Summary of The Art of War

You might not think you have any reason to read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War unless you’re, well, planning to wage a war. The Art of War is about so much more than its title would imply, though. It’s about strategies and tactics in general – life strategies, business strategies, legal strategies, and more. The text, written by a high-ranking military general, is hundreds of years old, but it wasn’t translated into English until the 20th century. Since then, it’s become popular as a source of strong advice for interactions of all types.

The book is divided into thirteen chapters, each of which outlines a fundamental aspect of strategy. The first chapter deals with laying plans. It explores the five factors and seven elements that determine the outcome of engagements and explains how to assess and compare this points to make winning calculations. The second chapter details waging war – and winning engagement decisively. In the third chapter, The Art of War deals with strategic attack, discussing the five factors that are necessary for success in any war: attack, strategy, alliances, army, and cities.

The fourth chapter deals with tactics and directing. It discusses the importance of defending strategic positions without accidentally creating opportunities for the enemy. The fifth chapter talks about the forces necessary for wining – specifically, the use of creativity to build momentum. The next chapter addresses weaknesses and strengths and talks about how you can find your enemy’s weaknesses and use them to your own benefit.

Chapter seven talk about maneuvering and about how to win in forced confrontations. Chapter eight deals with variation and how to handle unexpected circumstances successfully. The topic of chapter nine is movement. While focusing considerably on how to evaluate the intentions of others, this chapter deals with how to address the different situations that arise while moving through new and enemy territory. Chapter ten deals with terrain and the six types of ground positions and field positions that an army could encounter. Chapter eleven explains the nine common stages in a campaign and how to navigate them successfully.

Chapter twelve deals with incendiary attacks and the use of fire. Although that may sound like a topic that is pretty specific to battle and can have no other applications, it actually does. The section discusses the use of the environment as a weapon, the five targets for attack, and the appropriate responses to different types of attack. The topic of the last chapter is intelligence and espionage, which includes an explanation of the five types of intelligence sources and how to manage them.

In sum, there are some sections of The Art of War that are indeed very specific to war – but the book has remained an enduring classic for centuries because of its applicability to life in general.