In the previous post, I wrote about Confucianism. However, Confucianism is just one type of political thought among many that taught us how to do politics. Its particular type of political thought is called wise counsel, with the intense focus on making “progress in constitutional design, or in ensuring that government officials are as able as possible.”. However , Confucianism also has a flavor of political moralism because of its virtue-based system. There are other types of political thoughts, namely: political moralism, political realism and political ideology. I’ll elaborate on political moralism and ideology when it comes down to it. Today, I am writing about the Art of War, a form of political realism.

Political Realism

Political realism is a type of political thought that focuses on how we should interact with the trio of power, conflict and war. The main motivation for such a focus is pragmatism. Political realists believe that no amount of idealism can deliver moral goodness if one does not have power. Power can refer to political power within one country or even beyond, which extends to conflict and warfare. This is where you snap your fingers say “ah ha!” because you now know why The Art of War is a form of political realism without having me to explain any further.

History time!!!

As I’ve mentioned in the Confucianism post, The Art of War was conceptualized during the Warring States Period in China. Obviously, this period was characterized by warfare and political instability. In contrast with the Spring and Autumn Period before it, the Warring States Period had no breathing room for political thought. Perhaps it was because of this lack of breathing space, with the survival of the states at stake that accelerated political thoughts out of necessity. However, thoughts from this era tend to be militaristic and authoritative in nature, which were consistent with the characteristic of their period. This period of warfare involved several states invoking the Mandate from Heaven casus belli to unify China, eventually ending it with the victory of the Qin, establishing the Qin Dynasty, helmed by the infamous Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang who ordered the building of the Great Wall of China. So how does the Art of War fit into this historical context?

Sun Tzu and Confucius

The author of the Art of War treatise was a chinese general call Sun Tzu. Drawing parallel to Confucius’ situation, Sun Tzu rose among the ranks of military and became influential as a general serving in the state of Wu in a war-torn era, similar to how Confucius rose to the position of court administrator  through education in a peaceful and thus education-focused era. His successful military campaigns proved his military ingenuity, elevating him to the position of military advisor/strategist. It was in this position of power, similar to Confucius, then Sun Tzu wrote the Art of War treatise. The book was written for the practical usage as a handbook for the ruler who Sun Tzu served under. Although Confucius intended for his writing to serve the same general purpose of bringing about change from the upper echelon, Sun Tzu’s work was more well-received by the sovereign. This is likely because Confucius directly served under court officials who are reluctant to embrace a political idea that threatens their hereditary principle, causing such call for change to be contained on their level. In contrast, Sun Tzu was an advisor to the ruler of Wu in his time, giving his words not only more weight but also the benefit of direct persuasion. Besides, Sun Tzu had more credibility in the eyes of his superior because he won the state several decisive victories, distinguishing him from the rest. Confucius was, in no offense to him as he was nonethelsss a brilliant mind, just one among many court administrators of his time. To be fair, such positions bore little opportunities to “shine” compared to a general or strategist during war time.

Content of the treatise

The Art of War treatise, or handbook if you like, covers 13 components, in 13 chapters, of guidelines about how to conduct warfare. Till this day, the treatise is still widely used in many contexts. We are all fighting a war, one way or another; warfare is just a metaphor for the situations that we have to deal with everyday. Today, The Art of War is one of the many corporate bibles in the bookstore. Besides the metaphorical warfare that we are dealing with everyday, Sun Tzu’s guide on the planning of military campaigns also informs us on the considerations we ought to take when we plan for anything at all, with the event or project representing the military campaign in Sun Tzu’s context. However, the treatise isn’t just about how we should conduct warfare victoriously, it is also about the structure of the military, espionage and diplomacy.

Structure of the Military

To put it simply, Sun Tzu’s take on how the military should be organized mirrors Confucius’ take on how the civil society should be organized. The masses would be the common soldiers, the ministers will be the generals and the sovereign will remain unchanged. The general roles of each stratum of the hierarchy remains fundamentally unchanged, with only a change in context from civilian to military.

A leader leads by example, not by force. -Sun Tzu

This is the same principle emphasized by Confucius about leadership. Unsurprisingly, Sun Tzu also expected the sovereign and the generals to be moral exemplars; the virtues to exhibit are wisdom, integrity, compassion and courage in particular. On top of the structural features that The Art of War shares with Confucianism, the military context led Sun Tzu to emphasize on the importance of discipline. Deviating from Confucius, Sun Tzu believed that stern punishments are necessary for disobedience. For Sun Tzu, it was because one of the fundamentals of warfare victory was for the soldiers to be of one mind with their rulers. However, Sun Tzu also believed in moderation, advocating a balance between punishment and reward. This moderation is advocated on another 2 basis on top of his belief in the importance of punishments: Firstly, Sun Tzu stated that “a leader leads by example, not by force”. Secondly, he was a believer of meritocracy, probably for the same reason as Confucius as he rose to the rank of general and eventually military advisor based on merits. The system of reward he advocated was a testament to his meritocratic-leaning ideals. The combination of these 3 factors led the possibly-Taoist (a possible 4th factor) military philosopher to advocate a balanced approach of punishment and reward.


The first passage of The Art of War states that:

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 ruin. Hence it is a subject of enquiry which can on no account be neglected.

This was the most groundbreaking feature of The Art of War during Sun Tzu’s time as it was likely to be the first explicit statement that war (hence diplomacy) and espionage are “critical elements of the business of the state.” (The politics book | Hardback, 2013). Sun Tzu saw diplomacy as an equivalent of a social contract. He thought that the moral values of justice, appropriateness and moderations are important values to be upheld. Hence, warfare is but a mean to punish other states that violate these values by attacking the home state, similar to how criminals are punished by the state for violating the social contract. By punishing the transgressors in a morally justifiable way, just like how the society becomes more safe and peaceful, the “state is rewarded by happier people and the acquisition of territory and wealth” in the context of inter-state punishment. Although Sun Tzu is the author of The Art of War, he advocated, first and foremost, peace if possible. Hence, war is only a last resort.


Sun Tzu also made a breakthrough, other than explicitly introducing diplomacy, by also explicitly introducing espionage. Espionage is the use of spies. He saw this as important as it helps the state to be aware of the enemies’ strength and intention. This is because knowing your enemy and knowing yourself is essentially what The Art of War is about; knowing such things can thus help the state be prepared and make informed decisions. The next most important use of espionage is deception. Sun Tzu saw deception in terms of feeding misinformation as a useful tool for not just victory, but also the most efficient victory. Sun Tzu believed that the use of force is a drain on resources, hence, if it is possible to break the enemies’ will to fight without actually fighting, we must take it. This is one of the most important function that espionage possesses in Sun Tzu’s thought.

Sun Tzu’s Legacy

Although his historical existence is at best elusive, his legacy is at worst resilient. Sun Tzu guided his ruler to military victories in his lifetime. After his death, his work was read by rulers struggling to unify China. The one who did, Qin Shi Huang, likely read the treatise as well given his military disposition evidenced by his construction of both the Great Wall and the Terra-cotta Army despite living in an era where the warring period had ended. Sun Tzu’s work continued to inspire other political thinkers and actors such as Niccolò Machiavelli, Napoleon Bonaparte and Mao Zedong. Today, it remains an essential read in the political, business and economic realms.

The World Today

The post-cold war era that we live in today may once be considered to be peaceful mainly because high economic interdependence had elevated the opportunity cost of warfare. However, The Art of War remains entrenched in political entities today. Intelligence agencies are indispensable in sovereign nations and there exist international laws established to punish states that transgress, violating other states’ sovereignty. This is exemplified through the use of economic sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea and also against North Korea for its dangerous nuclear diplomacy. On top of all these, geopolitical tensions are on the upward climb in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory, with increasing prospect of US-China clash. The Art of War may yet again be increasingly relevant as politics slowly descent into the manifestation of humanity’s unchanging violent nature, proving that the political realists are right to be cynical about humanity.


The Art of War is the earliest form of political realism expounded by Sun Tzu, a military strategist of the Warring State Period in China. Sun Tzu and Confucius have much in common in their lives and ideas: they rose to position of power by merit, advocated similar hierarchy structure for their own field of expertise and believed in the moral functions/exemplary of the sovereign and the ministers/generals. Sun Tzu, however, should be given the most credit for his revolutionary explicit emphasis on the importance of diplomacy/warfare and espionage in the running of the state. His historical existence may be uncertain but his legacy from his time alive continuing till today is most certainly influential: His work became a precursor to historical events and more political philosophies such as Machiavellism, Maoism and Napolean’s conquest of Europe. His work is not just a significant historical force, it also fundamentally changed the way we do politics permanently – as long as we remain creatures of warfare.

Signing off,



The politics book | Hardback (2013) Available at: (Accessed: 16 January 2017).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s