The Path of Least Resistance: Sun Tzu’s Repudiation of the Boisterous Bad Boy (The Art of War, It's Lit #28)
Who deserves the most praise on the battlefield? Is it the Genghis Khan of the pack? He who leaves the greatest body count, the most carbon in the ground from burning villages? In The Art of War, Sun Tzu argues in the negative. In fact, it is he who takes the path of least resistance who deserves the most praise—he who hardly steps foot on the battlefield at all.
This concept of taking the path of least resistance is prevalent in Eastern discussion of meaning. It is also one of the areas that Westerners most often take issue with. The path of least resistance can conjure images of a zen monk sitting shiva on a rock while the world burns around him. In this essay, I will use The Art of War to argue that this is not the case. Instead, the path of least resistance is the idea that the true hero plans ahead. He is assured of victory before the battle even begins, and executes so swiftly that the opponents don’t know what hit them. The greatest masters don’t even leave their opponents harmed.
Though the words ‘path of least resistance’ may seem to imply otherwise, hard work is actually lauded in Sun Tzu’s philosophy. The hardest work, however, ought to precede the battle itself, in the planning stage. When preparing for a siege, for instance, Sun Tzu advises to ‘Take three months to prepare your machines and three months to complete your siege engineering’ (71). It is necessary to spend far longer planning than you actually spend executing. In the long run, this will save time and make victory more assured. Sun Tzu says, ‘the rule of military operations is not to count on opponents not coming, but to rely on having ways of dealing with them; not to count on opponents not attacking, but to rely on having what cannot be attacked’ (128). Spending a long time planning can put you in a situation where you are extremely prepared for what is coming at you, and even for the unexpected. As you cannot control your opponent, having the most masterful control of yourself and your plans is the next best thing.
Once the planning is done, the time to attack is when victory is assured. Obviously, this will also optimize the amount of time on the battlefield. Sun Tzu claims that ‘good warriors take their stand on ground where they cannot lose, and do not overlook conditions that make an opponent prone to defeat’ (90). As long as all preparations have been made, and the enemy has been sufficiently studied, the time for attack should be obvious, and should result in victory. Tzu reminds us that ‘Invincibility is in oneself, vulnerability is in the opponent’ (84-5). When you have built up your invincibility to its peak and your opponent is sufficiently vulnerable, this is the best time to strike. To strike at any other time is impractical, and will likely result in unnecessary suffering on your end. Similarly, in life it is necessary to move forward only when all the energies point to victory. Though there is much to learn form losses, you are better off preparing than executing in times of inferior energy.
Sun Tzu also reminds us that ‘the important thing in a military operation is victory, not persistence’ (64). Though persistence may be awarded because of its outward nature, it will inevitably result in more casualties than are necessary. Instead, you you ought to attack ‘when you see an advantage to aim for. On the attack you should be extremely swift, taking advantage of unexpectedness, wary of letting opponents find you out and prepare against you’ (88). Not only is a swift attack reflective of one who has sufficiently prepared for victory, it also prevents the opposition from reassessing their formations and coming at you with more to defend against. Through acting swiftly at the best opportunity, you show off effortless motion that may hardly be noticed at all.
In addition to acting swiftly, The Art of War advises that you attain victory while doing the least harm possible to the opposition. Jia Lin, a commentator on The Art of War in the Tang Dynasty, says that ‘best of all is when your troops are held in such awe that everyone comes to surrender. This is preferable to winning by trickery, violence, and slaughter’ (68). In this situation, your victory is so apparent that you can win without any death or destruction. Death and destruction ought to be avoided at all costs if victory can still be attained, as ‘Anger can revert to joy, wrath can revert to delight, but a nation destroyed cannot be restored to existence, and the dead cannot be restored to life’ (166). Avoiding these irreversible consequences paves the way to future prosperity.
Thus, the path of least resistance written about in The Art of War is not the path of least effort. Instead, it is about putting in effort on the front end to outsmart your opponents, allowing you to waltz to victory while doing the least harm possible, and resulting in the most beneficial situation for all involved. It is far from laziness—it is masterful thinking and strategizing in order to pursue the path of peace while still achieving victory. Though The Art of War is directly about battle, this philosophy is applicable to any pursuit. For instance, in writing these essays, planning ahead and generating a robust outline allows me to quickly execute a better structured essay than if I started the draft immediately after finishing the book. In an athletic match, the team that better understands their opponent and goes in with a well-thought out strategy can gain victory more effortlessly than a forceful juggernaut. Through disciplined inspection of any situation, it is possible to flow with the energies of the time to the most profound victory possible.
Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. Translated by Thomas Cleary, Shambhala Publications, 1988.