Sun Tzu: A Critique Of Flaws In Chapter One ‘Laying Plans’

Sun Tzu is the greatest military commander the Orient ever produced.  Reading his texts over the years has increased my admiration for him and his success.  But he is not infallible.  The United States Marine Corps in building on British and French success in counterinsurgency warfare since the late 19th century has produced valuable insights that surpass the works of Sun Tzu ‘The Art of War’.  I would like to briefly outline them here while examining the original success that was Sun Tzu.  This is the first of many critiques, we begin with a brief introduction and then a critique of Chapter One: Laying Plans.

Any critique of historical material must first be properly informed from the author’s intention.  If I ignore the original hearing of a text I remain ignorant of its application.  This is the first principle of any hermeneutics (theories of interpretation).  Sun Tzu is aided by many commentaries that clearly elaborate on his writing style.  My premise is to elucidate on principals intrinsic to ‘Art of War’ that the West has achieved for Sun Tzu.  I fully understand the use of Sinic analogy, metaphor, simile and ratio.  I have no interest in elaborating on what other scholars have profoundly influenced.  My interest is to identify themes intrinsic to ‘Art of War’ and reveal where the West has succeeded in its application.

Sun Tzu is a Taoist.  This means he does not agree with the forced assimilation that was Confucian morality.  This is not to put such an achievement in a bad light, readers need to engage previous posts on Confucius to understand what is built on here.  Neither Sun Tzu nor Confucius grasped the significance of either reason or politics.  Both remained elusive from Sinic civilization.  Arnold Toynbee has elaborated on such a point in his 12 volume study titled ‘A Study of History’.  Nevertheless, the west has greatly elaborated on ‘The Art of War’.  Lets examine the limitations of Sun Tzu’s first chapter.

Chapter One is titled ‘Laying Plans’.  Sun Tzu claims that when a general wishes to deliberate on conditions for ‘obtaining the field’ such a general is governed by five constant factors.  I would like to examine the limitations that Tzu proposes in the first of five.

The first of five governing factors is called ‘the Moral Law’ and it is profoundly confusing when one considers ‘The Mandate Of Heaven’ in determining political legitimacy through strength.  The West has further elaborated on Sun Tzu’s very narrow understanding of ‘The Moral Law’.  For Tzu, the ‘Moral Law’ is the ability for a leader to generate and maintain consensus of his ruling subjects.  With consensus the people will follow the ruler.  F.D.R. in America performed this feat in maintaining an isolationist posture prior to Pear Harbor.  The confusion is profound:  Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Castrol and many murderous ideologues have maintained, even strengthened their mastery of their population and still lost!  Having mastery of the population is not the same as acknowledging the sovereignty of the people.  Sun Tzu’s limitation is grounded in both his inability to discover and implement political craft as a weapon of war similar to Clausewitz.

The Sinic value of ‘The Mandate of Heaven’ only sustains the initial Sinic confusion, for success brings the ‘Mandate’; losers are by definition not granted the imprimatur that is conferred from the ‘Mandate’.

The west perfected the ‘Art of War’ from the Enlightenment’s proposition of a Christian anthropology grounding political craft.  This was not possible for Sun Tzu or any part of Sinic Civilization.  By permitting such an anthropology the West was permitted the analogy of failure as a political incubus.  Neither the Mayan’s nor any Oriental Civilization was granted such a perspective.

The late great Eric Voegelin gave his life to examining the political conditions detailing the reasons for how the west was permitted supremacy.

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About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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