Sun Tzu on the Art of War

Sun Tzu on the Art of War Anthony Martinez

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Sun Tzu is known as a Chinese military strategist, Taoist philosopher, and general in the 6th century BCE who is widely recognized for his work The Art of War, a treatise on military strategy (also known as The Thirteen Chapters). Whether an individual by the name of 'Sun-Tzu’ existed at all has been disputed (in the same way scholars and historians debate the existence of an actual man named Lao-Tzu) but the existence of The Art of War and its profound influence on military campaigns, clearly proves that someone existed to produce said work and that the work is attributed to one Sun-Tzu. The historian Griffith writes:
War, an integral part of the power politics of the age, had become 'a matter of vital importance to the state, the province of life and death, the road to survival or ruin’. To be waged successfully, it required a coherent strategic and tactical theory and a practical doctrine governing intelligence, planning, command, operational, and administrative procedures. The author of 'The Thirteen Chapters’ was the first man to provide such a theory and such a doctrine. (Griffith, 44).
The difficulty in ascertaining Sun-Tzu’s historicity comes from the early works which mention him, The Spring and Autumn Annals (the state records of the Zhou Dynasty from 722-481 BCE) and the Records of the Grand Historian (known as the Shiji) written between 109-91 BCE by Szuma Chien (Sima Qian). Scholars have criticized both works for inaccuracies and possible conflations of events. The argument against Sun-Tzu’s historicity claims that, had such a great military mind existed, more would have been written of him than just passing references. Still, there are many entries in both works, accepted as historically accurate, which are given the same brief treatment. The scholar Eno writes, “The Spring and Autumn Annals… is brief, not very informative, and inconsistent in its choice of events to note. A typical entry might read, 'Autumn; eighth month; locusts’.” The work by Szuma Chien was criticized as largely fanciful concerning his descriptions of the Xia and Shang dynasties until archaeological excavations of the 20th century CE uncovered physical evidence supporting his claims. It is, therefore, possible that a man named Sun-Tzu did exist and is the author of the book which bears his name. This name, however, is a title translated as 'The Master’ and is not a personal name. Further, as The Art of War repeatedly uses the phrase, “Sun-Tzu said…” in introducing the precepts, it has been argued that some great military genius, name unknown, wrote the work which was then copied, re-written, edited, or compiled at some point in the Warring States Period in China. It has also been suggested that some student of a man named 'Sun-Tzu’ could have written the work based upon his master’s teachings. Scholars who maintain the historicity of Sun-Tzu point to his role in the victory at the Battle of Boju (506 BCE) while scholars who deny said historicity argue that, again, had he been there, he would have played a larger role in the narrative of the battle. Until further evidence comes to light, the debate cannot be resolved; however, whether an individual called 'Sun-Tzu’ existed in history is not as important as the work which has made that name famous.
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