The Essential Art of War Summary: Ralph D. Sawyer

The Essential Art of War Summary

The Essential Art of War Summary provides a free book summary, key takeaways, insightful review, best quotes and author biography of Ralph D. Sawyer’s book.

This book offers the key themes of Sun-Tzu’s famous paper. Ralph D. Sawyer, a Chinese army strategy expert, gives enough supporting content to give proper context. Sawyers does not adapt Sun-Tzu’s words to romance, business or other concerns. Yes, he does include some part about business use in the final pages of The Essential Art of War. But, he is not comfortable with seeing this classic as anything other than a military work. Sawyer is incredible at focusing on the job at hand. He draws out the essence of Sun-Tzu’s work. Plus, he points out the specific importance in military and political contexts – the legendary general’s regular environment. Sawyer presents interesting background details to make the text simpler to understand. Overall, we consider it to a remarkable, and precise summation of the seminal work. 

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” 

This Summary Will Help You Learn

  • The important advice on military strategy by the Chinese general Sun-Tzu, and 
  • How a sound translation and background info help us know his context better


  • This inspiring work by Sun-Tzu is one of the greatest books ever. The honoured Chinese general imparts many lessons on strategy in his paper on war.
  • War is the way of  
  • Attack your rival where he/she is not guarding
  • Trouble the enemy when he is angry
  • The best strategy in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy
  • The worst strategy is to strike guarded places.
  • Winning without fighting shows excellence and not victories in brutal wars.
  • Know yourself and your enemy. This way no danger will loom over you in a war.
  • Start by making yourself unbeatable

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The Essential Art of War Summary

Background: The Book and Its Time

Translator Commentary – This is one of the most popular classics in China. Sun-Tzu is unarguably one of the most famous Chinese authors. Having said that, people do not know much about the man that Sun-Tzu was. In fact, many even question his existence. 

Legend is that he lived between 722 and 481 B.C.E. At the time, China had 13 states. Seven out of these 13 states dominated the rest. These seven states were constantly in a state of war. Each state faced many threats and war was a big risk. Wars, at times, comprised massive troops. A state involved in a battle needed to engage military on one front. This opened it to attacks on the other front. Enemies always looked for the chance to attack when their opponent’s army was engaged elsewhere. Wars weakened the state and drained the financial system. It put the burden on the citizens, and, hence, there was a high risk of civil discord. Big troops put a heavy tax burden on the people. As per Sun-Tzu, six to seven citizens supported one soldier. 

The original name of general Sun-Tzu was possibly Sun-Wu. “Tzu” is an honour that positions him as a master. His name cannot be seen in the era’s actual records. However, word-of-mouth and a brief biography by Ssu-Ma Ch’ien – a great historian – preserve his memory. Sun-Tzu is believed to be an advisor to the ruler of Wu – a south-eastern Chinese state. 

Books of That Time

By the fourth century B.C.E., his book was already in circulation and quite popular. However, it is tough to imagine what a “book” was at a time before paper. This may give an idea about the text’s style and confusing discontinuity. During that era, Chinese wrote on narrow strips of bamboo tied together in rolls. It was tough to write, store and transport such books. This affected the text. Hence, writers did not write long paras and detailed information. Instead, they saw the written text as a memory aid. Thus, a book was not a full description of a subject. Rather, it was like a series of notes that served as reminders for lengthy oral talks. So, spreading knowledge at that time depended heavily on memory and speech. This is one reason that Sun-Tzu’s book, relies mainly on short, easy-to-remember phrases.

Sun-Tzu: Evaluation at the Outset

War is necessary for the survival of a state. Success on a battlefield depends on the following factors:

  1. The Tao, that ties the people with their ruler
  2. Heaven, which has heat, cold and other seasonal factors
  3. Earth, which has landscape and distance
  4. Generals, who should have courage, wisdom, kindness and reliability
  5. Rules of military discipline

Hence, to determine the possibility of success in war, consider:

  • Does your king have the Tao?
  • Is your general competent?
  • Who has the advantage of earth and heaven?
  • Whose military laws are the most effective?

Generals should recognize how important these factors are. This will help them predict their chances of winning and plan strong strategies. Remember:

  • War demands tricking your enemy
  • When powerful, look weak. Similarly, when capable, look incapable.
  • If the target is quite far, act as if it is close and vice versa.
  • Submit to the rival to make them arrogant.
  • Attack where the rival is not defending and is not expecting a strike.

Translator Commentary – Unity forms the foundation of war. During the 1930s, Japan and Germany were smart enough to bring their people together before war. A modern example is that of North Korea. There, even a starving population is in full support of its government. The importance of unity was visible during the Vietnam War, which the US lost because of disagreements back home. 

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Principles for Fighting

Tricking is a key skill for warriors. To win effectively, one needs to manipulate the enemy. Try to avoid fights. If battles are unavoidable, they should be quick and sure. War is expensive. It costs both human lives and material resources. War imposes burden and risk of disrupting the state’s unity. Therefore, a smart general depends on the enemy for troop and resources. If treated properly, soldiers who are caught can be used for the victor. The same applies for captured resources and weapons. 

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” 

Preserving your enemy’s cities and buildings is better than destroying them. Similarly, it is also useful to preserve the enemy’s squads, troops and army. Hence, the biggest victory is not to win in the war zone. Instead, it is in winning without fighting. There is a preferable order of attacking which starts in descending order. Firstly, attack the enemy’s plan. Then attack their alliance. Third, attack the army or the defended cities. Avoid striking the defended areas if possible because war preparations take a lot of time. Generals who are not patient enough and attack a city’s walls sacrifice both lives and resources. 

Discouraging your enemy without striking is a preferred tactic. Remember the following:

  • Surround your rival when you are 10 times stronger 
  • Attack when you are five times stronger 
  • Divide when your army is double the enemy’s
  • Engage when you are equal to your enemy
  • Dodge if you are less than your enemy
  • Avoid when your enemy outnumbers you

Rulers should have a proper understanding of army discipline and law to avoid putting their troops in danger. Managing an army and managing a government are two different things. Trying to guide military personnel as if they were civilian officials is confusing. 

This confusion helps the enemy get an easy win. A victory relies on five things:

  1. Knowing when and when not to fight
  2. Understanding of how to deploy small or large number of troops
  3. Unison between generals and troops
  4. Patience while preparing for war
  5. Competent generals acting without any interference

Strategic Principles

Great warriors make themselves unbeatable and attack when their rival is exposed. Unbeatability lies within a person. However, vulnerability lies within the enemy. Hence, one can make oneself unbeatable, but cannot make the opponent vulnerable. When you cannot win, defend. The best wins do not look like great wins. They do not include winning when the odds are not in favour. Instead, the greatest victors are those who planned and conquered easy battles. In fact, the greatest win is one which does not include fighting at all. 

Translator Commentary – Through training, control, and discipline a general can build illusions of weakness and disorder. The term “orthodox” means operating by the book. In contrast, “unorthodox” means creative, flexible and unpredictable. Commanders can use several combinations of orthodox and unorthodox. For example, deploying orthodox tactics in an unorthodox way. The translated phrase “strategic power” tries to capture the indefinable meaning of the term “Shih”. Shih refers to the balance or imbalance of forces based on the characteristics of the terrain. 

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Substance and Emptiness

A good commander should hone both the unorthodox and the orthodox. Generals engage in war as per the orthodox, but it is the master of the unorthodox who wins. A great commander should be willing to give up old tactics in favour of new and flexible ones. The army should not have any form. It should be unknowable. Fighting may look chaotic, but the master will only pretend to be in chaos. Likewise, the master – though brave – will pretend to be a coward. 

It is always better to force the rival, than be forced by one. In a battlefield, there is a first-mover advantage. The ones who get first on the warzone is easy and relaxed. In contrast, the one who rushes is at a disadvantage. To lure an enemy to battle, show that the battle is advantageous. To discourage an enemy, show that the battle is harmful. If your rival has food, make him starve. Similarly, if the rival is relaxed, tire him. 

Travel via unoccupied and unguarded routes. Strike at unguarded areas. An army that is smart at attacking will leave the opponent wondering where to guard. The army that is incredible at guarding leaves the enemy confused where to strike. Let your enemies wonder where you intend to engage them. Such a chaos would lead your enemy defend more than it can defend. Despite your enemy having a larger army, it may not be at advantage. Understand your enemy’s placement, how they move, terrain, strengths and weaknesses. Your army should be like water. It should not have any definite form or shape. However, it should always be on the move and adapt as per the situations. 

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” 

Combat Principles

Follow these rules of combat:

  • Do not ever attack an enemy who is backed by hills.
  • Do not march toward hills
  • Do not get deceived when the foe makes a tricky retreat
  • Do not get lured by a bait of a troop leaving
  • Let a withdrawing army leave. 

Fatal character flaws of a commander

Five faults in a general can be damaging:

  1. Those who yearn for a celebrated death are the easiest to kill
  2. Those who love life are caught easily
  3. Those who are touchy can be forced into action by insults
  4. Those who have honour can be manipulated by shame
  5. Those who care about their men can be placed in doubt

Do not tire your army while chasing the enemy. Share both losses and profits. Be careful while selecting the terrain to fight. Know the benefits and disadvantages of different kinds of terrains. An attacker will not know the terrain. So, use a local guide for unknown terrains. Know how to deploy spies, use fire as a weapon. Try to take away your enemy’s shih. Your opposing army will be the most enthusiastic during the day. However, it will exhaust toward the end of the day. Be patient and wait. 

The Essential Art of War Review

There is no better means to learn all aspects of war than from an expert military official. One probably strikes gold if that individual also happens to be a philosopher and strategist. This is exactly what author Sun-Tzu was. His The Art of Waris one of the most significant military books in the history, which described in considerable length the manners and qualities in which a great general can become victorious. 

The book is a translation by Ralph D. Sawyer and offers not a parable but bulleted guidelines for leaders who intend to emerge victorious in warfare. It is more of a management paper and maybe we should not be judging the literary abilities of a war commander and that too when what we are reading is just a translation and not the original piece. However, it is quite an interesting exercise to think over every point and about things around which may support or contradict the point being made in the book. Sun-Tzu does make sense majority of the time. 

The 63 pages do tell significantly about that time, however that is not the end of it. His lessons are relevant throughout history from America’s defeat in Vietnam War to Hitler’s fall would bear witness to the validity and genuineness of the principles of the benefit of terrain and abilities. This is a manuscript that teaches how to make warfare profitable, and whether we see it or not, our life itself is an everyday fight where we are attempting to climb up the profit curve. Though the book is from prehistoric times, it does hold a valuable lesson for peace too. A worthy read. 

The Essential Art of War Quotes

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” 

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” 

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” 

“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” 

“Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” 

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” 

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win” 

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity” 

“If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected .” 

“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.” 

“Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.” 

“There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.” 

“Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.” 

“Move swift as the Wind and closely-formed as the Wood. Attack like the Fire and be still as the Mountain.” 

“The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.” 

“When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” 

“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard. 

“When the enemy is relaxed, make them toil. When full, starve them. When settled, make them move.” 

“Who wishes to fight must first count the cost” 

“So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak.” 

“To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” 

“Be extremely subtle even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.” 

“What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease.” 

“One may know how to conquer without being able to do it. ” 

“The wise warrior avoids the battle.” 

“Rouse him, and learn the principle of his activity or inactivity. Force him to reveal himself, so as to find out his vulnerable spots.” 

“The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.” 

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.” 

“He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.” 

About the Authors

Sun-Tzu was a noted, legendary Chinese master of war. Translator Ralph D. Sawyer is a leading contemporary scholar of Chinese warfare.

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