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The Art of War | Chapter 4 : Dispositions | Summary



In Chapter 4 Sun Tzu draws a clear distinction between defense and offense, relative to what the general can control (himself and his troops) and what is beyond his control (the opposing general and his troops). He makes several distinctions between effective offensive and defensive tactics. As he explains, "The experts in defense conceal themselves ... those skilled in attack move as from above. ... Thus they are capable of ... protecting themselves and ... gaining ... victory." Even so, Sun Tzu goes on to suggest that predicting what seems obvious to "the ordinary man" is sometimes nothing more than misapprehension. Li Ch'uan gives the example of a stunning defeat of the Chao army at the hands of General Han Hsin, who arranged his inferior force in a defensive position with its back to the river to face the Chao troops. Although the Chao army was confident they would be victorious, invisible to them their defeat had already been arranged. The ferocity of the defenders crushed the Chao army, and General Han Hsin beheaded their commander.

Sun Tzu also states that an easy and predictable victory over a clearly inferior force is no mark of skill. At the same time he also warns that what may seem obvious may not actually be so, because victories won before the first clash of troops are sometimes hidden realities, made visible only in the course of battle. In other words, the wise commander prepares well ahead of time by any means possible, ready to take advantage of any opportunity. By way of illustrating this point, commentator Tu Mu quotes Duke Li-Ching of Wei, who describes how the uncertainties of an opposing general can be undermined with "unreliable reports" and lack of planning.

It is in this chapter that Sun Tzu first brings up Taoism as an indicator of how to forge one's forces into a unit capable of acting like an inevitable force of nature. He also presents calculations to bring this about as "elements of war": (1) measurement of space, (2) estimation of quantities, (3) calculations, (4) comparisons, and (5) chances of victory. The order in which these are considered is important, because, as he points out, "A victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle; an army destined to defeat fights in the hope of winning."


Similar to Chapter 3, Sun Tzu distinguishes between wars chronicled from the Spring and Autumn Annals period and those of his own era. He states that an easy victory is no test of skill but recognizes that in the past, "those called skilled in war conquered an enemy easily conquered."

Samuel B. Griffith explains the defeat of the Chao army at the hands of General Han Hsin by offering a footnote that Han Hsin had placed his troops on the most desperate of all defensive grounds, with its back to the river. "He burned his boats and smashed his cooking pots," so that his army knew it had no option to flee—it was "conquer or drown." The victorious troops of Han Hsin then presumably enjoyed a good meal from the defeated enemy's supplies.

This chapter references the Tao ("The Way"). A pragmatic and fundamental perception of the forces of nature, Taoism is perceived as a set of "laws" or principles which, when understood and put to use, bring success. The final passage of this chapter lists dispositions of measurements of space, estimation of quantities, calculations, comparisons, and chances of victory. Griffith states that these elements are "qualities of shape."

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