East Asian philosophy books like the Tao Te Ching.

As an entrepreneur, it is valuable because you can re-read it during different circumstances in your life, and apply it to your current situation. In that sense, the principles in the book are extremely flexible. But, to get the most value, I recommend interpreting the book metaphorically, as opposed to taking it literally. It will be far more useful to you.

The book is broken down into the following chapters:

  1. Laying Plans
  2. Waging War
  3. Attack By Stratagem
  4. Tactical Dispositions
  5. Energy
  6. Weak Points And Strong
  7. Maneuvering
  8. Variation In Tactics
  9. The Army On The March
  10. Terrain
  11. The Nine Situations
  12. The Attack By Fire
  13. The Use Of Spies

The following are my favorite quotes, which are from the Lionel Giles translation (2009).

I. Laying Plans

“The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness.”

“Which of the two generals has most ability?”

“On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced?”

“Which army is stronger?”

“In which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment?”

“All warfare is based on deception.”

“Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

“Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”

“If he is in superior strength, evade him.”

“Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.”

“If his forces are united, separate them.”

“Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all!”

II. Waging War

“There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”

“It is only who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.”

“Bring war material with you from home, but forage on the enemy. Thus the army will have food enough for its needs.”

“Now in order to kill the enemy, our men must be roused to anger; that there may be advantage from defeating the enemy, they must have their rewards.”

“Use the conquered foe to augment one’s own strength.”

“In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.”

III. Attack By Stratagem

“In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is no good.”

“So, too, it is better to capture an army entire than to destroy it.”

“Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

“Thus, the highest form of generalship is to baulk the enemy’s plans. […] The worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.”

“The skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting.”

“If slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the enemy.”

“When the army is restless and distrustful, trouble is sure to come from the other feudal princes.”

“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

“He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.”

“He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.”

“Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

IV. Tactical Dispositions

“To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”

“One may know how to conquer without being able to able to do it.”

“Standing on the defensive indicates insufficient strength; attacking, a superabundance of strength.”

“The general who is skilled in defence hides in the most secret recesses of the earth; he who is skilled in attack flashes forth from the topmost heights of heaven.”

“To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength.”

“What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease.”

“He wins battles by making no mistakes.”

V. Energy

“In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.”

“The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.”

“Therefore the good fighter will be terrible in his onset, and prompt in his decision.”

“Simulated disorder postulates perfect discipline; simulated fear postulates courage; simulated weakness postulates strength.”

VI. Weak Points And Strong

“Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight.”

“Therefore, the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.”

“You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended.”

“You can ensure the safety of your defence if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked.”

“O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible; and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.”

“The spot where we intend to fight must not be made known.”

“If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.”

“Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let you methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.”

“So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.”

“He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.”

VII. Maneuvering

“The difficulty of tactical maneuvering consists in turning the devious into the direct, and misfortune into gain.”

“Maneuvering with an army is advantageous; with an undisciplined multitude, most dangerous.”

“We cannot enter in allegiances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbours.”

“In raiding and plundering be like fire, in immovability like a mountain.”

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”

“When you plunder a countryside, let the spoil be divided amongst your men.”

“Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.”

“Now a soldier’s spirit is keenest in the morning; by noon-day it has begun to flag.”

“A clever general, therefore, avoids an army when its spirit is keen, but attacks when it is sluggish and inclined to return. This is the art of studying moods.”

“Disciplined and calm, to await the appearance of disorder and hubbub amongst the enemy:- this is the art of retaining self-possession.”

“Do not swallow bait offered by the enemy. Do not interfere with an army that is returning home.”

“When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard. Such is the art of warfare.”

VIII. Variation In Tactics

“In a desperate position, you must fight.”

“There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general:

  1. Recklessness, which leads to destruction;
  2. cowardice, which leads to capture;
  3. a hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults;
  4. a delicacy of honour which is sensitive to shame;
  5. over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble.

These are the five besetting sins of a general, ruinous to the conduct of war.
Let them be a subject of meditation.”

IX. The Army On The March

“Camp in high places, facing the sun. Do not climb heights in order to fight. So much for mountain warfare.”

“All armies prefer high ground to low and sunny places to dark.”

“When the enemy is close at hand and remains quiet, he is relying on the natural strength of his position.”

“The sight of men whispering together in small knots or speaking in subdued tones points to disaffection amongst the rank and file.”

“To begin by bluster, but afterwards to take fright at the enemy’s numbers, shows a supreme lack of intelligence.”

“If, when the soldiers have become attached to you, punishments are not enforced, they will still be useless.”

“Therefore soldiers must be treated in the first instance with humanity, but kept under control by means of iron discipline. This is a certain road to victory.”

X. Terrain

“Now an army is exposed to six several calamities, not arising from natural causes, but from faults for which the general is responsible:

These are: (1) flight; (2) in-subordination; (3) collapse; (4) ruin; (5) disorganization; (6) rout.”

“When the common soldiers are too strong and their officers too weak, the result is insubordination.”

“When the officers are too strong and the common soldiers too weak, the result is collapse.”

“When the general is weak and without authority; when his orders are not clear and distinct; when there are no fixed duties assigned to officers and men, and the ranks are formed in a slovenly haphazard manner, the result is utter disorganization.”

“A power of estimating the adversary, of controlling the forces of victory, and of shrewdly calculating difficulties, dangers and distances, constitutes the rest of a great general.”

“He who knows these things, and in fighting puts his knowledge into practice, will win his battles.”

“If fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbid it.”

“The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.”

“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.”

“If, however, you are indulgent, but unable to make your authority felt; kind-hearted, but unable to enforce your commands; and incapable, moreover, of quelling disorder; then your soldiers must be likened to spoilt children; they are useless for any practical purpose.”

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt.”

XI. The Nine Situations

“Concentrate your energy and hoard your strength. Keep your army continually on the move, and devise unfathomable plans.”

“The principle on which to manage an army is to set up one standard of courage which all must reach.”

“It is the business of a general to be quiet and thus ensure secrecy; upright and just, and thus maintain order.”

“He must be able to mystify his offers and men by false reports and appearances, and thus keep them in total ignorance.”

“By altering his arrangements and changing his plans, he keeps the enemy without definite knowledge.”

“Confront your soldiers with the deed itself; never let them know your design.”

“When the outlook is bright, bring it before their eyes; but tell them nothing when the situation is gloomy.”

“By persistently hanging on the enemy’s flank, we shall succeed in the long run in killing the commander-in-chief.”

“This is called ability to accomplish a thing by sheer cunning.”

“If the enemy leaves a door open, you must rush in.”

XII. The Attack By Fire

“The enlightened ruler lays his plans well ahead; the good general cultivates his resources.”

“A kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.”

XIII. The Use Of Spies

“What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.”

“Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men.”

“Hence the use of spies, of whom there are five classes: (1) Local spies; (2) inward spies; (3) converted spies; (4) doomed spies; (5) surviving spies.”

“Having local spies means employing the services of the inhabitants of a district.”

“Hence it is that with none in the whole army are more intimate relations to be maintained than with spies. None should be more liberally rewarded. In no other business should greater secrecy by preserved.”

“Without subtle ingenuity of mind, one cannot make certain of the truth of their reports.”

“Be subtle! be subtle! and use your spies for every kind of business.”

“If a secret piece of news is divulged by a spy before the time is ripe, he must be put to death together with the man to whom the secret was told.”

“The end and aim of spying in all its five varieties is knowledge of the enemy.”

“Spies are a most important element in war, because on them depends an army’s ability to move.”