- Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War 2,500 years ago, and it remains relevant today.
- While written as a military treatise, its guidance has also helped politicians, business leaders, and even sports teams strategically approach conflict.
- Sun Tzu teaches that the greatest victories come when the conflict is avoided entirely.
Few other books can claim as great an influence on the history of warfare as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Composed in China around 2,500 years ago, the military treatise founded an ideology of war that would echo down to Mao Zedong’s Communist Revolution. Spreading throughout East Asia, it guided Japan’s warrior class during its own war-torn era and shaped the tactics of the Viet Cong. And after the protracted struggles of the Vietnam War, U.S. brass brought Sun Tzu with them across the Pacific. Today, The Art of War is studied in military academies worldwide.
However, this staying power is not the result of Sun Tzu’s unbeatable battle plans. War has transformed invariably since China’s Warring States period. Any practical advice for navigating terrain, committing espionage, or leading a siege would be useless in the face of tanks, the internet, and precision-guided munitions. If Sun Tzu could have witnessed the destructive capability of modern warfare — to say nothing of the horrors of nuclear weapons — his treatise might have been considerably shorter: “Better not.”
Instead, The Art of War remains relevant today because its author recognized conflict as a universal part of life. As such, it wasn’t enough for him to review the battle tactics of his day. He sought to explore the psychology of war and how we might harness it wisely.
Sun Tzu and way of war
The Art of War‘s universal approach has extended its influence far beyond the martial disciplines. Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari cited the treatise as the inspiration behind the strategies he deployed to win the 2002 World Cup, and its guidance has been further co-opted to apply to fields as far-ranging as politics, business management, and even esports.
With that in mind, here are five Sun Tzu quotes to help you strategically overcome conflict wherever you may encounter it.
The Art of War holds a Taoist worldview. Sun Tzu was clearly inspired by the Tao Te Ching and borrowed liberally from Lao Tzu*. Compare Sun Tzu’s, “[T]he form of water is to avoid the high and go to the low, the form of a military force is to avoid the full and attack the empty,” to Lao Tzu’s, “Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water. / Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better.”
As a Taoist, Sun Tzu takes a humanistic approach to war and conflict. For him, the greatest victory isn’t found in overcoming your opponent through strength, cleverness, or force of will. It’s in avoiding the battle altogether.
A wise person, Sun Tzu contends, has the skill and wisdom to resolve a conflict before it starts. For instance, a wise diplomat can get two nations to settle a land dispute before violent escalation. Similarly, a wise friend knows how to use humor to ease tensions before an argument breaks out. In both cases, the victory is found in the lack of conflict.
“Everyone calls victory in battle good, but it is not really good,” writes Sun Tzu. Similarly, Lao Tzu teaches, “Peace and quiet are dear to [sages’] hearts, / And victory no cause for rejoicing.”
Of course, neither is saying we can avoid conflict altogether. If conflict comes despite our best efforts to prevent it, then we can’t be pushovers. We must resolve to end the conflict as quickly as possible and with as little damage done. However, even if we “win” in the end, we shouldn’t feel a sense of pride or accomplishment. Our efforts were damage control. Nothing more.
“In Taoist terms, success is often gained by not doing, and the strategy of The Art of War is as much in knowing what not to do and when not to do it as it is in knowing what to do and when to do it,” Thomas Cleary writes in the introduction to his translation (from which this article’s quotes come).
Sun Tzu wouldn’t have had a concept like emotional intelligence in mind, but that’s effectively what he’s advancing here. Emotionally intelligent people have the self-awareness to understand their motivations, recognize their goals, and regulate their emotions. In knowing themselves, they don’t start unnecessary conflicts by letting negative emotions lead to outbursts or unwise actions.
Similarly, they can use their emotional intelligence to develop social awareness. Such an ability helps them intuit the motivations and emotions of others through compassion and sympathy. This knowledge can help prevent conflicts as the emotionally intelligent person will meet others halfway or create conditions that lead others not to desire a fight. Should a conflict arise anyway, emotional intelligence can help create situations that end the need for fighting in the other person.
Later in The Art of War, Sun Tzu lists five dangerous traits that cloud generals’ judgment and lead them to unnecessary conflict. These are anger, pride, recklessness, cowardice, and being over-protective of others. These traits, he says, bring disaster. In modern terms, we may say that they hinder emotional intelligence and disrupt our equanimity.
Sun Tzu goes on to write that skilled warriors can become invincible; however, no one can cause another to be vulnerable. In many ways, this guidance mirrors the Stoic view of control. You can’t control how another behaves; you can only discern their behavior. You do, however, have control over your own actions, meaning you can prepare for conflict and shore up your defenses in advance of action.
In warfare, such preparations might include keeping morale high, understanding the value of certain terrain, and maintaining a strong chain of command (all things Sun Tzu discusses in The Art of War’s more practical verses). In business strategy, it may mean shoring up partnerships, being willing to pivot away from a bad decision, or hiring and developing the best talent. On the personal level, it may include developing confidence, self-possession, and self-efficacy to stand up for ourselves and our beliefs.
In the same chapter, Sun Tzu adds: “Therefore the victories of good warriors are not noted for cleverness or bravery… Their victories are not flukes because they position themselves where they will surely win, prevailing over those who have already lost.”
Disorder and clamor cloud our situational awareness, stir our negative emotions, and push us to make bad decisions simply to satisfy the need to do something — anything — to make a difference. This makes conflict more likely and, when it occurs, more problematic to deal with. Unfortunately, both are common in modern life.
While we may not have much leverage over the chaos and disorder in the external world, we can settle the clamor within. Once the conflict becomes unavoidable, we shouldn’t let it unsettle us or view it as a means to punish another person for our gain. Instead, we should set ourselves to resolving it, minimizing damage, and maintaining our equanimity in the face of its challenges. This requires not only avoiding the five traits Sun Tzu warned about — anger, greed, pride, recklessness, and over-protection— but learning to adapt our responses as the conflict unfolds.
In the throes of conflict, a desire for benefits can lead us to act aggressively. Those may be material gain, punishing others emotionally, or boosting our social power. Whatever the case, the pursuit of a perceived benefit can lead us to lose sight of the potential harm aggression can bring. In the same vein, we may steer away from necessary conflicts if we only give thought to potential harms.
Instead, Sun Tzu recommends that we take both into account separately. By recognizing the benefits and planning for them, we make them more likely. Conversely, by premeditating on what can go wrong and the harms that may arise even should we succeed, we can take steps to defend against them.
Sun Tzu offers the example of a general surrounding enemy forces and giving them nowhere to flee. The general sees the benefit of such a tactic: the definitive destruction of an opposing force and his clear victory. What he hasn’t accounted for is the potential harm: With no hope of escape, the enemy forces will exert their full strength and fight ferociously. Even if the general wins, the harm done to his own forces will be catastrophic.
A more commonplace example may be an argument with a teenage child. If a parent’s approach is to dominate, the teenager will simply double down and fight back harder. Even if the parent is in the right, the argument will be drawn-out and destructive to the relationship. It is better for the parent to use their emotional intelligence to allow the teenager to feel like a partner in the conversation and decision-making process.
As these Sun Tzu quotes show, there’s still much The Art of War can teach us about conflict if we are willing to spend the time with it. Granted, not all of its lessons have held up as well — you can probably skip the section on chariot battles. But many remain timeless in their wisdom.
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*Author’s Note: No relation. The “Tzu” in both of their names is an honorific that translates to “master.” The two do have something in common though: Neither may have actually existed. Many historians believe The Art of War and the Tao Te Ching are the writings from different authors collected over time. For the sake of simplicity and tradition, however, I give each their authorial due.