Sun Tzu and Machiavelli: The Art of War in oral and print traditions

Sun-tzu ping-fa (Sun Tzu’s Art of War) and Machiavelli’s Il Principe (The Prince) and Dell’arte della guerra (The Art of War) address matters of politics and military strategy but there are some remarkable differences between them.

On the most basic level there is the physical size of texts. Sun-tzu ping-fa consists of approximately 7,500 Chinese characters. The earliest surviving copy of the text from the Han Dynasty consists of characters inscribed on bamboo strips connected together and rolled to form small scrolls. The entire thirteen-chapter text could fit on a handful of scrolls. They would be lightweight and easy to carry. Machiavelli’s Dell’arte della guerra has 61,382 words and Il Principe is roughly half that size at 29,678 words. These would be quite large especially given the heavy leather quarto bindings and the common practice of binding several writings together into one volume. Even if bound separately or left as unbound pages these works would still be too large to regularly consult while on campaign.

This difference becomes all the more striking if we consider the organization of the contents. Sun-tzu ping-fa is organized into thirteen short chapters. Each chapter includes a brief title that describes the contents. In written form the chapter titles allow for easy reference, but they would also help to organize the content for memorization. The possibility of memorization seems even more likely if we look at the text itself. Sun Tzu frequently uses a number/concept approach when introducing material: “The Five Criteria,” The Six Calamities,” “The Nine Situations.” Examples could be found on almost every page. In our print-based culture such devices seem contrived—a humorous or odd stylistic convention. For an oral culture that needs to preserve and transmit information without the widespread use of printing or writing this device could serve as an important mnemonic add. In addition the hierarchical ordering of information as well as the simple and straightforward descriptions also acts as aides to memorization and recitation. In addition there are many recurring patterns and structural repetitions, for example “Without compulsion, they carry out their duties; without tying them down, they are devoted; without need for orders, they follow army discipline.” These add a poetic rhythm to the prose text, another device to aid in its recall.

Written on a scroll one could easily imagine the Sun-tzu ping-fa used as a field manual. In its earliest incarnation it is even more likely to have been memorized and recalled as situations arise. Short aphoristic proverbs committed to memory allow for instant recall when needed. “The combined army is about to assume battle formation, and it rains in torrents. This is an army awash. It should not go to battle in formation.” (182)

Machiavelli on the other hand, takes an entirely different approach. Dell’arte della guerra is broken into seven chapters, each as long as the entire text of Sun Tzu. These chapters are given numbers but not titles so there is no reference to their contents. While each chapter addresses one or two important aspects of military practice they are not expressed in a straightforward didactic manner. Each chapter is in the form of a Socratic dialogue between a group of interlocutors. They express opinions, ask questions, and offer suggestions, arguments and counter-arguments. In the end the character Fabrizio Colonna will serve as Machiavelli’s mouthpiece and express his conclusions but the path to those conclusions is not always direct.

Il Principe has much shorter chapters with simple and informative titles. The advice offered is more straightforward than in Dell’arte della guerra. However, unlike Sun Tzu, every point that Machiavelli makes is supported by examples from classical antiquity and from recent events. Frequently he considers possible objections and replies to them, typically with additional supporting examples. While any prince could easily be expected to know the events of the day, Machiavelli also assumes a similar familiarity with events and characters from classical antiquity. It is as if he is telling us that it is not enough for a leader to be knowledgeable about politics, geography and the disposition of troops, but one must also be well read. It is not a book of principles to read and commit to memory, but rather a book to engage and question as part of a larger humanist education.

While their end goals may be very similar their approach and expectations are quite different. Sun Tzu uses brevity, unadorned prose, categorical organization and stylized repetition to make his ideas easier to remember, recite and recall. Machiavelli’s system is based in reading, thought, discussion and argument. It is written to be used as part of the training or education of a leader and not as a field manual.


~ by severalfourmany on August 19, 2007.

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