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Offense versus defense.  Manipulation versus subtlety.  Tyranny versus non-violence.  These are the traits of two of the most influential military strategists in history.

Niccolò Machiavelli was a political philosopher, musician, poet, and playwright from Florence, Italy, who lived from 1469-1527.  Machiavelli began his political career after the expulsion of the Medici (a powerful 13th to 17th century Florentine family who produced three Popes) in 1494, traveling to courts all throughout Europe on diplomatic business.  He worked in many Italian city-states, as well as in Germany and in France.  In 1500, he traveled to France and met with King Louis XII, obtaining terms for continuing the war on Pisa.  It was during these travels that Machiavelli developed his political and military philosophies, which he would later publish in his book, The Prince.  In 1512, when Pope Julius II restored the Medici family to power, Machiavelli was accused, along with twenty others, of conspiring to overthrow the Medicis.  Machiavelli maintained his innocence, despite the imprisonment and torture he was forced to endure.  While some scholars have described Machiavelli as a cruel man, others maintain that his support of dictatorship, as described in The Prince, does not truly demonstrate his beliefs or his character, as its tyranny directly contradicts sentiments expressed in his other works.

Sun Tzu was, allegedly, a sixth century BC Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher.  Much like Shakespeare, the existence of Sun Tzu has been debated by historians and scholars.  A second century BC biography by Sima Qian states that Sun Tzu was a general living in the State of Wu in the sixth century, BC, a contemporary of the Chinese philosopher Confucius.  Some historians, however, argue that the form and content of his work are characteristic of another time period, and claim that he actually wrote it some time between 400 and 320 BC.  Other scholars claim that the historical figure of Sun Tzu is a myth, and that any work credited to him was actually compiled by a group of unknown Chinese philosophers.  As with Shakespeare, the authenticity of the author is of little importance when examining the impact of his work.

The works of these two military strategists and political philosophers could not contrast more; one is offensive, the other defensive.  One supports tyranny, the other focuses on the importance of non-violent warfare.  One advocates deception and manipulation, the other emphasizes the importance of truly knowing and understanding one’s opponent. 

In Machiavelli’s The Prince, good political policy is described as a means to an end: an end which should serve only to satisfy the selfish interests of the monarch and not the needs of the people.  In the book, Machiavelli details the failures of past European monarchs, citing their willingness to help others as one of their greatest flaws.  He states: “He who causes another to become powerful ruins himself.”  He also advocates cruelty over kindness, stating that commitments made in times of peace are not always kept in times of adversity, but those commitments which are made out of fear are almost always kept out of fear.  The primary focus of the book is that a monarch should utilize the arts of manipulation and deception in order to fulfill his needs.  Machiavelli claims that, historically, leaders who have abided by honesty have always fallen, and those who have resorted to deceit have almost always found great success.  He states that all war tactics should be considered a means to an end: that no matter what cruel or inhumane process is needed in order to succeed, a good ruler should always continue on, knowing that the result is far more important than the process of obtaining that result, and the sufferers of that process should be considered casualties of war.  He furthermore states that any ruler who treats his people with kindness and generosity will only spoil them, for this kindness will make the people greedy and unappreciative.  While he does emphasize the importance of avoiding contempt or hatred from the people, this avoidance is, once again, only a means to an end; he does not believe a monarch should treat his people well out of kindness and love for humanity, but rather, for the strategy of avoiding conspirators.  He states that the monarch should put forth the image of compassion, sympathy, and trustworthiness, but in reality, should be willing to do anything, no matter how savage or brutal, in order to maintain or advance his power.  The Prince has been a very influential work in Western governments throughout history.  Centuries after it was written, psychologists used the work to create the theory of Machiavellianism, a term used to describe characteristics of a person who resorts to deception and manipulation in order to advance his or her own personal agenda.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu discusses the importance of knowledge and understanding when engaging in warfare.  He argues that the most important factor in waging a war is to know oneself and one’s enemy.  Flawless knowledge of both sides, he states, is the only way to ensure success on the battlefield.  He furthermore states that the most skillful war is one which is won without any fighting.  The best type of warfare, Sun Tzu states, happens when one can outsmart the enemy without ever having to engage in violence.  Like Machiavelli, Sun Tzu advocates deception, but without the cruelty and inhumanity Machiavelli describes; rather, Sun Tzu stresses the importance of subtlety, emphasizing that one should never reveal one’s true intentions, but rather, present an illusionary set of objectives in order to achieve one’s real goals.  Sun Tzu states: “If you know both yourself and your enemy, you will come out of one hundred battles with one hundred victories.”  Philosophies from The Art of War have been cited in many popular television shows and films, including Wall Street with Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen, The Art of War with Wesley Snipes, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Sopranos, and even the popular cartoon Family Guy.  Many Chinese philosophers, however, have voiced their disapproval of these modern day references, arguing that pop culture is turning the work into a series of “fortune cookie” type messages without actually understanding the philosophies or context of the original work.  The Art of War has been one of the most influential war documents in history.  It is said that the work has been the influence of Napoleon, the German General Staff, and even the planning of Operation Desert Storm.  Historical figures such as Mao Zedung, Vo Nguyen Giap, and even General Macarthur, have cited The Art of War as an inspiration to their military strategies.  The Art of War has also been used in many other non-warfare related contexts; many people say the philosophies described in the book can be utilized in their personal lives, for maintaining relationships, and can even be applied to the art of seduction.  Even more recently, The Art of War has been applied to work in the corporate world; many Western businesses have used the philosophies of the book to advance their competitive needs in corporate warfare.  Additionally, many Japanese corporations have made the book required reading for the top players on their executive task forces. 

The importance of preparedness for war has always been a strong aspect of any sound society.  The methods by which this readiness is executed, however, varies.  Additionally, no writer lives in a vacuum: he or she is a product of his or her times.  Given that Sun Tzu was most likely developing his military strategies in Asia during the time of such religious revelations as Buddhism and alongside philosophical contemporaries such as Confucius, it is easy to see why his work is reflective of the principles of knowledge, understanding, and non-violence when possible.  Machiavelli, however, was writing during the era of European empire-building.  During a time when each European nation was struggling to further its material wealth and land ownership, Machiavelli was traveling Europe and documenting his observations of those traits and practices which contributed to making a successful ruler.  Undoubtedly, the times and philosophies of these two strategists have been repeated.  We see the deceit, manipulation, selfishness, greed, and cruelty that Machiavelli describes in The Prince in the daily practices of government and military forces in the world.  Many scholars argue that Machiavelli did not advocate these practices, but rather, simply documented them as the truths as he saw them at the time.  Perhaps Machiavelli indeed did not endorse these tactics, but rather just documented what he saw.  In any case, the works of these two military strategists have long lived as huge influences to governments, militaries, and even corporations, forever reminding us of the importance of historical influence on the dawn of the future.

1st June 2006

FACE OFF: Machiavelli vs. Sun Tzu
By Jill A. Bolstridge