Sun Tzu Was Quoting A Proverb
When Sun Tzu wrote (paraphrasing) “know yourself, know your enemy, and you shall win a hundred battles without loss,” he preambled it by putting that it was widely said that… etc etc.
In other words, Sun Tzu didn’t invent, by any means, that proverb. It was in wide, popular use in military circles of the day. (Largely thanks to Sun Tzu himself, it is still widely quoted today.)
If that proverb should be taken in its literal meaning, or should be taken as the highest gospel of strategy, there would have been no reason for Sun Tzu to write his book.
Yet he did.
The Third Thing You Must Know
What Sun Tzu devotes a very considerable amount of his book to is knowing your environment.
Granted, the last chapter focuses on how to know your enemy better: through spies. More broadly, through intelligence and through contact with people who actually know the real condition of the enemy; people who know the truth, even if they do not realize all of it themselves. (That’s what nice fireside chats are for. Only the spy is permitted inside the general’s tent. So he’s treated much better than even the highest army officer.)
Virtually all of the rest is about learning, and knowing, the truth.
There is a dust cloud in the distance that is approaching your camp. Is the dust cloud low and broad? It is infantry. Is it high and vertical? It is cavalry.
Birds will not return to land upon a certain stretch of ground with high grasses. There is an ambush waiting.
These are not universal pieces of advice. They are specific to a time and place. It is not what they literally are; it is what they represent.
Namely, they represent observation with clear eyes. They show us that our path to victory is based not upon simply knowing ourselves and knowing our enemies, for frankly, even we ourselves are usually mysteries to us; our enemies, far more so.
What we can know for certain is the environment, the terrain upon and over and under which we fight.
To the avid follower of Sun Tzu’s strategies, it is this message – to observe and to draw conclusions based upon knowledge of the environment – that allow the strategist a tangible, quantitative advantage against his or her opponents.
Look Before You Leap – And Learn
Thus, strategy is incumbent upon learning how the world really works, observing fresh situations in that light, not being prejudiced, and making conclusions based upon the facts available.
This is a reflection of Sun Tzu’s Daoist roots, but we see the influence of the idea of clear, unobstructed vision in Zen every day.