Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Review: The Art of War by Sun Tzu

Get it here
Once, I tried to read Aristotle, and found it absolutely impossible. The language was so dry that it had withered away to bones and dust. An occasional sentence would stand out, but the overall work was impossible to digest, or so I found.
Then, I read a little more ABOUT the works. It seems at Old Ari’, (as he was known in Athens), left no works extant that he had written for pubic consumption. All we have are the lectures notes he had written out for his under-lecturers to use when giving lessons.
This made a lot of sense - what I had been trying to do was read the equivalent of an ancient PowerPoint presentation. If you look at the text in ancient greek, it is obvious - what we have a short sentences, bullet points. It is the translators job to try and make a complete text from this, and you can feel the strain: my copy of Aristotle's book on the soul has an introduction about three times longer than the text.
The reason I am going on about this, is not JUST to sound awfully clever and well read, whilst displaying a charming sense of my own inadequacies, (although, if that's how it comes across, I won't complain); it is because I became convinced that this book was once a set of lecture notes. There is a mathematical structure to parts of the book that suggest it would fit very well into a set of tables. Bullet points abound. I suspect many passages that seem poetic flights of fancy are in fact artifacts of the translation process. (If you translated 'a frog in my throat' into Chinese, what would you get?). As a result, you get a very compact work, with some repetition, followed by short remarks of such opaque profundity, that you cry out for a longer explanation.
The reason I had not read this book before was because I associated it with eighties business men (Michael Douglas in 'Wall Street', say) who would apply the lessons of the book to hostile takeovers. This is a mistake. This book is all about war, pure and simple, and written by a man who was wise enough to have no more relish for the fight than was absolutely necessary. It is his knowledge of human nature under fire that will stay with me, and his cold-blooded pragmatism, which rivals Macchiavelli, and surpasses him in succinctness. I also have the feeling that trying to use his lessons for the purposes of money gathering does a great disservice to the work: his highest praise is given to the generals who manage to achieve their objectives without ever having to fire a shot in anger. It is a shame he does not seem to have written 'The Art of Peace'.


jimmowatt said...

Although I've never seen the film 'Wall Street' I'n not at all surprised that 'Art of War' is used in business.
1) It sounds terribly macho when quoting
2) Although it proclaims the art of fighting without fighting, it is ruthless and your objective is your victory and the defeat of the enemy in some form as it is in any kind of competition.

ChrisHughes said...

This is all true. Desk bound business types love to think of themselves as mighty fighting men, when all they do is sell paper clips. However, I tend to be the awkward one at the meeting, wondering why a particular quote is relevant. Or quoting the opposite: "Many hands make light work" vs. "Too many cooks spoil the broth".
There is also additional respect given, I suspect, because of the foreign-ness of the text. "On deadly ground, fight!" sounds a lot better than "In a pinch, thump them!". "The Art of War" translated by Alf Garnett would be worth a read...