Small Wars Journal

The Croesus Delusion: Why We Habitually Misread Sun Tzu

Sat, 05/07/2022 - 7:47am

The Croesus Delusion: Why We Habitually Misread Sun Tzu

By John F. Sullivan



My words are sufficient for your use. Someone who casts aside my words and changes my ideas is like a person who casts aside the harvest and just picks up grains.

Mozi (c.a. 5th century BCE)

Herodotus begins his inquiry into the origins of the Greco-Persian wars by recounting the tale of the Lydian king Croesus, then the most wealthy and powerful ruler in the pre-Hellenic world. When the upstart Persians—under their dynamic leader Cyrus—began consolidating a rival empire in the east, Croesus dispatched emissaries to two Greek oracles seeking guidance as to whether “he would be able to check Persian power before it became too strong.” According to Herodotus, “both oracles concurred in their reply; they predicted that if Croesus were to wage war against the Persians, he would destroy a great empire.” Believing these pronouncements to be auspicious, Croesus promptly initiated war with Cyrus. The Lydians, however, were decisively defeated, Croesus enslaved, and his kingdom annihilated. As Herodotus drolly noted, the oracles’ predictions were ultimately proven correct: “he put an end to a great empire—his own.”

The Croesus Delusion—a tendency to readily accept ambiguous oracular pronouncements as validation of one’s own prejudices and biases despite evidence of contradictory meanings—subtly shades many modern interpretations of ancient writings (see, for example, the Thucydides Trap).  Contemporary thinking on China’s most famous ancient military philosopher, Sun Tzu, is certainly no exception. Explanations of his eponymous text, titled erroneously and misleadingly in English as the Art of War, but more accurately rendered as Master Sun’s Military Methods (Sunzi Bingfa), continue to be a prominent source of evidentiary-free speculation. We would like to believe Sun Tzu leads us to mastering powerful methods of “winning without fighting,” even though textual and historical evidence supports a more limited interpretation of “gaining victory through the avoidance of pitched battles.” The promise of enlightened techniques designed to “take the enemy whole and intact” resonate deeply with our desire to be thought of as beneficent persuaders rather than military conquerors. We easily reject, therefore, the non-revolutionary and more likely proffered advice of “prioritizing one’s own self-preservation.”

Ever since B.H. Liddell Hart saw in Sun Tzu’s work a convenient foil to counter the influence of his perceived theoretical antithesis, Clausewitz, Western analyses of this complex and ambiguous text have been unnecessarily distorted and pointlessly simplified. Stripped of its oracular and prognosticative nature, the original text reveals itself to be more, not less relevant to contemporary thinking. To illustrate this, revising the conventional interpretation of “know the enemy, know yourself” to better reflect its proper textual and historical roots transforms the phrase from a banal admonition to “do better at intelligence” into a much more complex rumination on civil-military relations. Sun Tzu, contrary to the interpretation favored by most modern commentators, considered navigating domestic political factions to be just as perilous an endeavor as battling one’s enemy.


Not Lost in Translation, but Distorted in Interpretation

That Sunzi Bingfa consistently remains one of the most popular and often translated Chinese texts in the West is hardly surprising. It is astonishingly short, composed of approximately 6,000 characters, with the average English translation length just shy of 10,000 words. In comparison, the Han dynasty-era text, Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji), clocks in at over half a million characters. Sun Tzu’s brevity, however, is misleading. Grappling with the text requires considerable effort to make sense of its difficult and often ambiguous syntax. Consider one brief example highlighting the challenge in accurately rendering the original text into comprehensible modern prose. In the third chapter, Sun Tzu discusses what actions should be taken in relation to the enemy based on differing force ratios. Below is the original language and a rough direct translation of the advice being proffered when considering a force ratio of two to one:

 倍  則  分  之

 Double   Then    Divide      It

First note the original language does not clearly distinguish between subject and object. Are we to assume that one’s own force is double the size of the enemy, or is the enemy force twice the size of our own? The plain language of the text does not make this clear. Moreover, this makes the recommended action ambiguous. Is one expected to divide one’s own army, or compel the enemy to split up its own?

Better translation alone will not be able to dispel the penumbra of vagueness. Instead, we need careful interpretation derived from all available sources. How does the clause fit in with ones directly preceding and following it? How does it either support or diverge from the main themes developed in the chapter (or the overall text)? Is this specific sentence structure used in other portions of the work and can it help to dispel the ambiguity here? Can evidence derived from other contemporaneous writings help clarify its meaning? What historical factors might shed light on its intended purpose? Do extant military examples from the period suggest favoring splitting one’s own army or do they suggest compelling the enemy to divide themselves to be the preferred option? What does splitting a force achieve? Did the command structure and training methods used by the militaries of that era suggest that coordinated split operations were a feasible option in the field?

Clearly, getting this “right” would be a laborious process. Few translators seem willing to make the effort. Read the Giles or Sawyer translation, and they suggest you should split your own army. Consult the Griffith or Mair version, and they propose that only the enemy should be divided. Accessing the traditional historical commentators does little to resolve the issue. According to Song dynasty scholar Zhang Yu, one should split one’s own army. Tang dynasty writer Du Mu, meanwhile, remains convinced that the enemy should be divided. In the end, we can comfort ourselves by rationalizing that millennia old rules about ideal force ratios have little relevance to thinking about contemporary warfare. But what about the verses we generally believe still speak lucidly and powerfully to us today?

Know the Enemy and Know Yourself: Are We Missing Another Potential Adversary?

Most who have read the text in translation will maintain an unshakeable conviction that Sun Tzu clearly and unequivocally directs us to “Know the Enemy and Know Ourselves.” Consult almost any competent translation of the text and this recollection will be validated. The phrase is first mentioned in the final verse of the third chapter. Below is one of the earliest English translations, published by Lionel Giles in 1910, in which subsequent translations only slightly vary from:

Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Yet many will be surprised to learn that even this is technically incorrect. At no point within the verse does Sun Tzu specifically reference any real or hypothetical “enemy.” The original language he uses to convey both poles of the knowledge equation is shown below:


知  彼  知  己

Know Other   Know Self


Notice, though, that the character counterbalancing “Self” is not the enemy, but instead rendered as “Other.” This is a deliberate choice. Ancient Chinese writing possessed a distinct and unambiguous character to express one’s enemy, di (). Sun Tzu uses this exact term for denoting an enemy 70 times within the text, making it one of its most frequently used terms. The character used here, however, purposefully conveys a more neutral tone, and it is important for us to attempt to reason out why this might have been an important distinction.

That modern scholars unambiguously render the original character for “other” in English as “enemy” is a logical translation choice. Who else, in conveying military theory, could be considered the “other” contrasted with “oneself,” if not the enemy? Western military thinking is primed to think in terms of the simple binary “red” and “blue” forces.” Yet we should remain open to considering whether the original text specifically meant “other” to include entities outside the scope of one’s traditional military enemy. By contextualizing the work, we discover that Sun Tzu is more concerned with how his own ruler, fellow ministers, and even his own army might imperil his chances for victory. Counterintuitively, these domestic political and military factions do not belong on the “self” side of the knowledge equation, but instead need to be viewed as distinct “others”—ones capable of jeopardizing a commander’s chances of victory and perhaps even his very survival.

To recognize this, we need to first note that the verse in question begins with a conjunctive adverb. Rendered by Giles as “hence,” the ancient Chinese character gu () performed the same function as it does in modern writing—linking one part of a thought with the one immediately preceding it. If we follow this chain of conjunctive adverbs, we find the logic of the text suggests that we should consider “know other, know self” in relation to the three verses directly preceding it.

Broadening our analysis, we can see that Sun Tzu’s idea begins with an observation that it is the general—not the ruler, the people, court ministers, or the army writ large—who is the true “bulwark of the state.” Therefore, the author begins by distinguishing the general from “other” factions within his own state. The text next describes the three ways in which one’s own ruler’s actions, not the enemy’s, might interfere with and hamper the general’s ability to achieve victory. Finally, it proceeds to outline the five key factors “from which victory can be known”:


   (1) One who knows when he can fight, and when he cannot fight, will be victorious.

   (2) One who recognizes how to employ large and small numbers will be victorious.

   (3) One whose upper and lower ranks have the same desires will be victorious.

   (4) One who, fully prepared, awaits the unprepared will be victorious.

   (5) One whose general is capable and not interfered with by the ruler will be victorious.


Note that the enemy as a subject of analysis is almost completely absent within these five keys to victory. Instead, the general’s relationship with both his own court and his subordinate units dominates all five factors. Thus, when Sun Tzu sums up this thinking with his memorable phrase, we should not assume that only the “enemy” is to be assigned to the “other” side of the knowledge equation. Internal factions within one’s own state are equally, if not more likely, to constitute a threat to successful conducting military operations. Based on this analysis, a more fitting interpretation of this verse should be:

Thus it is said: If you know the other [factions that are capable of disrupting victory] and know yourself, you will not face peril in a hundred battles. If you do not know the other [factions] but do know yourself, you will alternate victories with failures. If you know neither the other [factions] nor yourself, in each battle you will face certain defeat.

Sun Tzu considered navigating civil-military relations to be just as perilous an endeavor as engaging in armed combat with one’s enemy. Gaining insight into the historical factors that influenced this outlook might help us better understand why he might have felt the need to set himself apart so starkly from his fellow compatriots.




A Hundred Battles a Day: With Friends Like These Who Needs Enemies?

As Mark Edward Lewis explains in his seminal work, Sanctioned Violence in Early China, the appearance of Sun Tzu’s text coincided with epochal changes in how practitioners of that time thought about and conducted warfare.  As central authority under the Zhou kings declined and regional rulers capitalized on expanding their territories and resources, the make-up of armies shifted from small forces dominated by an insular nobility to large conscript armies in need of someone possessing the technical and organizational skills to command them. An increased desire for competence over pedigree opened the field to a wider pool of potential command applicants. The Zuozhuan documents the first evidence of this shift, when in 684 BCE the ruler of the state of Lu was convinced by a commoner named Cao Gui to adopt his plan to defeat a powerful army at the Battle of Changshao. In one of the few overt historical references found in the Sunzi Bingfa, Cao Gui is acknowledged by name in the eleventh chapter as an exemplar of courage—perhaps in a nod to the trailblazing legacy he left for later generations of commanders in training.

Yet catapulting commoners into the ranks traditionally dominated by the highest strata of nobility incurred significant personal risk. Take the example of two prominent Chinese historical figures of the fourth century BCE, Wu Qi and Shang Yang. Both began as petty officials who swiftly ascended to the apex of military and political power through sheer will and raw talent. Both were highly successful military commanders who personally led their state’s armies to stunning victories. Both were posthumously recognized with eponymous texts outlining their thinking on military and political matters (Wuzi and The Book of Lord Shang). Yet despite their stellar records and laudatory accomplishments, both individuals were violently executed not by any enemy army or hired assassin, but by jealous nobles of the domains in which they faithfully served. As the third century BCE legalist text, Hanfeizi, noted, “Superiors and inferiors fight a hundred battles a day.” Politics, much like war, was a blood sport in that era. The ruler’s court was also a battlefield, often more treacherous and deadly than the terrain occupied by the enemy army.

The historical military record of this period documents few examples of commanders being killed in battle, but a defeated commander would often be executed or compelled to commit suicide upon returning home. Today, where a losing general is more likely to secure a lucrative book deal or profitable consulting gig, it is difficult to grasp how perilous and precarious the position of commander was at the time. Not understanding the threats emanating from domestic internal factions would be akin to professional malpractice. While we would like to believe that Sun Tzu’s caution and reticence to engage the enemy prematurely was driven by a humane desire to prevent unnecessary violence against his foes, a more probable justification is that potential violence to his own person resulting from an unsuccessful campaign was the dominant factor driving his penchant for battle avoidance.

We can find only one extant example of a near-contemporaneous text directly borrowing Sun Tzu’s phrase “know the other, know yourself” (知彼知己). It is found in the Annals of Lü Buwei, a compendium of political and military knowledge compiled in the mid-third century BCE. In a chapter titled “Scrutiny of the Subtle,” one vignette depicts the eve of battle, in which a commander slaughters a lamb to feed to his warriors, but the meat runs out before reaching his chariot driver. The next day, as they prepare for battle, the driver angrily tells his commander, “Yesterday, in the matter of the lamb you were in charge; in today’s affair I am in charge.” He then purposefully drives the lone command chariot into the waiting enemy force. The Annals provides this moral to the story:

[The commander] fed his officers but forgot his own charioteer; the outcome was the defeat of his army and his own capture. Is this not fitting? Thus, as a general principle, before battle everything should be thoroughly considered and fully prepared; only when you know both the [other] and yourself (知彼知己) may you proceed.

The fact that the example used to illustrate this lesson consists of a commander stymied by the actions of his own soldier, not from any enemy action, lends further credence to the viability of revising our contemporary interpretation of this famous phrase. As the Hanfeizi similarly cautions, “Prepare as you may against those who hate you, calamity will come to you from those you love.”


Naturally, this revised interpretation differs significantly from our conventional understanding of the verse’s intended message. Michael Handel, in his highly influential book, Masters of War, categorized ‘know your enemy and know yourself’ as “a classical definition of net assessment.” Yet one could argue that Sun Tzu likely had a much different lesson to convey. As we currently debate the continued viability of our long-standing models of civil-military relations, Sun Tzu’s warning is that maintaining clear boundaries between civilian and military spheres might be an untenable position. Even if we hope to keep the military largely non-partisan, history shows that militaries cannot remain apolitical indefinitely. Sun Tzu reminds us that only the foolish commander would disregard this reality.    

“The primary purpose of any theory,” Clausewitz observed, “is to clarify concepts and ideas that have become, as it were, confused and entangled.” This advice is equally applicable to our study of Sun Tzu. The authors of these ancient texts were not writing in a vacuum, and it is important that we first attempt to discover the “confused and entangled concepts” they were attempting to untangle and clarify. As the irreverent Daoist text, the Zhuangzi, notes: “Words are not just wind. Words have something to say. But if what they have to say is not fixed, then do they really say something? Or do they say nothing?” The words of these ancient Chinese texts have long been unmoored from the original foundation which tethered them. It remains an extraordinarily difficult, but certainly not impossible, task to make their words mean something again. Otherwise, much like Croesus, we are destined to simply read into ancient texts the soothing messages we wish to hear, rather than the uncomfortable truths we prefer were never uttered.   


About the Author(s)

John F. Sullivan is a former U.S. Army China Foreign Area Officer. He is currently working on an historical commentary to the Sunzi Bingfa, grounding its interpretation in the wider body of contemporaneous military, philosophical, and historical texts from the Warring States era.