The "Art of War" by Sun Tzu is an ancient Chinese military treatise that has long been influential for its strategic doctrine, and while it is not a Taoist text in the religious sense, its principles harmonize with Taoist philosophy. The text’s author, Sun Tzu, lived during the era of the Warring States, a time when Taoism and Confucianism emerged and flourished in China
Taoism emphasizes aligning oneself with the natural flow of the world, or the "Dao," and stresses the idea of effortlessness in action, known as "wu wei," which translates to "non-action" or "effortless action." Although "wu wei" does not appear explicitly in "Art of War," readers familiar with Taoist ideas would recognize the strategic advantage of minimal disturbance in Sun Tzu’s advice for leaders to take the path of least resistance in military campaigns. In Taoist metaphysics, what is considered the most natural course of action often leads to the best outcomes, and this resonates with Sun Tzu’s military strategies which often advocate winning by outsmarting the enemy and achieving victory with minimal conflict
For instance, Sun Tzu’s concept of "shì," which can refer to situational potential or the alignment of forces in a way that they are poised to take advantage of the situation, is an example of such harmonization with Taoist thinking. The idea is to understand and utilize the inherent potential within a situation—much like a Taoist would observe and harness the natural flow or "Dao" of the environment
Additionally, leaders in the People's Republic of China historically used strategies similar to those found in "Art of War" and influenced by Taoist concepts, as demonstrated by Beijing's methodical and patient approach to international affairs, such as integrating itself into organizations like the United Nations by nurturing relationships over time and making small strategic moves—again reflecting the Taoist principle of "wu wei"
In summary, while the "Art of War" is not a Taoist text, its content and the methodology prescribed by Sun Tzu show clear parallels with Taoist beliefs and practices. Understanding "Art of War" through the lens of Taoist philosophy can provide deeper insight into China’s strategic tradition and universal lessons that extend beyond mere military tactics
The relationship between Sun Tzu's "Art of War" and Taoism is intellectually intriguing because it demonstrates how seemingly practical military strategies can embody philosophical principles that aim to harmonize with the natural order. The appearance of Taoism in Sun Tzu's work can be seen in several key areas:
Strategic Alignment with the Natural Order: Sun Tzu focuses on adapting to and utilizing the environment and circumstances to achieve military success. This is analogous to the Taoist principle of aligning with the Tao, the ultimate source and principle of the universe in Taoism, where the course of action is adapted to the natural flows of the world.
Efficient Use of Energy: One of the central themes in "Art of War" is the efficient use of resources and energy, typified by the avoidance of direct conflict when it is not necessary. This mirrors the Taoist concept of "wu wei," which implies an understanding of when effort is required and when an action can be accomplished through minimal effort by aligning with the natural course of events.
Flexibility and Non-Contention: Sun Tzu emphasizes the importance of being flexible and able to respond to changing situations. This non-contentious approach resonates with Taoist philosophy's appreciation for flexibility and the ability to remain detached and not assert force unnecessarily.
Victory Without Battle: One of the most famous tenets of Sun Tzu's "Art of War" is the achievement of victory without fighting. This principle aligns with the Taoist aim to accomplish tasks without confrontations and to win by cunning, much in the way water flows around obstacles rather than through them.
Preparation and Timing: Sun Tzu teaches that success is born of careful preparation and taking action only at the most opportune moments. Similarly, Taoism suggests acting only in accordance with the natural rhythm of the environment, doing the right thing at the right time.
Balance and Harmony: Both "Art of War" and Taoism emphasize the need for balance and harmony. In military applications, this means balancing hardness with softness, comparing it with the Taoist pursuit of balance in all aspects of life.
In essence, the "Art of War" can appear deeply Taoist because it advocates for strategies that work with, rather than against, the fundamental elements and dynamics at play, be they in conflict situations or the wider cosmos. It speaks to an inherent wisdom of utilizing the path of least resistance to achieve one's objectives, something at the very heart of Taoist philosophy.