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The Philosophy of Victory – Machiavelli and Sun Tzu

Two great books, two timeless texts, two manuals on the differences between victory and defeat, success and failure. These two texts, I believe, cannot be read separately. I myself finished them both this December and found them to be everything I imagined them to be.

A short background: Machiavelli was a Renaissance court employee who bore witness to the daily affairs and politics of Europe’s leaders. He saw the way they handled themselves both in war and in peace and observed the traits which ended up leading to their success. While being a nice guy himself, he came to the conclusion that to succeed as a leader (or Prince), one has to be ruthless, conniving, bribe-happy and, most importantly, rule by terror, as opposed to love. Sun Tzu was a famous Chinese general who seemed to win every battle he was involved in. He collected and wrote an anthology of texts explaining the art of war, and how careful planning is to go into every battle. He outlined how and when to attack, when to retreat, how to deceive one’s opponent and how to ensure victory every time.

Why it’s important today if these two men lived 400 and 2600 years ago: The lessons learned from these texts extend to canvass far more than just the art of ruling a kingdom or fighting a battle. They are manuals of management for any environment, from managing a restaurant, to running a family, to building a corporate giant.

It goes without saying that there’s so much win in these two books that successfully applying either of them can ensure that your life will be one big victory pie. But it’s not that simple.

Lessons from each book which I thought were interesting:

The very first thing Sun Tzu said: “The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death,  a road to either safety or ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.”

The very first thing on the agenda is to assert a huge contradiction to the attitude which dominates western thought. When in a state of war, you cannot ignore the uncomfortable things. War is itself a brutal affair. One cannot worry about how to treat the prisoners when the war has not been won yet, or ignore all of the possible dirty tricks one’s enemy may attempt, simply because that wouldn’t be fair. When in a state of war – in business, or in actual war – you cannot choose to ignore certain details in the hope that your enemy will also ignore them. If you do not choose to consider every possible betrayal and low move, those will be the things that surely lead to your demise. If you do not actively take those options into your strategy, then you will be disadvantaged throughout the fight. This is a rule that is ruthlessly applied to the corporate environment, but in everyday ‘moralistic’ life, people choose to ignore this fact, and pretend life is good, virtuous and easy. Unthinkable acts are just that: unthinkable. That’s all well and good if you’re a simple citizen, but if you want to play the big game and if you want to win, Sun Tzu says that you should, at some point, come to the realisation that going all out is the only rule. Failure to go all out will result in failure across the board.

Machiavelli likes to go on about the best possible way to ensure that your rule is long-lived and successful after the initial victory, rather than just looking at how to defeat the enemy’s army, which is why I think his philosophy complements that of Sun Tzu very well. The most intriguing lesson he brought forward was the effectiveness of two opposing methods of maintaining control over one’s kingdom: terror and love. Terror implies ensuring that your subordinates know that double-crossing you or under-performing at their jobs means harsh punishment, while love implies debauchery and a benevolent rule which benefits them, and thus results in an obligation to you. The problem that surfaces with the method of love is that when things get tough, and you are no longer able to supply your subordinates with a lavish lifestyle or keep low taxes, they will not be so loyal and will quickly get used to the idea of treachery, while a rule of terror will ensure their submission and loyalty no matter the situation.

A man is only as good as the books he reads. So read these books.

I’ll be writing again soon, I hope. Stay tuned/connected.

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Filed under Literature, Philosophy, War