Sometimes someone says something that’s not only not right, it barely qualifies as wrong. Exhibit A: I recently heard a veteran scholar claim that Sun Tzu’s Art of War doesn’t matter because no individual named Sun Tzu ever lived. As a factual matter that’s probably true. China specialists have long pondered whether The Art of War is a product of solo authorship or was compiled over time in antiquity. The weight of opinion seems to favor the latter.
Saying a work has no value because its provenance is uncertain is rather like discounting the Iliad and Odyssey because—as some classicists maintain—no individual named Homer ever lived. If not, no one poet composed those poetic masterworks. They were handed down through oral repetition and amended over the centuries until they reached their present sublime state. But at least skeptics of Homer’s existence or authorship don’t dispute the importance of the Greek sagas; they simply quarrel about the poems’ origins as a matter of historical exactitude.
A great work is a great work whether or not we know who wrote it—and whether or not it was a collective project of the ages.
What intrinsic value does The Art of War command? Start with the obvious: it’s replete with insights into the nature of war and strategy. To name just one,
Sun Tzu the book demands that the general and sovereign know themselves and know the enemy lest they find themselves in dire peril on the battlefield. Common sense, you say? Maybe—but Aristotle observes that common sense is the highest form of philosophy. Supplicants to the oracle at Delphi entered the temple through a doorway inscribed with the words Know Yourself.
Was Aristotle wrong, and was the oracle wrong because we don’t know who carved the inscription? Studying diplomatic and military history reveals that common sense is honored more in the breach than the observance. Classic works help us analyze past failings and successes while avoiding pitfalls apt to befall us in our own time. They help us get our bearings.
Reading Sun Tzu also helps us understand how we, allies and friends, and potential foes will make war. What we read shapes how we think and what we do. The Chinese treatise inspired British soldier B. H. Liddell Hart to declare that indirection, a quintessential Sun Tzuian concept, should constitute the core of any military strategy. In turn American admiral J. C. Wylie declared that Liddell Hart’s notion of the indirect approach could unite warriors from the ground, maritime, air, and insurgent/counterinsurgent domains behind a common strategic vision—ameliorating the differences of worldview that plague debates among those who operate in different domains and thus approach strategic questions from starkly different standpoints.
For Wylie, then, an idea from The Art of War could furnish the basis for a unified field theory of strategy. From China to Britain to America: that’s some testament to the durability of a perhaps-mythical Chinese general’s thinking.
And of course there’s Sun Tzu’s influence in the East, in China in particular. Mao Zedong borrows liberally from Sun Tzu in his influential writings on how the weak overcome the strong. (Mao also borrows from Clausewitz, another scribe my nameless veteran scholar deems of no value.) The Great Helmsman remains an inspiration to Chinese statesmen to this day. For example, Beijing’s first official Military Strategy (2015) depicts the Maoist concept of active defense as the “essence” of Communist Chinese martial thought.
Shaping military thought across the centuries and across the globe: quite the accomplishment for a nonexistent figure of no consequence.