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An illustration from Sun Tzu's the Art of War, depicting a battle

Sun Tzu's the Art of War and the Knowledge of the Self


The famous battle manual is still valid for strategic thinking and for the victory over one’s self.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu is the oldest known manual of military strategy. It dates from the 4th century B.C. and the practical applications of the Chinese strategist have served as an inspiration to both modern-age combatants (it reached the West in the 18th century) and leaders and entrepreneurs of all kinds.

War, as understood by Sun Tzu, is inevitable, but which must be faced by thinking about victory and not persistence. Winning is everything in an extreme situation, and there are no half measures: any other outcome apart from victory presents the possibility of being defeated. The supreme art of war is deceit: the definitive victory is that which is won without even venturing out onto the battlefield.

But even if we have nothing to do with the military life, the advice in The Art of War is still relevant to the resolution of all kinds of conflicts. Written many centuries before The Prince by Niccoló Machiavelli, The Art of War warns us against the naivety of, by not seeing conflict, failing to prepare for it. The first victory for Sun Tzu is the one that the strategist claims over himself, against their own character and belligerence. War is necessary, but what is at stake are lives and resources, so that one enters into conflict knowing how to be efficient and practical; an army, Sun Tzu says, is like a fire: if the strategist does not know how to extinguish it in time, it will consume him.

The war in our daily lives is the untiring battle against our own ignorance, against acquired habits and all that separates us from our goals. What this manual of martial arts continues to advise us is to analyze our own character, to get to know it and to not sabotage ourselves; it also emphasizes strategic thinking, the correct management of resources and energy. This is necessary both in the short and long term: the accent is placed on the importance of knowing our own strengths and those of the enemy, at any time.

Reading The Art of War could make us a little paranoid: not all our adversaries are our enemies. In terms of the knowledge of the self, we could think that the enemy is all that is in ourselves, due to naivety or to being unknown to ourselves, threatening our survival and our plans. Fear, apathy, indiscipline, cowardice and a lack of responsibility are all due to a lack of self-knowledge, or as Sun Tzu says, to a lack of strategic vision.

A leader that can carry an army to victory is first and foremost a winner over themselves, someone who has been able to see themselves and recognise themselves. The first victory is internal. Those that follow are simply the natural and almost inevitable consequences of that victory over ourselves that we win again and again, day after day.

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