In this short series, lessons will be gathered from classical works on politics, and the parallels between ancient and medieval political texts and their modern contexts will be analyzed. The text is thousands of years old, and the meanings are not always clear, but the closest relevant meaning in English will be gleaned for application.

This will focus on the text, 孫子兵法, a collection of political wisdom compiled of quotes from Sun Zi (Sun Tzu), a Chinese general. A handful of quotes will be selected.

The first chapter discussed is 九變, nine changes, which can be interpreted as adaptability

Verse 4, Quote: 故將有五危:必死可殺,必生可虜,忿速可侮,廉潔可辱,愛民可煩;凡此五危,將之過也,用兵之災也。覆軍殺將,必以五危,不可不察也

English interpretation:There are five dangers to avoid: being callous about death will lead to miscalculations, being overly cautious will lead to capture or imprisonment, being reactionary will bring mistakes, an excessive focus on honor will lead to shame once mistakes are inevitably made, a excessive love for one’s people will lead to worry. These must be remembered, as military failure is inexorably linked to a failure on one of the above accounts, therefore, military leaders must meditate on them.

Application:On its surface, this passage appears to be contradictory. It appears to call for total war, shedding honor, love and fear of death, in order to succeed, yet perhaps this meaning is illusory. The focus here is on balance between these characteristics. To be an effective leader, a leader must love his soldiers and people, have honor, yet be willing to commit acts in war that he would never wish on his own side, respect life and not fear death, yet not be so callous as to risk the deaths of his team.

The second is 用間, yong jian, which here refers to 間諜, the use of spies

Verse 5, Quote: 故明君賢將,能以上智為間者,必成大功,此兵之要,三軍之所恃而動也。

English interpretation:From all the old stories of the successful, it is consistently the wisest and most successful that value wisdom over all else, and thus utilize spies. It is not just helpful, it is essential to succeed in war. Without knowing your enemy, you will fail, because every move of every soldier should be coordinated based upon a deeply conceived strategy, only knowable through spies.

Application:While this appears on the surface to refer specifically to warfare, armed forces, and explicit conflict, truthfully all politics revolves around conflict. This passage is a reminder that knowledge is not only extremely powerful, it can be more powerful than force. A better piece of weapons technology is superior to a million armed infantrymen, knowledge of an enemies position or time of deployment can make the difference between a fruitful ambush or total annihilation, being able to control an enemies nuclear launch computers can prevent global destruction. True today more than ever, information is the key to victory, and thus, we must invest in our minds. Technology and engineering are crucial, but so is basic science and education so that there is enough human capital and a strong enough set of scientific fundamentals to achieve breakthroughs. Intelligence is not only important, it is the most important piece of any strategy for victory. To understand one’s enemy, one can ensure one has what is needed to prevail. To do this, the focus must be on knowledge above all.

The third is from 謀攻, mou gong, which means the plan of attack, i.e. strategy

Verse 5, Quote: 故曰:知彼知己,百戰不殆;不知彼而知己,一勝一負;不知彼,不知己,每戰必敗。

English interpretation:It has been said, the leader who knows both their enemy and themself faces no danger even from 100 battles; knowing oneself without knowing the enemy is a gamble though, and because of bad strategy may lose half the time; knowing neither is a recipe for defeat

Application:Introspection, being self aware of one’s strengths as well as one’s flaws is obviously crucial to success. If one does not recognize weaknesses, there is no possibility of improvement. While focusing on improving oneself to the best of one’s ability is imperative, so too is comparing oneself to others in order to get our bearings. Understanding our relationship and placement amongst our peers helps us too to improve ourselves.

Staff writer: Ari B