Yes, there’s no shortage of Sun Tzu quotes out there, but there’s a reason for this: he was perhaps the most influential military strategist of all time. His work holds importance not only for its application on the battlefield, but in the timeless lessons that can help us, even now, in our day to day lives.
Credited as the author of The Art of War, a book of military philosophy held in great regard for both western and eastern cultures, Sun Tzu means, “Master Sun”, a name honoring his legacy.
As with all great wisdom, Sun Tzu quotes open themselves to immediate misinterpretation — there are often more layers at play than one realizes — and they’ve been used (and mis-used) by everyone from Mao Zedong to Colin Powell. Indeed, many historians believe Sun Tzu’s teachings have been key in China’s rise to superpower status in the 21st century.
Regardless, their nature lends them to nearly every facet of human life for the thinking reader — Sun Tzu quotes are applicable not just to war, but to any art, discipline, or task. Keep this in mind as you read.
1) The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.
2) Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.
3) To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence.
4) If you are far from the enemy, make him believe you are near.
5) Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.
6) Prohibit the taking of omens, and do away with superstitious doubts. Then, until death itself comes, no calamity need be feared.
7) Quickness is the essence of the war.
8) If your opponent is of choleric temper, irritate him.
9) 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.
10) All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
11) If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.
12) Attack is the secret of defense; defense is the planning of an attack
13) The skillful tactician may be likened to the shuai-jan. Now the shuai-jan is a snake that is found in the Ch’ang mountains. Strike at its head, and you will be attacked by its tail; strike at its tail, and you will be attacked by its head; strike at its middle, and you will be attacked by head and tail both.
14) Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.
15) [When a commander] fusses over his men as if they were infants, they will accompany him into the deepest valleys; because he fusses over his men as if they were his own beloved sons, they will die by his side. If he is generous with them and yet they do not do as he tells them, if he loves them and yet they do not obey his commands, if he is so undisciplined with them that he cannot bring them into proper order, they will be like spoiled children who can be put to no good use at all.
16) Those skilled at making the enemy move do so by creating a situation to which he must conform; they entice him with something he is certain to take, and with lures of ostensible profit they await him in strength.
17) Foreknowledge cannot be gotten from ghosts and spirits, cannot be had by analogy, cannot be found out by calculation. It must be obtained from people, people who know the conditions of the enemy.
18) The worst calamities that befall an army arise from hesitation.
19) Plan for what is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small.
20) At first, then, exhibit the coyness of a maiden, until the enemy gives you an opening; afterwards emulate the rapidity of a running hare, and it will be too late for the enemy to oppose you.