Thursday, February 10, 2011

on Sun Tzu, anti-bureaucrat

A link from Instapundit led to this interesting essay about Sun Tzu, the Chinese author of The Art of War. The writer argues that Sun Tzu's politically incorrect understanding of human nature stands in stark opposition to the bureaucratic mindset:

The Art of War, a book which has inspired Chinese emperors, Japanese shoguns, Napoleon, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, does not just subvert conventional morality. It is even more profoundly opposed to the bureaucratic mind: the approach to the world that believes that everything can be reduced to technique and procedures.

Much of America today is as addicted to bureaucratic, rule based thinking as ancient China. The uncertainties of life in a thermonuclear world haunt us. There must, we feel, be infallible techniques for making the economy grow, keeping inflation at bay, understanding international events and managing American foreign policy. When there is a problem — a financial crash, a revolution in a friendly country, an attack by hostile forces — somebody must have made an obvious mistake. They must have misapplied or failed to apply an obvious technique. We would rather believe that our leaders are foolish and incompetent (which they often are) than face the truth that we live in a radically unpredictable world in which no methods and no rules can guarantee safety.

Sun Tzu’s approach is directly opposed to most modern thought about social problems. He speaks about art and comes to war from a deeply Taoist worldview that highlights chaos, evanescence and change. We study “IR theory” and “political science” in the hope that some rational explanations exist that will hold all this chaos at bay. (At Bard I am happy to say we have “Political Studies” instead of “Political Science”; the more modest title recognizes the limits of the discipline. Sun Tzu, I think, would approve.) We want sure and safe rules: democracies don’t go to war with each other, rational considerations guide the policy of great states, most problems have win-win solutions that everyone can accept, the age of great power war is behind us. Sun Tzu says we are fooling ourselves by inventing these rules, blinding ourselves to perils on every side.

I like how the essay concludes:

I was not reaching for hyperbole when I wrote that this is a book that wants to slap its readers in the face. Like a Zen monk trying to astonish and trick the novice into a moment of enlightenment, Sun Tzu seeks to surprise, to shock and ultimately to awaken his readers. He is not teaching a body of doctrine but a habit of mind: a habit of attentive clarity out of which can come true judgment and decisive action. To the one with this habit, Sun Tzu’s specific precepts about war are highly useful and applicable to many domains beyond war. To the one lacking this awareness, Sun Tzu is worse than useless; he can breed that false confidence which is, next to despair itself, the attitude most likely [to] lead to utter and overwhelming defeat.

Go thou and read.



SJHoneywell said...

Interesting. It occurs to me that The Art of War enjoyed a meaningful time as a must-read business book for success in a difficult marketplace. The comment at the end would seem to suggest that this was counterproductive, since most of the minds addressing this material would be of the wrong mindset to benefit from it. In short, a lot of people read it, and gleaned from it "rules" that do not--and should not--exist.

Wouldn't be the first time that people got the wrong idea from something filled with good ones.

Kevin Kim said...

Aye, verily! Look what happened to the Tao Te Ching and the Christian Bible. Of course, this may all be part of the larger human phenomenon of followers transcending (and/or misinterpreting) their movements' founders and foundational writings.

Thomas Huynh said...

It's important to note that Sun Tzu's Art of War presents the world as it is, not what people want it to be. His minimalist approach is a much needed reminder for political leaders who still engage in warfare.

Thomas Huynh, founder of, website dedicated to Sun Tzu's Art of War

Kevin Kim said...

Mr. Huynh,

Yes, that seems in line with what Dr. Mead is arguing in his piece. I suspect that Sun-Tzu and Robert Heinlein would have gotten along very well as realists and pragmatists about human nature.