We love referring to classics, don’t we? Many of the quotes that we like to use for self-affirmation or when we’re just trying to appear as if we do have some degree of sophistication come from some classic or other. Someone has of course quipped that a classic is “A book everyone knows about but which few have actually read.” How about you, have you actually read a classic or two? Cover to cover? At least twice?
People have a tendency to pluck phrases, sentences, paragraphs or some chunks out of classics and use them as illustrations of universal truth. Seldom do we pause to set those elucidating nuggets of wisdom in the context of the whole work, the spirit of the author at that stage of his life and the geopolitical, social and cultural context of the time and space in which the book was written. And so we say and do things the likes of which the author never imagined or intended. As with dysfunctional conversations, we read, not in order to understand, but in order to find support for whatever is taking our fancy at the moment.
One such classic is Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” It has been referred to by warriors and statesmen alike, and in recent decades been popularized in business literature. Lately, there has been, once again, an attempt to balance “The Art of War” with other works and philosophies which are deemed to be more sagacious. This “balancing act” is not new. It started during the period of the Warring States in China, or perhaps even during the Spring and Autumn period as a reaction to Chapter 13 which describes the use of spies. Espionage was held in low regard, something which an enlightened statesman would never stoop to. I wonder. It is more likely that the information supplied by a spy would have been used to the advantage of his sponsor, and the spy subsequently disposed of in a convenient manner. Decisions made as a result of having this great information would then be attributed to the innate sagacity of His Excellency.
The Art of War is thought to have contributed to the spirit of aggressively combative competition rife in the affairs of states and businesses. We forget that Sun Tzu actually advocates the avoidance of war by all means, and that war is to be embarked upon as a last resort. What Sun Tzu does advocate is that, once the decision to wage war has been made, whether deliberately or whether thrust upon a ruler, it must be vigorously and decisively prepared for, planned and executed. We tend to forget also that the Thirteen Chapters were written in uncertain times, when war was the rule rather than the exception. Even when states seemed to co-exist peacefully, war could erupt at any moment. The Art of War recognized this and lays out measures for one adopting them to benefit from a dangerous situation as best he might.
So, has The Art of War been feeding a spirit of competition rather than a spirit of collaboration? I think not. Rather, it is people who are more competitive than collaborative who have taken chunks out of The Art of War to justify their actions. We do the same with other classics as well.
We need to stop using the works of so-called sages to justify what we want to do. Rather, we need to take the time to read, understand and apply whatever noble principles we get out of the classics to how we prosecute our lives and our business affairs.