The Art of War, Sun Tzu (translated by Ralph D. Sawyer)

Barnes & Noble Books, 1994, 375 pages, C$10.99 hc, ISBN 1-56619-297-8

There are times when it’s more appropriate for a reviewer to tell you the best way to enjoy a book rather than if it’s good or not.

With Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, one can comfortably assume even before cracking the spine of the book that it’s great: Arguably written more than two thousand years ago by one of China’s best tactician, The Art of War has been studied repeatedly in the Western world during the last century, from military academies to corporate boardrooms. Some will argue that The Art of War is a military treatise; others will say that it’s a political/social manual, or even a book of philosophical contemplations. It’s certainly not obvious with statements like “In order await the disordered; in tranquillity await the clamorous. This is the way to control the mind.”

The Art of War, even in translation, has long passed into the public domain. You can download several translations from the Internet. Why, then, buy a 11$ book about it? To understand it better, probably.

Ralph D. Sawyer is, putting it mildly, a pretty knowledgeable man. The Art of War itself fits in less than a hundred pages. The remainder of Sawyer’s book is political and military context, commentary, discussion of newly-found versions and more than a hundred pages of notes. (!)

Perhaps more significantly, Sawyer has taken the time to write a new translation of The Art of War. If we compare it to the classical public-domain “Giles” translation (1910), it certainly has more flavour than the classical version. Boring, artless statements like “The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.” (Giles) suddenly become snappy “Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Way to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed.” (Sawyer).

But even with the modern, literary translation, The Art of War is by nature not an easy book to read. Or rather, it is easy to read, but not easy to grasp; it is to be read as slowly as possible.

One thing that might help is to discuss the book with a group. An ex-colleague of mine, Eleanor Glor, holds monthly meetings about Innovation in the Public Sector called “The Innovation Salon”. The subject matter for February 1999 was a discussion of The Art of War, as moderated by David Jones, a enthusiast of Sun Tzu’s book.

I can’t think of a better way to understand Sun Tzu; the discussion was literate, lively, wide-ranging and thought-provoking. I had prepared by reading The Art of War twice, without looking at the commentary and as a matter of fact, David Jones warned us that one should read Sun Tzu and try to form a good opinion of him well before trying to read any commentary.

A good example is, I feel, the debate about the military value of Sun Tzu. Some commentators will try to tell you that The Art of War has less to do with warfare than pure philosophy. I happen to disagree (David Jones’s arguments failed to sway me.) but that assumption is crucial for many commentaries, who are sometimes radically oriented on this simple opinion of the text. (Similarly, some translations are skewed toward the militarist of the non-militarist approach; could it be a coincidence that my translation is though the pen of a scholar from the militarist school?)

Even so, do not get the impression that I’m suddenly a wide-eyed convert to the Ancient Wisdom of the Orient; I think that attempts to reconcile The Art of War with modern life are interesting but misguided. At the same time, a careful reading of Sun Tzu will provide many rather good aphorisms and enough quotable material to impress both colleagues and friends. It’s worth repeating, however, that discussion is almost invariably a far better way to learn to appreciate Sun Tzu; why not try an impromptu reading group?

2 thoughts on “The Art of War, Sun Tzu (translated by Ralph D. Sawyer)”

  1. That was a long time ago! Since then my research has been completed and published, receiving raves from those in the Sun Tzu community not wedded to the militarist take on it, the Canadian, USA and foreign military, and many embassies. I am open to dialogue and challenge – all welcome.

    1. It does feel as if it was fourteen years ago, right? I should re-read the book –I’m sure my take on it will be different.

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