Not Modern Nonfiction

When reading modern nonfiction, you can read the lead sentences and skim the rest of most paragraphs and understand exactly what is being said. When reading science—modern or ancient—you have to read every word and every sentence carefully to learn the terminology. You can open a nonfiction book to any chapter and understand most of it without studying the preceding chapters carefully. But science and math start with developing precise language. If you skip even a few paragraphs defining their concepts, you get completely lost. With ancient science, you have the additional barrier of having to understand the underlying scientific methods and models of the period.

Because we translate Sun Tzu into normal English, readers think they understand what is being said even when they don't. For example, in Sun Tzu's writing, the differences between "fight," "conflict," "battle," and "attack" are as great as the differences between "rational numbers," "irrational numbers," "real numbers," and "imaginary numbers" in mathematics. We can understand what the words "rational" "irrational," "real," and "imaginary" mean but have no idea about how those terms define different types of numbers. The same is true in Sun Tzu's work. You may know what "fight," "conflict," "battle," and "attack" mean normally, but unless you understand the very specific ways these terms and a hundred others are used in The Art of War, you cannot appreciate what he is saying in any specific section.

Sun Tzu carefully defines his terms from the very first page, but when translated into normal English, the result appears to be normal nonfiction. When we read "fight," "conflict," "battle," and "attack" we assume we know what is being said. We quickly forget (and often do not even notice) Sun Tzu's very specific definitions. Since "fight," "conflict," "attack," and "battle" mean very similar things in English, we miss most of the specific points that Sun Tzu is making.

An Example for Discussion

At the beginning of our workshops, we use several stanzas from The Art of War to demonstrate how much of Sun Tzu sounds like vague aphorisms. For example, the first two lines of one of those stanzas reads:

Know the enemy and know yourself.
Your victory will be painless.

Sun Tzu's The Art of War 10:5.15-16


On the surface, this seems like a simple statement about the somewhat obvious idea that we should know ourselves and our opponents. However, when we come back to to these lines at the end of our workshop after only a day's study, attendees can see how easy it is to miss the true meaning hidden in these lines.