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Sun Tzu's The Art of War: Summary & Quotes

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  • 0:01 Synopsis of The Art of…
  • 3:30 The Nine Situations…
  • 5:58 Quotes
  • 7:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

With all the advances in video game graphics, bloodshed has certainly become an art form, but today we're getting back to basics with ''The Art of War''. In this lesson, you'll find a synopsis of Master Sun's work, along with some memorable quotes.

Synopsis of The Art of War, Chapters 1-10

About 200 years before the Greek philosopher Aristotle would define the art of verse in his Poetics (mid-4th century B.C.), the Chinese military mastermind Sun Wu, known by the title Sun Tzu, which means Master, had his principles to victory recorded in The Art of War. Although the two thinkers thought about very different things, both Aristotle and Sun Tzu approached their subjects from the same point of view. Namely, each interprets his endeavor as an art, a technical skill possessing principles and techniques that must be mastered.

Sun Tzu's first principle governing success in battle is of course preparation. The first of the treatise's 13 chapters is devoted to stressing this idea, as well as to outlining the Five Constant Factors that influence all military actions and thus all further topics of discussion. These factors are: Moral Law (referring to the people's loyalty to leaders), Heaven (weather and time of day/year), Earth (terrain and its advantages or disadvantages), Commander (encompassing virtues of leadership), and Method and Discipline (organization of troops into coherent chains of command).

The next two chapters are concerned with some practical matters, particularly those dealing with national resources. Sun Tzu urges leaders to consider the costs of running a war, both human and monetary, and even encourages pilfering what's needed from the enemy, or else the resources of the state will not be equal to the strain. Accordingly, he also dismisses prolonged sieges as foolhardy and rounds off the third chapter by stressing the importance of knowing the enemy as well as oneself.

Chapters four through six deal with preliminary tactics and calculations for engagement. Sun Tzu differentiates between when and how to use defensive and offensive tactics and goes on to classify offensive movements as either direct or indirect attacks, asserting that blending the two results in infinite combinations to victory. The military master then teaches the reader how to read an enemy's strong and weak points, essentially stating that one should attack where the enemy is weakest, namely, where he isn't. Therefore, by drawing the enemy to another location, you stand a greater chance of dividing and conquering his forces.

The following four chapters are devoted to important concepts to remember during combat operations. Chapter seven discusses proper methods for maneuvering one's men, with special attention being paid to the use of signals, such as fires and drums, and to not overburdening them. The next chapter is short but gives an important tip: vary your tactics to keep the enemy guessing.

In the same way a good general should be mindful of his own tactics, Chapter nine stresses that he should also strive to identify the tactics of his enemy by trying to think like him. This chapter also leads into the next by discussing how to march armies through different landscapes, and Chapter ten expands this discussion by detailing the different types of terrain before finally summarizing Master Sun's principles thus far: 'If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.'

The Nine Situations and Special Forces

The longest chapter of The Art of War is Chapter 11, in which Sun Tzu details The Nine Situations. These 'grounds' represent the basic sets of circumstances that generals may find themselves in, and understanding how to confront them is crucial to a victorious campaign. The Nine Situations are:

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