Though not a long book, The Art of War is nevertheless an intimidating one. Composed in the China of the fifth century BC, it comes down to us as perhaps the definitive analysis of military strategy, applicable equally to East, West, antiquity, and modernity alike. Hence the minor but still-productive industry that puts forth adaptations, extensions, and reinterpretations of The Art of War for non-military settings, transposing its lessons into law, business, sports, and other realms besides. But if you want a handle on what its author, the general and strategist Sun Tzu, actually wrote, watch the illustrated video above.
A production of Youtube channel Eudaimonia, previously featured here on Open Culture for a similarly animated exegesis of Machiavelli’s The Prince, it runs more than two and a half hours in full. Far though it exceeds the length of the average explainer video, it does reflect the tendency of Sun Tzu’s succinct observations to expand, when seriously considered, into much wider and more complex discussions. To each of the original text’s chapters the Eudaimonia video devotes a ten-to-fifteen-minute section, conveying not just the content of its lessons but also their relevance to the history of human conflict in the roughly two and a half millennia since they were written.
In chapter two, on waging war, Sun Tzu writes that “in order to kill the enemy, our men must be roused to anger.” It was in this spirit that, during the Second World War, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Information launched a media “anger campaign” meant to “increase resolve against the Germans, as until then, the British had little sense of real hostility towards the average German.” In the chapter on weaknesses and strengths, Sun Tzu recommends “the divine art of subtlety and secrecy” as a means of becoming invisible and inaudible to the enemy — much as Julius Caesar did in the Gallic Wars, when he sent scouting ships “painted in Venetian blue, which was a similar color to that of the sea.”
Other examples come from diverse chapters of history. These include the American Civil War, Gandhi’s negotiation of Indian independence, the Napoleonic Wars, the British defeat in Zululand, Joan of Arc’s siege of Orléans, the revolt against the Turkish led by T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), and even Steve Jobs’ turnaround of a nearly bankrupt Apple. Most of us will never find ourselves in situations of quite these stakes. But given that none of us can entirely avoid dealing with conflict, we’d could do worse than to keep the guidance of Sun Tzu on our side.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.