I've been reading Sun Tzu's art of war ( just out of fun ) and stumbled upon a part of the chapter 4 titled Tactical Dispositions

The confusing statement is

Thus it is the war, the victorious strategist seeks for battle after victory has been won whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.

What is victory then ? Is Sun Tzu referring victory as the war with weapons only and battle after victory as something else?

1 Answer 1


This is a quotation from The Art of War 4.2.

Here's the original:


Here's my own translation that might help:

(1) Hence a good military man puts himself in a place where he cannot lose to the enemy, because the enemy has already lost. (2) The winning warrior has the win [and knows that] before he takes on the fight. (3) A losing warrior fights first and then seeks victory.

Reworded a little bit more:

(1) a good general only takes on battles he can win because he knows his enemy has already lost. (2) A good soldier only fights when he already knows he's going to win. (3) A bad soldier fights hoping he can win.

(We can't get anything nearly that pretty out of just the words that are written in the Chinese).

In response to your specific questions:

What is victory then ?

A victory in the above is a 勝 which basically means a "win". Here it would mean to win a battle or a match. The same characters are used for winning and losing in all sorts of games now.

Is Sun Tzu referring victory as the war with weapons only and battle after victory as something else?

I don't think the passage specifies whether you have weapons or not. Also, there's some question as to whether Sun Tzu is really about military tactics or also has a deeper meaning (this is debatable). But the basic idea is that idiots fight hoping to win but smart people fight when they know they're going to win. Worded negatively, don't take a fight you won't win. And attack your enemies when you know you will win.

  • 1
    Thanks a lot. This clarifies a lot. I actually thought, "victorious strategist seeks for battle after victory has been won" meant that there is war after the weapon-related battle, i.e. War never ends and a good strategist knows that. Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 5:55
  • Isn't there another passage along the lines of "the best strategists/strategies win w/o even having to have armed conflict"? Which emphasizes that the victory he's discussing is not necessarily on the battlefield.
    – Dave
    Commented Nov 11, 2016 at 14:15
  • The only passage I'm finding with reference to "weapons" is ctext.org/art-of-war/… . But my search could be incomplete. (Actually, the Chinese text does not say weapons, it just says "sharp" and "dull" there, but the weapon implication is pretty near at hand).
    – virmaior
    Commented Nov 12, 2016 at 0:43
  • Its sounds quite a bit like strategies one thinks about playing Go, I mean in a general sense. Commented Nov 12, 2016 at 4:37

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