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The Art of War
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Old School Classics, Pre-1900 > The Art of War - SPOILERS

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Pink | 6556 comments This is the discussion thread for The Art of War by Sun Tzu, our Old School Classic Group Read for April 2018.

Spoilers allowed here.

Please feel free to discuss anything you wish, relating to the book and let us know what you thought :)


message 2: by Michele (new)

Michele | 1008 comments I wonder, is it necessary to have spoiler/non-spoiler threads for non-fiction? There's no plot and no "big reveal".


Pink | 6556 comments You may be right that we don't really need both threads for this book. We don't often pick non-fiction for our group reads. I think it's necessary to have a spoiler thread for some books more than others, but I'll stick to the format of keeping both threads open here. While there's no such plot or big reveal, some people might be more aware than others about exactly what this book entails. Having spoiler and non spoiler threads at least gives everyone the option on how much they want to read about it.

I read this book relatively recently and struggle to give much of an opinion about it. So I'd be interested to hear what everyone else thinks.


Jerome (tnjed01) | 55 comments I read the Lionel Giles translation available on the Gutenberg website.

I was interested in reading this book due to my work with veterans. My concern is that the book is often used as a metaphor to how to live your life, interact with others, or run a business.

I think it's important to interpret it literally as a collection of knowledge and wisdom as applied to military interventions. As a basic instructional pamphlet for educating future military leaders, it obviously has value, but its collected wisdom seems basic and obvious.

For example, "He will win who knows when to fight, and when not to fight". On the other hand, the importance of confronting the enemy with overwhelming force reminded me of the Powell Doctrine of using overwhelming force, and to avoid "limited" war, a lesson we seem not to have learned.

I would be interested in hearing how others and particularly any veterans in this group reacted to reading or re-reading this book.


message 5: by Michele (new)

Michele | 1008 comments So far nothing about the wisdom of insulting your opponents on Twitter....


Carlo | 206 comments i tried to apply the theory to the work place and ended up getting made redundant - where did i go wrong!


Nente | 779 comments I read this one long ago, but I remember that some of the rules laid down here reminded me of the so-called "10 Golden Rules of Go," which are also pretty ancient and vague-sounding, but are widely discussed among the Go players and continue to be used and useful.
Obvious things, yes, like "take care of oneself before attacking" - but nevertheless, being put into a short and pithy form often helps even the obvious to stay with you.


Laurie | 1630 comments I'm certain that the rules of war elucidated in this classic are tried and true, but I still have to wonder why we are still reading it today. The rules about being prepared and so forth are still applicable today, but otherwise I'm not sure why this is still around.


message 9: by Michele (new)

Michele | 1008 comments Laurie wrote: "The rules about being prepared and so forth are still applicable today, but otherwise I'm not sure why this is still around. "

I suppose for the same reason we still read Shakespeare and Homer and Rousseau and Confucius and Rumi and the Tale of Genji and Machiavelli and so many others: because we recognize universal truths at their core, and because they exert a powerful influence on those that followed them.


Aubrey (korrick) | 2515 comments I'm sure there are plenty of people in China who wonder why Socrates is still a thing.


J_BlueFlower (j_from_denmark) | 1505 comments I just started. I did not read the introduction in detail. I did notice the part about tradition of war in China: at the time of writing (-500) China had a more than thousand year long history of war to learn from.

I read War and Peace a few years ago and so far there has been some interesting similarities in Leo Tolstoy's critic of Napoleon and the advice Art of War, like the cost of a supply line.


message 12: by Erin (last edited Apr 07, 2018 06:55PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Erin (erinm31) | 609 comments EDIT: The pros and cons of various translations are detailed on Sonshi.com — I had no idea there were so many! 😅

Has anyone read the English translation by John Minford? I am wondering how it compares to that by Lionel Giles (which I read). I can have no criticism of Giles’ translation but many of the notes do not add anything if one is unfamiliar with Classical Chinese, although I certainly appreciate references to commentators and justifications of his choices in translation. My only complaints are the assumption that the reader knows French and German and I didn’t feel that the extensive examples of Calthrop’s errors in translation added anything at all to a reader’s understanding. I did appreciate the historical commentary and examples given!


message 13: by Erin (new) - rated it 4 stars

Erin (erinm31) | 609 comments Michele wrote: "I wonder, is it necessary to have spoiler/non-spoiler threads for non-fiction? There's no plot and no "big reveal"."

The book is rather about keeping one’s ultimate plans hidden behind deception so that the “big reveal” is on the battlefield. 😉


message 14: by Michele (new)

Michele | 1008 comments Erin wrote: "The book is rather about keeping one’s ultimate plans hidden behind deception so that the “big reveal” is on the battlefield. 😉 "

Ha! Good point :)


Sarah | 587 comments I read this a couple months ago. I was really rather impressed.
I think of it still holds true to this day. And many of the points can just as easily be applied outside of war.

Michele wrote: "Laurie wrote: "The rules about being prepared and so forth are still applicable today, but otherwise I'm not sure why this is still around. "
I suppose for the same reason we still read Shakespear..."


Agreed.


J_BlueFlower (j_from_denmark) | 1505 comments Finally managed to finish it. It got somewhat boring in the end specially all the chapters on grounds and terrain. Glad to have read it though.

I read the version with comments. Some of the comments where very interesting specially about Wellington and Napoleon, while some of the stories about Chinese generals and their battles I had difficult following. I probably helps having some prior knowledge of the history. My knowledge about Chinese history is next to non-existent.


message 17: by Erin (new) - rated it 4 stars

Erin (erinm31) | 609 comments J_BlueFlower wrote: "Finally managed to finish it. It got somewhat boring in the end specially all the chapters on grounds and terrain. Glad to have read it though.

I read the version with comments. Some of the commen..."


I enjoyed the comments and illustrations on Wellington and Napoleon too, as well as from Chinese ancient history and would have been glad for more!


message 18: by E.J. (new)

E.J. Randolph (canyonelf) | 6 comments This is not considered a good translation. Giles was an assistant curator at the British Museum. Griffith did a better one. He had the advantage of a military background in the Marine Corps. But, most recently, Roger Ames, a scholar of Chinese history and culture, was able to work from an earlier version that was discovered in a grave in 1972.

Sun Tsu is important because he is and was studied all across Asia and also Russia. General Giap studied Sun Tsu. Had US generals studied Sun Tsu, they might have understood the strategy and tactics used by the Vietnamese.

I think it's strange how people today extract various sayings and apply them to all kinds of different situations especially business settings. As someone above commented, this is a military book.

More to the point, Sun Tsu describes a stance. A way of fighting war. He gives examples that fit this stance. But, these are simply explanatory examples. If you keep his principles in mind, then you can work out your own details. The principles are rather simple. They include such things as knowing what the enemy is doing and developing your strategy and tactics accordingly. Using surprise. Using terrain. Look for the weak points. Try to manipulate perceptions so you seem to be far when you are near. Be willing to change your plans on a moment's notice if an opportunity arises.

Best of all, Sun Tsu looks at how war affects society. He points out the costs of war. He is the first to write about war in a holistic way. And, he says the best general is the one that wins without fighting. Going to war means you have failed to work things out in other ways. Sun Tsu was a wise man.

It is interesting that Sun Tsu was a philosopher. In Chinese society war was a proper topic of philosophy. Applied philosophy. How to restore harmony. And, the concepts in The Art of War fits Chinese philosophy. Everything is interconnected. Holistic. You don't just develop a doctrine of war. You study your opponent and develop something that fits that unique situation. You and your opponent are related.

All the examples are to illustrate and get you going. Of course, they fit an earlier era. It's the principles and the stance that matter.


message 19: by Erin (new) - rated it 4 stars

Erin (erinm31) | 609 comments E.J. wrote: "This is not considered a good translation. Giles was an assistant curator at the British Museum. Griffith did a better one. He had the advantage of a military background in the Marine Corps. But, m..."

Thank you for sharing your insight! =) I am looking to check out one of the newer translations for comparison.


message 20: by Rosemarie (new) - added it

Rosemarie | 1556 comments E.J. I agree with your statements, but you said them much better than I ever could.
As I was reading it, I kept thinking of that horrible, wasteful World War 1, with so many inefficient generals and such a high loss of life, which went against just about everything Sun Tzu wrote about.


message 21: by Michele (new)

Michele | 1008 comments E.J. wrote: "In Chinese society war was a proper topic of philosophy. Applied philosophy. How to restore harmony....You don't just develop a doctrine of war. You study your opponent and develop something that fits that unique situation. You and your opponent are related."

Very interesting. You mention that this isn't considered a good translation -- do you know what's considered the best translation of this particular book?


message 22: by E.J. (new)

E.J. Randolph (canyonelf) | 6 comments Roger Ames had the best book when I was reading up on Sun Tsu a couple years ago. He has a good section on classical Chinese philosophy. He discusses the archaeological dig where the best and oldest version of Art of War was found in 1972. Apparently Sun Tsu's grandson also wrote a Art of War, and that was found in this grave as well. The actual text of the Art of War is a small section in this book. If you are interested in the most accurate version found to date and a good translation along with the context of how this fits into Chinese thought of the time, Roger Ames' book is the one to read.


message 23: by E.J. (new)

E.J. Randolph (canyonelf) | 6 comments But, my personal observation is that this is about a stance. Adopt a flexible approach and keep certain principles in mind. That is how I summarize the Art of War. People take different sayings and act like that is what Sun Tsu is all about. No, those are illustrations and examples of a way of thinking about war in its totality. After I read Roger Ames' section on Chinese philosophy, then everything clicked for me. These were no longer bits and sayings, but examples and illustrations of a whole and coherent way of thinking.


message 24: by Jerilyn (new)

Jerilyn | 19 comments E.J. wrote: "This is not considered a good translation. Giles was an assistant curator at the British Museum. Griffith did a better one. He had the advantage of a military background in the Marine Corps. But, m..."

Thank you for your comments, couldn't agree with you more.


message 25: by Thomas (new) - added it

Thomas Huynh (huynh) Erin wrote: "EDIT: The pros and cons of various translations are detailed on Sonshi.com — I had no idea there were so many! 😅

Has anyone read the English translation by John Minford? I am wondering how it comp..."


I'm sorry it took me so long to reply here because I just learned about this thread. Minford is a solid translator and I would recommend getting his translation. Thank you for mentioned my website, Sonshi.com! We've been teaching Sun Tzu's Art of War for over 20 years now.


message 26: by Thomas (new) - added it

Thomas Huynh (huynh) Sarah wrote: "I read this a couple months ago. I was really rather impressed.
I think of it still holds true to this day. And many of the points can just as easily be applied outside of war.

Michele wrote: "Lau..."


Well said, Sarah! I agree with you on all your points.


message 27: by Thomas (new) - added it

Thomas Huynh (huynh) E.J. wrote: "This is not considered a good translation. Giles was an assistant curator at the British Museum. Griffith did a better one. He had the advantage of a military background in the Marine Corps. But, m..."

EJ, you really impress me with how versed you are in Sun Tzu's Art of War!


message 28: by Thomas (new) - added it

Thomas Huynh (huynh) Rosemarie wrote: "E.J. I agree with your statements, but you said them much better than I ever could.
As I was reading it, I kept thinking of that horrible, wasteful World War 1, with so many inefficient generals an..."


Oh my goodness, yes! If more generals and politicians understand Sun Tzu's Art of War, there would be fewer wars for sure.


message 29: by Thomas (new) - added it

Thomas Huynh (huynh) E.J. wrote: "Roger Ames had the best book when I was reading up on Sun Tsu a couple years ago. He has a good section on classical Chinese philosophy. He discusses the archaeological dig where the best and oldes..."

EJ, we did an interview with Dr. Ames where we discussed his Art of War translation. If you're interested, here's the link: https://www.sonshi.com/roger-ames-int...


message 30: by Thomas (new) - added it

Thomas Huynh (huynh) Pink wrote: "This is the discussion thread for The Art of War by Sun Tzu, our Old School Classic Group Read for April 2018.

Spoilers allowed here.

Please feel free to discuss anyt..."


Pink, I'm kicking myself for missing your Art of War discussion here! However, I joined your book group, Catching up on Classics!


message 31: by Thomas (new) - added it

Thomas Huynh (huynh) Michele wrote: "Laurie wrote: "The rules about being prepared and so forth are still applicable today, but otherwise I'm not sure why this is still around. "

I suppose for the same reason we still read Shakespear..."


People would be amazed how many leaders in the world read Sun Tzu's Art of War. It teaches us how to handle conflict, which is often the case with those in power -- not necessarily to grab more power but to prevent problems associated with clashes of interests.


message 32: by Erin (last edited Jun 15, 2020 08:55AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Erin (erinm31) | 609 comments Thomas wrote: "Erin wrote: "EDIT: The pros and cons of various translations are detailed on Sonshi.com — I had no idea there were so many! 😅

Has anyone read the English translation by John Minford? I am wonderin..."


You remind me that I’d meant to check out another translation of The Art of War and haven’t done so yet! Thank you for your overview of several translations on Sonshi.com! =)


message 33: by Thomas (new) - added it

Thomas Huynh (huynh) Erin wrote: "Thomas wrote: "Erin wrote: "EDIT: The pros and cons of various translations are detailed on Sonshi.com — I had no idea there were so many! 😅

Has anyone read the English translation by John Minford..."


You're welcome!


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