Eighteenth-century edition of The Art of War (Qing Dynasty) transcribed on bamboo.

The Immortal Truth about Conflict and Victory

The Art of War is arguably the most widely read work of philosophy in history — for a reason

Mitch Horowitz
13 min readMay 1


“The violent and stiff-necked die not by a natural death.” — Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, translated by Lionel Giles

Given its posterity and vast range of translations, the ancient Chinese martial guide The Art of War may be the most widely read work of philosophy in history — actually read, I emphasize, due to the book’s clarity, urgency, and concision.

In that vein, I open (and close) this exploration of the classic guidebook to war and victory not with dates, names, and definitions — those will duly appear — but with practical points.

At its heart, The Art of War is a Taoist work: its key principle is to attain victory by blending with the natural order of things. That is the book’s approach to conflict and friction as it is to restoration and maintenance of peace. I believe the book’s outlook is distillable to five basic points:

1.The greatest warrior prevails without fighting; preparation, advantage, and rightness (or the Tao) make conflict unnecessary.

2. Beware the devastation of conflict: war should never be pursued lightly.

3.Be eminently watchful: know your enemy, know yourself, know your terrain. Fight only when all three assure victory.

4.When you strike, concentrate fury and power at your enemy’s weakest point.

5.When conflict ends, quickly restore peace. Protracted conflict corrodes victor and vanquished alike.

Although The Art of War is written from an explicitly martial perspective, its five ideals are Taoism itself. They counsel the reader to function like nature — the author’s definition of “rightness.”

Life works along lines of generativity and reproduction in all its expressions; but for nature to perpetuate itself there exist innate and necessary ruptures, such as a forest fire clearing away old brush. If left untouched, the brush would eventually overrun and choke the forest.

Nature is never spiteful or protractive. It works by direct and unimpeded means. The forest fire first takes dead leaves…



Mitch Horowitz

"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China