The Art of War, an ancient military treatise written by Sun Tzu, is composed of thirteen chapters detailing strategies for war ranging from simply laying plans to the extensive use of fire and spies against one's enemies. For centuries, it has been regarded as the definite reading for military strategists, enthusiasts, and warriors of all nature.

It's readings have been taken and adapted to seemingly unrelated fields, such as business, and has influenced great leaders and military men such as Napoleon Bonaparte and General Douglas MacArthur.

My question is this: Since being written in ancient China, there have been many important advances in the technology of war, such as the invention of gunpowder, as well as many important militaristic events that may have influenced the world's views on war, such as the Mongol invasion and World War II. Because of these things, are there any more recent treatises or developments on the philosophy of war that military enthusiasts and strategists should consider?

  • Being only familiar with the Art of War through the lens of popular media, I'm interested in knowing what you consider to be his philosophy of war as opposed to simply his strategies. Jun 9, 2011 at 20:17
  • @Ben I would argue that strategies can be categorized as part of philosophy, due to philosophy being the study of logic and rational thought. Jun 9, 2011 at 20:21
  • @Edward Black: fair enough. Jun 9, 2011 at 20:30
  • +1 for wondering if The Art of war has any place in Philosophy, never trying implies never knowing.
    – jimjim
    Jun 9, 2011 at 22:49
  • 2
    This question seems to use "Philosophy of X" as synonymous with "Approach to or theory of X." It doesn't seem to me to be philosophy as I take it. Hence, I vote to close.
    – vanden
    Jun 12, 2011 at 2:17

5 Answers 5


There are definitely parts of the Art of War that can lay claim to being philosophy in some sense. This includes such things as much of chapter 1, which explains the reasons behind waging war.

There are also statements like "Know thy enemy" that may be sorted under philosophy at least in a wider sense. (Actual quote a bit longer: "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.")

As to the actual question, how the philosophy of war has changed, I can only offer my own opinions, as I don't know of any modern book on the philosophy of war and in any case I would suspect it has changed quite a lot during the last half-century so books may be outdated. :-)

Sun Tze makes recommendations on when you can gain from war. These recommendations made sense in a relatively low-tech society. 2000 years ago a ruler needed not only the economic gains you can get from trade, but also the resources and manpower to defend himself, which required a large area any many people to rule over.

Today, both as a result of the improved trade gains you can get from todays fast and global transportation, the developments in sanitation and health care that makes cities of millions possible, and as a result of the developments in weaponry that makes war a slaughterhouse, it is no longer possible to gain economically from making war. Trade will always be a better option than war, and you no longer need to rule over large areas to rule over many.

The reasons of war have therefore changed, and is now no longer about gaining economic advantages. Except for defense, war is now only waged either to fight injustices or gaining political advantages by looking like you fight injustices. So this has changed.

Sun Tze also, again reasonably from the ancient viewpoint, recommend that you pillage your enemy. "One cartload of the enemy's provisions is equivalent to twenty of one's own." This philosophy changed when it was clear that crushing and punishing Germany after the War only had negative outcomes. Instead armies today have orders to treat the local population well, and after winning a war the victor is seen to have not only the moral obligation to help rebuild the country, but also an obligation to make friends with the enemy to build on future close relations to prevent future war and increase future trade.

There may be more examples, but this IMO are two examples of how the Philosophy of war has changed.

  • Oh, there are tons of modern books on the ethics/philosophy of war. But most of them come from the realm of critical theory, and 99.9% of them are staunchly anti-war. Also consider the entire sub-specialty of international relations theory: realism, Marxism, neo-Gramscianism, constructivism, nation-building, postcolonialism, etc. etc. etc. Jun 10, 2011 at 10:25
  • @Cody: Yeah, I don't count the anti-war ones. I'm sure there are books on the Philosphy of war as well, but I don't know any of them. (Except the US Military report mentioned in Men Staring at Goats. ;) ) Jun 10, 2011 at 10:32
  • Pillaging the enemey is not the same as crushing everything on sight on Chapter 3. 1. Sun Tzu said: In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.
    – Lie Ryan
    Jun 11, 2011 at 4:57
  • @Lie: Right, because you want to use the country as a new source for more soldiers, so you shouldn't crush it. This is somewhat similar to todays view of rebuilding the country. But the pillaging part stands. Sun Tzu recommends pillaging, today it is seen as bad. Jun 11, 2011 at 8:09
  • Everyone has something to sell. A major function of modern war is to consume industrial surplus, thus pillaging the enemy will ruin domestic industry. In the same spirit, hard work is no longer a virtue because a little good is better than a lot of harm. Mar 12, 2018 at 16:28

I think that one of the biggest changes in war came with the apparent end of conventional warfare after the Gulf War. It is simply unreasonable for almost any state (a few exceptions, perhaps, but not so many) to expect to confront NATO in so-called 'conventional' ways and be successful. The Art of War speaks at great length of how generals should command, Sun Tzu even mentions that "All war is based on deception." But he took this only insofar as to attack when your enemy thinks you are weak, and to appear strong even when you are weak so as to discourage attack (Baden Powell truly embodied this in the Battle of Mafeking, which also led to the development of the Boy Scout Movement).

Yet modern forms of deception are far more complicated, and warfare conducted in ways that appear far less ordered, than ever before. I think that some of the seminal works now would include On Guerilla Warfare, by Mao Tse-Tung, and Urban Warfare.

These include some philosophy, some straight-up strategy and tactics, and some ideology. With the current trends in combat ranging from conventional to highly asymmetric, I think that these texts should also be included.


Clausewitz's "On War" (1832) is a classic book of strategy inspired by the Napoleonic wars.

Machiavelli's "The Prince" though usually considered a political document, also discusses warfare.

Both of these, just like "The Art of War", are primarily about non-philosophical matters, but contain still quite a bit of commentary that is philosophical.

So these are simply two post-Middle Ages, Western documents. As others have noted, there is a proliferation of modern writing on the subject, but none that stand out as classics like the above two.


Many of the points in Sun Tzu's are very relevant even in modern warfare.

Here are a few examples of quotes that can never die:

Chapter 2.
5. Thus, though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never 
   been seen associated with long delays.
6. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.
19. In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.

Sun Tzu recognizes that war should end as soon as possible, it is still true today. American invasions to Iraq costs the nation billions that wouldn't have been incurred if the war progressed swiftly.

Chapter 2.
9. Bring war material with you from home, but forage on the enemy. Thus the 
   army will have food enough for its needs.

American "foraged" oil from Iraq.

Now, there are also parts that are outdated in today's modern world, such as this examples about chariot fights:

Chapter 2.
17. Therefore in chariot fighting, when ten or more chariots have been 
    taken, those should be rewarded who took the first. Our own flags should 
    be substituted for those of the enemy, and the chariots mingled and used 
    in conjunction with ours. The captured soldiers should be kindly treated and 

However, if you fete out the chariots, there are the abstract notion of rewarding soldiers, symbolic flag gestures, and how to treat captured enemies; all are still relevant in modern warfare.

Some are also outdated due to technological advances, sieging a walled city has been much easier since the invention of cannons and modern missiles makes sieges more reasonable than ever:

Chapter 3.
4. The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided. 
   The preparation of mantlets, movable shelters, and various implements of 
   war, will take up three whole months; and the piling up of mounds over 
   against the walls will take three months more.

Some are less relevant now that the primary means of warfare is no longer foot soldiers/infantries. But infantries still are an important part of modern warfare.

Chapter 6.
1. Sun Tzu said: Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the 
   enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has 
   to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.

We can't just send a bunch of missiles and hope to win the war.

On the other hand, some strategems are becoming even more important in modern warfare:

Chapter 13.
4. Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and 
   conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.
5. Now this foreknowledge cannot be elicited from spirits; it cannot be 
   obtained inductively from experience, nor by any deductive calculation.
6. Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men.

Spying plays a much more important roles in modern warfare than it ever were.

Sun Tzu recognizes the importance of being able to read the "ground" and how to best handle them:

Chapter 11.
46. Therefore, on dispersive ground, I would inspire my men with unity of purpose. 
    On facile ground, I would see that there is close connection between all parts 
    of my army.
47. On contentious ground, I would hurry up my rear.
48. On open ground, I would keep a vigilant eye on my defenses. On ground of 
    intersecting highways, I would consolidate my alliances.
49. On serious ground, I would try to ensure a continuous stream of supplies. On 
    difficult ground, I would keep pushing on along the road.
50. On hemmed-in ground, I would block any way of retreat. On desperate ground, I 
    would proclaim to my soldiers the hopelessness of saving their lives.

While some values might have changed since the time of Sun Tzu, there are many general directions that are ageless.


Art of war tried to come up with something that (if ever) could be considered as strategies to use in war, but these a days any fast super computer with sufficient data would easyly overcome any and all strategies that could be fathomed and articulated and even maybe understood by inferior human language and intellect, just like chess the real players are no longer human but machines.

There is no philosophy in the details of how to conduct a war, but just strategies. Art of war was an operational manual in how to conduct war at the age of abacus and arrows, with mechanised snipers that never sleep and never miss a shot Art of war is a good pedesterian intoduction for military enthusists.

There never was/is any philosophy in war itself. Operational research deals with how to maximise the costs to the other side while keeping the cost of doing so minimised.

If there is any philosophy invloved at all, it is about wether to go to war or not, or justification of cost for winning, besides that war is just a game to be played out just like chess.

PS: Most conflicts around the world today are not wars, as by definition of war there should be at least two distinct sides wearing distinct uniforms carrying distinct flags and playing by the rules of what used to be rules of war.

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