Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "The Art of War Study Guide." Course Hero. 14 Dec. 2017. Web. 19 Jan. 2019. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2017, December 14). The Art of War Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved January 19, 2019, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2017)



Course Hero. "The Art of War Study Guide." December 14, 2017. Accessed January 19, 2019.


Course Hero, "The Art of War Study Guide," December 14, 2017, accessed January 19, 2019,

The Art of War | Quotes


Those who master them win; those who do not are defeated.

Sun Tzu, Chapter 1

Sun Tzu wrote this line as a statement of his own confidence in the tactics he outlined in the 13 chapters, many of which have proven true over time.


All warfare is based on deception.

Sun Tzu, Chapter 1

This statement is repeated from the standpoint of various perspectives throughout all 13 chapters. While secret agents expertly feed false information well ahead of the first engagement, a commanding general should deceive the enemy by appearing to march in one direction while actually arriving at another. He should continually change tactics to suit changing conditions on the battlefield without including anyone else in his plans.

At the same time, the commanding general should know his opponent's plans with accuracy, while keeping his opponent guessing, or misinformed, as much as possible.


For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.

Sun Tzu, Chapter 2

This statement implies three conditions a wise general should take seriously. First is that careful preparation beforehand should make an extended campaign unnecessary. Second, a speedy and decisive conclusion encourages good morale among the troops and the people supporting the war at home. Third, the longer a campaign drags on, the more it places a drain on the state to keep it going.


One defends when his strength is inadequate; he attacks when it is abundant.

Sun Tzu, Chapter 4

The general is required to make careful assessments before engaging in battle, so he will know the best time to be on the defensive and when the opportunity to successfully attack presents itself.

While keeping the enemy in doubt as to the true strength and weaknesses of the army, the wise general makes every effort to ascertain the disposition of the enemy in order to prepare an appropriate offensive or defensive strategy.


A victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle.

Sun Tzu, Chapter 4

One of the strongest points Sun Tzu makes is that preparing for war is, in many ways, the most important part of war-making. He stresses that prebattle strategy and planning based on sound intelligence of both armies gives one an advantage over the other. It isn't always the stronger force that wins. A small force led by a wise general can—with good preparation and utilization of its best talents—defeat a much larger one.


There are only the normal and extraordinary forces, but their combinations are limitless.

Sun Tzu, Chapter 5

A normal force is the effort it takes to make the enemy trust in falsely created conditions—such as pulling off a section of troops as if retreating so as to draw the pursuing enemy into an ambush. An extraordinary force describes the planning it takes to carry out an attack that is entirely unexpected by the enemy—such as placing archers at precise points along a narrow pass through which the enemy has been forced to move.

Switching between normal and extraordinary force planning and execution is the means to an effective and swift campaign.


A skilled commander seeks victory from the situation and does not demand it of his subordinates.

Sun Tzu, Chapter 5

Sun Tzu is adamant that a commander's traits are of utmost importance. It is his responsibility to see to it that the likelihood of victory is assured well ahead of time by appointing qualified subordinate officers. If they do not deliver the expected outcome, it is the commander's fault for having appointed inferior or disobedient subordinates, and not the fault of the subordinates themselves.

However, disciplining disobedient officers should be swift, severe, and executed in front of all, to serve as an example to others.


One who has few must prepare against the enemy; one who has many makes the enemy prepare against him.

Sun Tzu, Chapter 6

This statement draws a distinction between defensive and offensive strategy, and execution on the battlefield.

Whenever possible, Sun Tzu makes it clear that it is preferable to act on the enemy rather than be acted upon. Even with a lack of superior numbers, he states that undermining the opposing commander, subverting his officers, and separating the enemy from its allies can even the odds between numbers of troops. What appears on the surface to be true need not always prove to be so.


An army may be likened to water.

Sun Tzu, Chapter 6

Sun Tzu and his commentators compare the effective use of force on the battlefield with the force of water streaming downhill. A general should build his forces both physically and psychologically to act as an irresistible unit. This only happens with preparation, the way a farmer holds back water and then releases it at the right time so that it flows downhill to water his fields. The allusion is one of several comparing an army with forces of nature.


He who knows the art of the direct and the indirect approach will be victorious.

Sun Tzu, Chapter 7

This statement expands on the idea that the art of war is based on deception. The purpose is to make the enemy believe a direct approach is being made when it is really indirect, or vice versa.

Rapid and acute shifts between indirect and direct approaches must be practiced beforehand, so that the commander may—depending on changing conditions in battle—quickly concentrate his army's forces in a unified push, or just as swiftly divide them. Signals for troop movements include gongs, drums, banners. and torches.


By taking into account the unfavorable, he may resolve the difficulties.

Sun Tzu, Chapter 8

Sun Tzu and his commentators place a heavy emphasis on the expertise and character of the commanding general. This is done by pairing opposites. A wise commander not only examines favorable factors but must also balance these with an objective estimation of unfavorable ones, to arrive at a "reliable" or "workable" plan.

This is a fundamentally Tao approach because Tao states that all conditions have a "grain" of its opposite embedded within it. This is expressed in the yang (masculine) and yin (feminine) icon in which a small amount of the yin is in the yang, and vice versa.


You must take position on the sunny side and rest your right and rear on them.

Sun Tzu, Chapter 9

This advice applies to the army that manages to arrive first to the battlefield, so it can take the most favorable position. The weakest positions of an army are its rear and its flank (the right or left side of a troop formation). If an army is attacked in the rear, a portion of the army must turn away from the direction pressing against it. If attacked on its flank, an army must also turn in a different direction to defend itself.

Hills provide a natural barrier, provided the enemy does not reach higher ground. And a sunny side presumably offers clarity of vision, while also reflecting off the metal of swords and shields directly into the eyes of the enemy.


Therefore, to estimate the enemy ... so as to control victory are virtues of the superior general.

Sun Tzu, Chapter 10

While the superior general keeps the enemy guessing his true directions and plans, he must also know as much as possible about not only his opposing general's strengths and weaknesses but also his strategic planning.

Any accurate intelligence of an enemy's tactical habits makes it possible to gain an advantage. At the same time, shifting tactics will have the effect of keeping the enemy off-balance, guessing, and likely diffusing its forces in an effort to defend itself.


The tactical variations ... are matters the general must examine with the greatest care.

Sun Tzu, Chapter 11

The tactical variations Sun Tzu and his commentators refer to in this chapter are broadly identified by nine types of ground, made up of both physical topography (whether to choose a close or extended troop deployment)—and psychological "ground" (using the principles of human nature).

As has been discussed in previous chapters, these nine varieties may be combined and divided into unlimited variations of combinations.


They are called 'The Divine Skein' and are the treasure of a sovereign.

Sun Tzu, Chapter 13

The five types of agents are "native, inside, doubled, expendable, and living." A "skein" refers to a twisting of several lengths of yarn together so that the twisted yarn is stronger than any of the individual lengths. Griffith states in his notes regarding this line that a skein refers to an efficient use of different kinds of secret agents together, creating a "net" in which the enemy becomes ensnared.

Espionage (spying on the enemy), a term coined during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), forms the "fifth column" (a group of people used to undermine an opponent) of attack as a means of weakening the strength of the opponent from within as much as possible prior to battle.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about The Art of War? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!