Summary of The Art of War by Sun Tzu

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  • Post last modified:September 18, 2023

Summary: 9 min.

Book reading time: 1 hour.

Score: 9/10

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  • War should always be used as a last resort.
  • Only go into battle if you’re sure you’ll win.
  • Never lay siege on a city.

Table of Contents

What the Art of War Talks About

The Art of War is a book written by Sun Tzu, a Chinese general, philosopher, and writer. The book is a summary of the principles and lessons Sun Tzu observed while in battles. It taught me many counter-intuitive things, such as “don’t lay siege on a city”, and that the best generals only go to war when they have to.

Surprisingly, the essence of The Art of War is similar to that of…The 4-Hour Workweek.


Sun Tzu was the first one to build the base of Pareto’s law (80/20 principle).

He wrote that the best wars are unfought, that you should not go to war if you’re not sure to win, and that you should not attack until you see a good occasion to do so.

Minimum effort, maximum impact.

It’s a good book, still relevant today, with a lot of counterintuitive advice.

Enjoy the summary.


Buy the book here.

Summary of The Art of War by Sun Tzu

Chapter 1: Laying Plans

The art of war is governed by five constant factors.

  1. The Moral Law: whether people will follow their leaders whatever happens
  2. Heaven: night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons
  3. Earth: distance, danger and security, open ground and narrow passes, chances to live and die
  4. The Commander: he cultivates the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and strictness
  5. Method and discipline of the army

Those that take these factors into account will win. The others will fail.

Before going to battle with your enemy, judge your enemy and yourself on the following factors.

  1. Moral Law
  2. Ability
  3. Heaven and Earth advantages
  4. Discipline
  5. Strength
  6. Training
  7. Consistency in reward and punishment

The winner is stronger on these factors.

All warfare is based on deception. Look weak when strong. Look far when near.

Feign disorder as bait, then crush your enemy.

If your enemy is superior, run away.

If your opponent is choleric, irritate him. Exhaust him if he’s at ease.

Attack where your enemy is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.

Make a lot of calculations before going into battle.

Chapter 2: Waging War

If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength. War should be as quick and fast as possible. Don’t wage war when you’re weak. No country ever beneficiated from prolonged warfare.

When campaigning, bring resources from home, and steal as much as you can from your enemy.

An army maintained far away from its city impoverishes the people.

But an army maintained in the city drains the people’s resources.

This is why you should take from the enemy.

Men must be angry to kill the enemy. They should be rewarded for doing so.

Captured soldiers should be kindly treated and kept so that they can join your army.

Victory is your purpose.

Not lengthy campaigns.

Chapter 3: Attack By Stratagem

Excellence consists of winning without fighting.

Peace is always better than destruction.

Break your enemy’s plan, prevent him from building an army.

Never lay siege on a city.

If your army is 10-1, surround the enemy. If it is 5-1, attack the enemy. If it is 2-1, divide the army into two. If it’s 1-1, you can go into battle. If you are inferior, you can avoid the battle. If you are outnumbered, you can flee.

The general is the bulwark of the state. A strong one will make a strong state. A weak one will make a weak state.

Three ways in which leaders ruin their army.

  1. Telling the army to attack or retreat without taking into account the fact that it cannot.
  2. Governing an army like an administration. It causes restlessness in the army.
  3. Using the officers without taking into account their ranks or skills. It breaks trust with the army.

The five essentials for victory:

  1. Know when to fight and when not to fight
  2. Know how to handle superior and inferior forces
  3. Get your army in sync
  4. Prepare yourself and surprise the enemy
  5. Decide alone (without politics)

Know yourself and know the enemy, and you will win.

A statue of Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu. Source: Wikipedia.

Chapter 4: Tactical Dispositions

Be in a position where you cannot be defeated, then wait for an opportunity to defeat.

You control the former, but the enemy controls the latter.

Not being defeated means defending. Winning means attacking (at the right moment).

Being excellent at defense means hiding. Being excellent at attacking means surprising the enemy.

A great fighter not only wins but wins with ease. As such, his skills don’t bring him a reputation for strength nor courage. He makes no mistakes.

Only seek battle after the victory has been won (when you are certain you will win).

How to measure whether you will win or not.

  1. Measurement rests on the Earth
  2. Estimation of quantity rests on measurement
  3. Calculation rests on estimation of quantity
  4. Balancing of chances rests on calculation
  5. Victory rests on balancing chances

Chapter 5: Energy

Controlling a few or a lot of people rests on the same principle. It’s just a question of dividing them. As such, there is no difference between fighting with a big or a small army.

Direct and indirect methods need to be used to win.

There are two types of attacks. Indirect, and direct. They lean on each other and combine to form endless possibilities. Indirect tactics are infinite.

The energy of your troops is the bending of the crossbow. You should know when to release it, and when not to bend the crossbow (or not bend it too much).

Use combine energy so you don’t need to rely too much on the individual. You do so picking the right men. They will help everyone have energy for battles.

Chapter 6: Weak and Strong Points

Who is waiting for the enemy will be fresh for battle. Who isn’t, will be tired. You must impose your will onto the enemy, not the other way around. Harass the enemy when it rests. Starve him if he is supplied with food. Force them to move if they are camping.

Attack undefended places. Hold positions that cannot be attacked.

Be invisible, be inaudible. When the enemy splits, become one.

When the enemy strengthens one part of his army, he weakens another.

This is why if neither the time nor the place of the fight is known, nor part of the army can ever come to the support of another one.

Anger the enemy so as to force him to reveal himself.

Don’t reveal your tactics, to anyone.

Don’t repeat tactics you have used at a battle you have won. Use the same principles, but change the tactics.

Chapter 7: Maneuvering

The general gets orders from politics. He must harmonize all these elements together.

Maneuver with a disciplined army. Not undisciplined people. The soldiers must all march together.

To lead an army, you must know the environment.

A soldier’s spirit is best in the morning, worst in the evening.

Attack your enemy when its spirit is at its worst.

When you surround an army, leave a free passage.

Don’t make them desperate.

Chapter 8: Variation in Tactics

Variation of tactics is taking the easy roads and avoiding the hard ones. It is not camping in a difficult country. It is not attacking positions that cannot be attacked.

You must consider advantages and disadvantages. You must always seek advantages to exploit.

Hold the enemy constantly engaged.

Rest on your readiness to fight, not on his possibility not to.

Five faults generals make that lead their army to ruin.

  1. Recklessness, which leads to destruction
  2. Cowardice, which leads to capture
  3. A hasty temper
  4. A sensitivity to honor that makes him too sensitive to shame
  5. Over-solicitude for his men, which leads to worry

Chapter 9: The Army on the March

Camp in high places, facing the sun. Do not climb to fight.

Get far away from the river after crossing it.

When your enemy crosses the river, wait for them to have crossed the river entirely before attacking. If you are anxious, don’t fight by the river. Move up.

Camp on hard ground to be free from disease. Always occupy the sunny side.

Search for spies in pounds and deep forests.

When the enemy is quiet, he knows his position is strong.

When he is provocative, he is anxious for you to advance.

If the place of his encampment is easy to access, it’s a trap.

Quiet words are signs the enemy is advancing. Violent language is a sign he will retreat.

If the enemy fails to seize an obvious advantage, the army is exhausted.

Soldiers must be attached to you before being punished. Punishment must be enforced. There must be iron discipline.

Trust your army, but insist on being obeyed.

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Statue of Sun Tzu. Source: Wikipedia.

Chapter 10: Terrain

There are 6 types of terrains:

  1. Accessible ground: accessible by both armies. Be first in the heights and on the sunny side.
  2. Entangling ground: can be abandoned but cannot be reoccupied.
  3. Temporizing ground: when no one will benefit by going there first.
  4. Narrow Passes: occupy them first, and wait for the enemy. Do not follow your enemy into a pass if it is strongly guarded.
  5. Precipitous heights: occupy the high and sunny spots.
  6. Far from the enemy.

Six faults:

  1. Flight
  2. Insubordination: when the soldier is too strong and the officer too weak.
  3. Collapse: when the officer is too strong, and the soldier too weak.
  4. Ruin: when the officers fight by themselves without the leader’s command due to resentment.
  5. Disorganization: when the general is weak; when instructions are not clear.
  6. Rout: when a small army mistakenly engages a bigger one

If you are certain to win, fight, even if you are told not to. If you are certain to lose, don’t fight, even if you are told to.

The general whose only thought is to protect his country is the jewel of the kingdom.

Do not covet fame, and do not fear disgrace.

Look at your soldiers like your sons, and they will stand by you to death.

If you can’t be obeyed, soldiers will be useless.

Know yourself and know the enemy. This is the key to victory.

Chapter 11: The Nine Situations

  1. Dispersive ground: when someone is fighting in his own territory. Avoid fighting there.
  2. Facile ground: when he penetrated into hostile territory but not too far. Don’t stop.
  3. Contentious ground: advantageous ground for the other side. Don’t attack.
  4. Open ground: ground on which anyone has freedom of movement. Don’t block the enemy’s way.
  5. Ground of intersecting highways: ground which is keys to states, so that he who occupies it commands the empire. Fight with your allies there.
  6. Serious ground: when an army penetrates deep into enemy country, but leave fortified cities. Gather in plunder.
  7. Difficult ground: country difficult to go through. Keep walking, don’t stop.
  8. Hemmed-in ground: ground in tight gorges. Use stratagems.
  9. Desperate ground: ground where fighting right away is the only thing saving you from destruction. Fight.

Rapidity is the essence of war.

Watch over your men. Do not over-tax them.

Soldiers in desperate situations lose the sense of fear and fight like hell.

On the day of departing for battle, your soldiers may cry. But they will be ready.

The general conducts his army like he would a single man.

You are not fit to lead an army on foreign ground if you do not know the terrain.

Don’t tell anyone your ultimate purpose, only after you have achieved it.

Your army will survive in deadly situations. It will fight in desperate situations.

It is when the situation is at its worst that forces can inflict a blow for victory.

Frustrate your opponent by seizing what he values the most.

Chapter 12: The Attack by Fire

Five ways to attack by fire.

  1. Burn the soldiers in their camps
  2. Burn stores
  3. Burn baggage
  4. Burn arsenal and weapons
  5. Drop fire on the enemy

Always keep the material for fire ready.

Use fire when the weather is dry.

Fire attacks unfold in five different ways.

  1. When burning the camp, attack it simultaneously
  2. If the soldiers remain calm despite the fire, do not attack
  3. When the fire is at its peak, attack or do not if it’s not possible
  4. If you can lead an attack with fire from without, do it
  5. Don’t attack with fire if the wind is in your face

Don’t move unless you see an advantage. Don’t use your troop unless you see a gain.

Don’t fight until critical.

Don’t put your army into a fight for mere gratification. Frustration can ensue, but your emotions will change. The destruction of your kingdom, though, will not.

Be attentive and cautious.

Chapter 13: The Use of Spies

War is expensive. Don’t do it if it’s not worth it. If you do, do it to win. To win, gather intelligence.

You do so using spies.

Five types.

  1. Local spies: inhabitants of a district
  2. Inward spies: officials from the enemy’s army
  3. Converted spies: turning an enemy’s spy for your own purpose
  4. Doomed spies: sacrificed spies that the enemy can capture so it doesn’t think there are other spies
  5. Surviving spies: those bringing back news from the enemy’s side

When all of these spies work, they become the most precious asset.

Your best relationships should be with spies.

Be subtle when managing spies.

If a spy divulges something to someone else before the right time, kill him and whoever he told it to.

The enemy’s spies must be turned over with bribes and comfortable advantages.

The purpose of spies is to gather intelligence from the enemy. Most of it will come from the converted spy. Hence, the converted spy is the most important one.

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