9 Ways The Art of War Conquered the World

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is perhaps the most influential treatise on leadership and war ever written. Everyone from New England Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick to Tupac Shakur has supposedly read the 2500-year-old text’s 13 chapters on the 13 aspects of warfare. (Even Paris Hilton knows a smart photo-op when she sees one.) But how much do you really know about this frequently name-checked text?


The Art of War is the oldest surviving manuscript on military tactics from Ancient China’s hallowed martial tradition, reportedly written in the 4th or 5th century BCE by Chinese general Sun Tzu (also known as Sunzi or “Master Sun”). But the historical figure Sun Tzu was probably not the actual author of the work (if he existed at all), which may have been a compilation of “greatest hits” from Chinese military theorists, written on sewn-together bamboo slips a few centuries after his death.

According to later biographers, Sun Tzu was born during the violent Spring and Autumn period of China, in either Qi or Wu, depending on the source, and grew up to become General of the Wu army. The success of The Art of War is only partially due to its advice; the rest can be attributed to the legend cultivated around the man who supposedly wrote it.


Sima Qian, a biographer writing in roughly the second century BCE, proved Sun Tzu’s fitness for doling out military advice by claiming that the general defeated an army 10 times the size of his own at the Battle of Boju. Sima Qian did a lot to cement Sun Tzu’s reputation for refuse-to-blink ruthlessness and, by extension, the reputation of the text.

One episode in particular stands out: According to Sima Qian, the King of Wu told Sun Tzu that he’d read the treatise and wanted to put Sun Tzu’s theories to a test. The King asked whether his advice for managing soldiers could also be applied to women; Sun Tzu replied in the affirmative. To prove this, 180 courtesans were brought out to the courtyard and divided into two companies. With the King’s two favorite concubines at their heads, all of the women were given spears.

Sun Tzu began to give the women basic military commands—turn left, turn right, etc.—but was initially met with giggles. “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame,” he said. He tried again; more giggles. “But if his orders are clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officer.” As punishment, Sun Tzu ordered that the two company leaders be beheaded on the spot, in front of the King and their horrified “soldiers.” New women were forced to take their places; the next time the companies were given a command, they performed it with terrified precision.


Despite stories like that, the treatise is equally concerned with nonviolent strategy: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting,” it declares. Sun Tzu—or whoever—appears to regard war as a necessary, but wasteful, evil, and one to be avoided whenever possible. This would make sense: At the time of the book’s writing, China was in the grips of a thousand-year period of near-unrelenting conflict between its seven main vassal states. The era’s military leaders would have been all too familiar with the real cost of battle and would have been keen to avoid it.


The treatise remained an important and popular text in Chinese tradition, and through centuries of dynastic, imperial rule, its fame spread across Asia to Japan and beyond. Still, it remained largely unknown in the Western world until 1772, when it was “discovered” by a Jesuit missionary and translated into French. Supposedly, Napoleon himself was one of the text’s first European devotees. The Art of War wasn’t translated into English until 1905, but it’s been a steadfast bestseller ever since.


In an April 2001 episode of The Sopranos, Tony told his therapist that he’d been reading The Art of War—a useful choice for the embattled fictional mob boss. Sales of the book immediately skyrocketed, and by the end of the month, Oxford University Press had gone through its entire stock of 14,000 copies. Company executives wasted no time capitalizing on the free publicity; they ordered 25,000 more copies and even took out a small ad in The New York Times. (The copy read, “Tony Soprano fears no enemy. Sun Tzu taught him how. The Art of War. The book for bosses.”) Today, the book remains hugely popular—it’s currently ranked #1 in both Military Sciences and History of Education on Amazon. And a new spin on the book's audio version—read by Game of Thrones’ Aiden Gillen (a.k.a. Littlefinger)—landed in the Top 20 on Audible.com’s list of bestsellers.


Between 1943 and 1946, the Council on Books in Wartime—a non-profit group comprised of book sellers, publishers, librarians, and writers—began publishing cheap, pocket-sized editions of popular and classic books for soldiers serving in World War II. Working under the publishing name Armed Services Editions, it adopted the slogan “Books are weapons in the war of ideas.” The group managed to put almost 123 million copies of 1,322 titles into the hands of the troops. Titles sent overseas included Bram Stoker’s Dracula; The Art of Illusion, a 1944 book of magic tricks; Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; and James Thurber and E.B. White’s Is Sex Necessary? (Which probably wasn’t the most sensitive choice for men and women serving thousands of miles away from their loved ones.)

In 2002, a writer and collector of ASE copies named Andrew Carroll revived the program for American troops serving overseas; The Art of War was selected as one of four books printed and sent abroad. Its companions: War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars (edited by Carroll), American Military Heroes from the Civil War to the Present, by Allan Mikaelian, and Shakespeare’s Henry V.


Japan has had a long love affair with Sun Tzu, dating back to at least the 8th century AD, when the first Japanese translation of the text appeared. (There’s even a statue of Sun Tzu in tiny Yurihama, Tottori, Japan.) In the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, Japanese businessmen began applying Sun Tzu’s teachings to the country’s burgeoning corporate culture, with real results. Wall Street, both in awe of and unnerved by Japan’s growing business acumen, caught on in the late ‘80s, prompting a flurry of books and think-pieces intended to adapt the book’s words of advice for a more material world. (Gordon Gecko, the principal villain of 1987’s Wall Street, can quote Sun Tzu.) The text has since been repackaged for business audiences in dozens of books and articles (like this one and this one), and has even been “re-interpreted” for lady bosses in The Art of War for Women. Because it’s hard for us ladies to read anything that doesn't have “for women” in the title.


Despite the fact that it is one of the pillars of Chinese military theory, Western business tradition has largely replaced The Art of War in Chinese business schools, according to a blog for the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. “The Chinese are so taken by Western knowledge that they have been blinded to their own history,” Shalom Saada Saar, a lecturer at Cheung Kong, told the blog. “I do believe they have it right here, but they’re not looking.”


In the immortal words of Pat Benatar, “Love is a battlefield.” So it should come as no surprise that titles like the sinister-sounding The Art of War for Dating: Master Sun Tzu's Tactics to Win Over Women exist. (It promises to help the hapless male reader “win the battle of the sexes.”) There’s also the slightly-less-evil-sounding The Art of Love: Sun Tzu's The Art of War for Romantic Relationships, which features excerpts from the The Art of War alongside relevant pieces of love advice. The author of The Art of Love, Gary Gagliardi, has mined The Art of War to produce a truly staggering number of works, including (but not limited to) The Art of Parenting: Sun Tzu’s Art of War for Parenting Teens, which sounds useful, and The Art of War on Terror: Sun Tzu’s Art of War for Countering Terrorism, which sounds suspiciously like The Art of Parenting.

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7 Pieces of Reading Advice From History’s Greatest Minds

When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
Lucien Aigner/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If there’s one thing that unites philosophers, writers, politicians, and scientists across time and distance, it’s the belief that reading can broaden your worldview and strengthen your intellect better than just about any other activity. When it comes to choosing what to read and how to go about it, however, opinions start to diverge. From Virginia Woolf’s affinity for wandering secondhand bookstores to Theodore Roosevelt’s rejection of a definitive “best books” list, here are seven pieces of reading advice to help you build an impressive to-be-read (TBR) pile.

1. Read books from eras past // Albert Einstein

albert einstein at home circa 1925
Albert Einstein poses at home in 1925 with a mix of old and new books.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Keeping up with current events and the latest buzz-worthy book from the bestseller list is no small feat, but Albert Einstein thought it was vital to leave some room for older works, too. Otherwise, you’d be “completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of [your] times,” he wrote in a 1952 journal article [PDF].

“Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses,” he wrote.

2. Don’t jump too quickly from book to book // Seneca

seneca the younger
Seneca the Younger, ready to turn that unwavering gaze on a new book.
The Print Collector via Getty Images

Seneca the Younger, a first-century Roman Stoic philosopher and trusted advisor of Emperor Nero, believed that reading too wide a variety in too short a time would keep the teachings from leaving a lasting impression on you. “You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind,” he wrote in a letter to Roman writer Lucilius.

If you’re wishing there were a good metaphor to illustrate this concept, take your pick from these gems, courtesy of Seneca himself:

“Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.”

3. Shop at secondhand bookstores // Virginia Woolf

virginia woolf
Virginia Woolf wishing she were in a bookstore.
Culture Club/Getty Images

In her essay “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf described the merits of shopping in secondhand bookstores, where the works “have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

According to Woolf, browsing through used books gives you the chance to stumble upon something that wouldn’t have risen to the attention of librarians and booksellers, who are often much more selective in curating their collections than secondhand bookstore owners. To give us an example, she imagined coming across the shabby, self-published account of “a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it.”

“In this random miscellaneous company,” she wrote, “we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”

4. You can skip outdated scientific works, but not old literature // Edward Bulwer-Lytton

edward bulwer-lytton
An 1831 portrait of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, smug at the thought of people reading his novels for centuries to come.
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Though his novels were immensely popular during his lifetime, 19th-century British novelist and Parliamentarian Edward Bulwer-Lytton is now mainly known for coining the phrase It was a dark and stormy night, the opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. It’s a little ironic that Bulwer-Lytton’s books aren’t very widely read today, because he himself was a firm believer in the value of reading old literature.

“In science, read, by preference, the newest works; in literature, the oldest,” he wrote in his 1863 essay collection, Caxtoniana. “The classic literature is always modern. New books revive and redecorate old ideas; old books suggest and invigorate new ideas.”

To Bulwer-Lytton, fiction couldn't ever be obsolete, because it contained timeless themes about human nature and society that came back around in contemporary works; in other words, you can’t disprove fiction. You can, however, disprove scientific theories, so Bulwer-Lytton thought it best to stick to the latest works in that field. (That said, since scientists use previous studies to inform their work, you can still learn a ton about certain schools of thought by delving into debunked ideas—plus, it’s often really entertaining to see what people used to believe.) 

5. Check out authors’ reading lists for book recommendations // Mortimer J. Adler

mortimer j. adler in 1983
Mortimer J. Adler in 1983, happy to read the favorite works of his favorite authors.
George Rose/Getty Images

In his 1940 guide How to Read a Book, American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler talked about the importance of choosing books that other authors consider worth reading. “The great authors were great readers,” he explained, “and one way to understand them is to read the books they read.”

Adler went on to clarify that this would probably matter most in the philosophy field, “because philosophers are great readers of each other,” and it’s easier to grasp a concept if you also know what inspired it. While you don’t necessarily have to read everything a novelist has read in order to fully understand their own work, it’s still a good way to get quality book recommendations from a trusted source. If your favorite author mentions a certain novel that really made an impression on them, there’s a pretty good chance you’d enjoy it, too.

6. Reading so-called guilty pleasures is better than reading nothing // Mary Wollstonecraft

mary wollstonecraft in 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, apparently demonstrating that a book with blank pages is worth even less than a novel.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To the 18th-century writer, philosopher, and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, just about all novels fell into the category of “guilty pleasures” (though she didn’t call them that). In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she disparaged the “stupid novelists, who, knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious scenes, all retailed in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste and draw the heart aside from its daily duties.”

If her judgment seems unnecessarily harsh, it’s probably because it’s taken out of its historical context. Wollstonecraft definitely wasn’t the only one who considered novels to be low-quality reading material compared to works of history and philosophy, and she was also indirectly criticizing society for preventing women from seeking more intellectual pursuits. If 21st-century women were confined to watching unrealistic, highly edited dating shows and frowned upon for trying to see 2019’s Parasite or the latest Ken Burns documentary, we might sound a little bitter, too.

Regardless, Wollstonecraft still admitted that even guilty pleasures can help expand your worldview. “Any kind of reading I think better than leaving a blank still a blank, because the mind must receive a degree of enlargement, and obtain a little strength by a slight exertion of its thinking powers,” she wrote. In other words, go forth and enjoy your beach read.

7. You get to make the final decision on how, what, and when to read // Theodore Roosevelt

theodore roosevelt in office in 1905
Theodore Roosevelt pauses for a quick photo before getting back to his book in 1905.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Theodore Roosevelt might have lived his own life in an exceptionally regimented fashion, but his outlook on reading was surprisingly free-spirited. Apart from being a staunch proponent of finding at least a few minutes to read every single day—and starting young—he thought that most of the details should be left up to the individual.

“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be,” he wrote in his autobiography, and rejected the idea that there’s a definitive “best books” list that everyone should abide by. Instead, Roosevelt recommended choosing books on subjects that interest you and letting your mood guide you to your next great read. He also wasn’t one to roll his eyes at a happy ending, explaining that “there are enough horror and grimness and sordid squalor in real life with which an active man has to grapple.”

In short, Roosevelt would probably advise you to see what Seneca, Albert Einstein, Mary Wollstonecraft, and other great minds had to say about reading, and then make your own decisions in the end.