Chinese Philosophy

Bad Information on Sun Tzu

One of the most important things is understanding Sun Tzu's precise use of language, which is why we talk about bad translations and how they misrepresent of his work. For example, a reader writes:
I was trying to recall a certain phrase I had read... something along the lines of : there are three ways to defeat an opponent. the first, and most obvious is to beat him in physical combat. the second is to beat him in a mental battle and the third and most difficult is to push him onto the path of self destruction...

Sun Tzu and Adam Smith

Over a recent vacation, I was reading about Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, which I hadn't read in years, and I was surprised to find a surprising convergence between Sun Tzu's ideas and Adam Smiths. The most surprising was Adam Smith's explanation of the relationship between the country and towns as what we call "complementary opposites." So much so that I did a rewrite of Book 3 of The Wealth of Nations with an introduction connecting the two sets of ideas. You can read it here.

More Freedom Means More Uncertainty

Planning and control are good things, but their opposites, strategy and freedom, are also good things. The complementary opposites of Sun Tzu's strategy balance each other. It is wrong to think of them as good against evil. We need areas of control in order to design and build things. Large areas of control, such as corporations, a necessary to build large, complicated things. This planning and control only becomes oppressive when its opposite, freedom and strategy, are suppressed. That suppression leads to stagnation and increasing frustration.

Classic Defense against Larger Opponent: Invade

One of the nine common strategic situations is called "scattering terrain," which occurs when you are attacked by a larger, well-prepared opponent. The required response is to invade the opponent's territory and endanger what the opponent loves. How easy is this? I give you the wondrous example of Ezra Levine, under attack by a Canadian Human Rights Commission (watch the videos).

The Economy Gap Between Perception and Reality

The New Year seems like a good time to look at the economy. Strategic positions have an objective dimension in physical world and subjective dimension in the minds of the public. These physical and mental aspects of a position are complementary opposites of a single system. One changes the other in a constant cycle. The larger the gap between any physical reality and our subjective impressions of it, the poorer job we do predicting the future and the more volatile the future becomes.

Conflict Politics

Sun Tzu separated the concept of "attack" from that of "conflict." While all strategy requires "attack," the best strategy avoids conflict. In Sun Tzu's strategy, "attack" means being on offense, typically, moving into new territory. Conflict means violent confrontation with an opponent. Conflict is inherently expensive, which makes real success, that is, making victory pay, more difficult.

Revolutionary Philosophies

Sun Tzu's book was suppressed in China for two thousand years because of its revolutionary nature. However, the revolution that it taught was not a socialist revolution but an individualist revolution, which is much more dangerous to every established order. Sun Tzu's revolutionary ideas was that we are all individually responsible for our position in life, that we all can control and advance our positions using good strategy, and that we all can find our own valuable ground, which we can dominant because of our superior knowledge of that ground.

Value, Risk, and Reward

Sun Tzu taught that advancing in small, certain steps were always preferable to using larger, riskier steps. What science considers "illogical" choices are very logical when we factor in the difference between controlled environment, where planning works, and competitive environments, where strategy works. Good strategy seeks to exploit the mistakes people naturally make in calculating risk and reward. Planning assumes that the future is controllable and predictable.


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