Sun Tzu and Lao Tse

In a comment to my Anger and Fear post (in which I advocate trying cases in the moment and without fear), Oklahoma criminal-defense lawyer Glen Graham wrote:

I disagree with the story. To me, it seems like the guy should being thinking about life. He should look for crevices in the rocks to grab onto and he should fight, fight, fight !!!. A lawyer who is thinking about how good the strawberries are instead of how to win his case is not being a true warrior and not being the best advocate for his client. The art of advocacy is in some sense the art of war. Zen philosophy tends to cause the advocate to loose his incentive to fight the good battle.
If you want to read good asian philosophy, take a look at “The Art of War by Sun Tzu.

The story Glen is talking about one that Jon Katz had cited as an example of living life without fear. I had quoted it, tagging it a “Zen story.” (Jon may not agree with that characterization — he learned the story from a t’ai chi master; as I understand t’ai chi, its philosophical underpinnings lie in Taoism, which forms a foundation for Zen Buddhism as well. As far as I know, the tiger story came from the Zen tradition, but it might as well be a Taoist story — or, for that matter, a Sufi story. To quote Pooh, “It’s the same thing.”):

A man is chased in the wilderness by two tigers, only to be forced off a cliff, hanging for life from a vine. One tiger waits above and the other waits below for a human meal. Two field mice gnaw away at the vine. The man sees a wild strawberry growing from the side of a cliff, reaches for it, tastes it, and — with his life hanging in the balance — thinks of how delicious the strawberry tastes.

While it should be required reading, the Art of War doesn’t, by itself, give us any idea what to do when the tiger chases us off the cliff. Without more context it’s strategy rather than philosophy.

To understand the Art of War a reader should understand the philosophy underlying it, and know himself. Sun Tzu wrote:

Hence the saying: 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.

If you don’t know yourself, the Art of War won’t do you any good — you will lose every battle. The book itself doesn’t provide us with any help in knowing ourselves; it doesn’t even tell us what Sun Tzu meant by “know yourself.” To understand Sun Tzu and the Art of War, first we have to understand what he meant by “know yourself,” and then we have to know ourselves in that way. Without an understanding of the philosophy underlying it, the Art of War is nothing more than a book of tricks. It doesn’t give you any strategic advantage because anyone can learn the tricks.

To understand the Art of War, therefore, first study the Tao Te Ching, or t’ai chi, or Zen, or aikido, or acting, or improvisational theatre, or any other discipline that seeks a state of presence in the moment. Then, once eating the strawberry makes sense to you, read Sun Tzu.

About Mark Bennett

Mark Bennett got his letter of marque from the Supreme Court of Texas in May 1995. He is famous for having no sense of humor when it comes to totalitarianism.
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