Daoism and Sun Tzu's Art of War Essay

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Lao Tze and Sun Tzu "War"

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War has been a part of the human condition since humans first stood upright thousands of years ago. Every culture and society has engaged in it, while simultaneously attempting to control and eliminate it. War destroys, injures, maims, and kills not only people but entire societies. In Chinese culture, there has been many attempts to deal with the violent aspect of humanity through philosophy. Great thinkers like Confucius, Lao Tze, Sun Tzu and countless others have, through their teachings, attempted to control the violence of humans. Each of these philosopher's teachings have certain things in common, but also major differences which have caused conflict and division over the centuries. Two of these thinkers, Lao Tze and Sun Tzu share many beliefs and ideals, but their teachings also contain vast differences. Each attempted to deal with the violence and destruction caused by war with ideas which were in some ways similar and in others very different. While Lao Tze stressed the importance of morality in actions, Sun Tzu only stressed the effectiveness of actions. This essay will discuss these similarities and difference between these two philosophy's attitude toward morality and war.

Just about all Chinese philosophical thought can trace it's origin back to the idea of "Dao." This concept can roughly be defined as the "Way" or "path" by which humans can live in harmony with the universe as a whole. Daoism is the philosophical system based on the teachings of Lao Tze and his ideas on how humans should live together in society. In terms of individuals, Daoism emphasizes what is referred to as the "three jewels," what some call the three virtues: compassion, moderation, and humility. All people should try to cultivate these virtues in their daily lives in order to ensure harmony with the world around them. Sometimes Dao is described as the flow which keeps that world in balance. Another concept fundamental to Daoism is the "De," the power of virtue which came from the cultivation of the Dao, or the Way. In other words when one dedicated themselves to the Way, through living the three virtues in their daily lives, then they become one with the De.

Lao Tze, the acknowledged founder of Daoism is also credited with the writing of the Daodejing; the literary basis of Daoism. While the first part of the book dealt mainly with the nature of man and existence, it is in the second part of the book where Lao Tze discussed the application of his teachings to governance of the state and the waging of war. When it came to waging war, Lao Tze was clear that war as a means of foreign policy was immoral and against the Way. He stated "…He who assists a lord of men in harmony with the dao will not assert his mastery in the kingdom by force of arms." (Lao Tze) But he went on the assert that war was sometimes inevitable and necessary. For example, nations could be invaded by an aggressor and must defend themselves. When military action was deemed necessary, Lao Tze warned "a skillful commander strikes a decisive blow, and stops."(Lao Tze) This is meant as a warning to those who use war as a means of defense, not to go too far and in turn become the aggressor. It also is a warning to restrict military activities to military targets and not use wholesale destruction of the entire country as a means of war. Lao Tze indicated that war was sometimes morally acceptable, but must be waged in limited ways in order to prevent too much destruction. Limiting the activities in warfare could limit the destructive results, sparing innocent civilians, their livelihoods and not creating as much of a disruption in society.

In contrast to this idea were the teachings of Sun Tzu as described in the work that is attributed to him, The Art of War. Sun Tzu also incorporated the concept of Dao, or the Way, into his teachings; but in a very different manner. While he may have been influenced by the Daoist analytical method, he severed the method from the moral foundation that it was it's basis. Sun Tzu's military strategies were practical, focusing on effectiveness toward achieving military goals and not upon the morality of the actions committed. For example, Sun Tzu emphasized that war should not be entered into unless absolutely necessary. While this is similar to Lao Tze's beliefs, Sun Tzu does not discuss the morality of waging an aggressive war, but instead discussed the dangers associated with waging war and the possible destruction of one's own kingdom as a result. In fact when it came to the horrors of war Sun Tzu said that "It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted wit the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it out" (Giles 2008) When a nation is forced to wage war, Lao Tzu warned that moral men achieve their goals but are not boastful or arrogant, they simply do what they must without personal gratification. In contrast, Sun Tzu never mentioned that personal honor was immoral, however, he did stress the importance of achieving success by any means necessary. In the Daodejing, Lao Tze stressed the need to win decisively in order to limit the collateral damage, Sun Tzu stressed the need to win decisively in order to limit damage to oneself.

"Knowing" is an important part of the Way; gaining knowledge adds to one's understanding of the Way. In the Art of War, Sun Tzu applied this Daoist principle to the gaining of knowledge about one's enemy, their weapons, the terrain, and even possible weather conditions and the effects they may have on one's military operations. One of Sun Tzu's most remembered quotations involved knowledge, roughly translated it stated "know yourself and know your enemy and you will always be victorious." (Davenport 2009) A major part of knowing oneself is to have an honest view of one's strengths and weaknesses. As Sun Tzu stated "…when seeking to determine military conditions, let them be made the basis of a comparison." (Giles 2008) While in war, self honesty in crucial if one is to have a measure of one's own capabilities in comparison to the enemy's. This assessment must be accurate and honest lest a leader believe his strength is greater than is really is; the surest way to defeat.

One of the principles in common to both the Daodejing and the Art of War is the idea that when waging a war, one should not engage in wholesale destruction of the countryside. However, while the Daodejing emphasized the immorality of harming the innocent civilians, Sun Tzu's Art of War emphasized the importance of keeping the countryside productive as source of food and supplies. Both agree that famine is to be avoided, they simply believe it to be so for different reasons.

To many followers of Lao Tze's teachings, Sun Tzu included, Daoism could be viewed as rational and calculated. Lao Tze taught that people need to become detached and empty so they can achieve what was described as "effortless effort;" a state of being where actions were no longer part of a conscious effort but were performed intuitively. While this method of non-action and detachment was taught by Lao Tze to be used in conjunction with his moral teachings, it was adopted by some, including Sun Tzu, without the moral attachments. Sun Tzu took the rational and calculating aspects of Daoism and adapted them to serve the cold calculations of warfare. Much of the success of Sun Tzu's teachings can be traced back to the fact that they were cold and calculating, but also very successful if somewhat amoral.

There is a common adage among the military which reflects one of Daoism's, and subsequently Sun Tzu's, most important principles, the saying states that "…no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy," (Davenport 2009) and can be interpreted, in terms of the Dao, as meaning that all of the universe is in a constantly changing state and one must be capable of adapting to ever changing circumstances if one was to remain in harmony with the world around them. As part of this harmony, one must be willing to be flexible in terms of social interaction with others in their communities. Again Lao Tze stressed the importance of the moral, socially cooperative aspect of flexibility, while on the other hand Sun Tzu used this concept in an entirely opposite manner. The Art of War taught that armies must be flexible in their tactics, choices of weaponry, the terrain over which they fight, not to create social order and harmony, but to create military cohesion in light of any number of unexpected actions on the part of an enemy. (Yuen 2008) Again the concept is the same but the application of the concept has been performed quite differently with quite a different emphasis and outcome.


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