Machiavelli wrote these maxims of military strategy in Book VII of his work, The Art of War. Many of these are relevant to the lessons he gave in The Prince. For Machiavelli, the strategies of war were an inextricably integral part of politics. It wasn’t just about the clash of armies, but rather the clash of styles of leadership, governance, and policy. I have paired some of them with quotes from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
• What benefits the enemy, harms you; and what benefits you, harms the enemy.
• Whoever is more vigilant in observing the designs of the enemy in war, and endures much hardship in training his army, will incur fewer dangers, and can have greater hope for victory.
“By method and discipline are to be understood the marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure.”
Sun Tzu, Book I, 10
• Never lead your soldiers into an engagement unless you are assured of their courage, know they are without fear, and are organized. Never make an attempt unless you see they hope for victory.
“When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength.”
Sun Tzu: Book II, 2
• It is better to defeat the enemy by hunger than by steel; in such victory fortune counts more than prowess.
“Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.”
Sun Tzu: Book III, 6
• No proceeding is better than that which you have concealed from the enemy until the time you have executed it.
“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
Sun Tzu, Book I, 18-19
• To know how to recognize an opportunity in war, and take it, benefits you more than anything else.
“Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”
Sun Tzu: Book I, 19-20
“To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”
Sun Tzu: Book IV, 2
• Nature creates few men brave, industry and training makes many.
“Without constant practice, the officers will be nervous and undecided when mustering for battle; without constant practice, the general will be wavering and irresolute when the crisis is at hand.”
Sun Tzu: Book I, Wang Tzu’s commentary
• Discipline in war counts more than fury.
“The consummate leader cultivates the moral law, and strictly adheres to method and discipline; thus it is in his power to control success.”
Sun Tzu: Book IV, 16
• If some on the side of the enemy desert to come to your service, if they be loyal, they will always make you a great acquisition; for the forces of the adversary diminish more with the loss of those who flee, than with those who are killed, even though the name of the fugitives is suspect to the new friends, and odious to the old.
• It is better in organizing an engagement to reserve great aid behind the front line, than to spread out your soldiers to make a greater front.
• He who knows how to recognize his forces and those of the enemy is overcome only with difficulty.
“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.”
Sun Tzu: Book III, 18
• The prowess of the soldiers is worth more than a multitude, and the site is often of more benefit than prowess.
“The spot where we intend to fight must not be made known; for then the enemy will have to prepare against a possible attack at several different points; and his forces being thus distributed in many directions, the numbers we shall have to face at any given point will be proportionately few.”
Sun Tzu: Book VI, 16
• New and speedy things frighten armies, while the customary and slow things are esteemed little by them: you will therefore make your army experienced, and learn (the strength) of a new enemy by skirmishes, before you come to an engagement with him.
• Whoever pursues a routed enemy in a disorganized manner, does nothing but become vanquished from having been a victor.
• Whoever does not make provisions necessary to live and eat, is overcome without steel.
“…an army without its baggage-train is lost; without provisions it is lost; without bases of supply it is lost.”
Sun Tzu: Book VII, 11
• Whoever trusts more in cavalry than in infantry, or more in infantry than in cavalry, must settle for the location (if you limit your army to a certain type of fighting, you need to be sure you pick the appropriate battleground).
• If you want to see whether any spy has come into the camp during the day, have no one go to his quarters (spies won’t have a place to go to when the others are told to go back to their quarters).
• Change your proceeding when you become aware that the enemy has foreseen it.
• Counsel with many on the things you ought to do, and confer with few on what you do afterwards.
• When soldiers are confined to their quarters, they are kept there by fear or punishment; then when they are led by war, (they are led) by hope and reward.
• Good captains never come to an engagement unless necessity compels them, or the opportunity calls them.
“The commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness.”
Sun Tzu, Book I, 9
• Act so your enemies do not know how you want to organize your army for battle, and in whatever way you organize them, arrange it so that the first line can be received by the second and by the third.
• In a battle, never use a company for some other purpose than what you have assigned it to, unless you want to cause disorder.
• Accidents are remedied with difficulty, unless you quickly take the facility of thinking (act quickly to fix mistakes otherwise they will become too big to remedy).
• Men, steel, money, and bread, are the sinews of war; but of these four, the first two are more necessary; for men and steel find money and bread, but money and bread do not find men and steel.
“If the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.”
Sun Tzu: Book II, 3
• The unarmed rich man is the prize of the poor soldier.
• Accustom your soldiers to despise delicate living and luxurious clothing.
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- Machiavelli and Sejanus - October 14, 2022
- A Meeting of the Minds? - July 3, 2021
- Machiavelli’s Prince as satire - June 8, 2017
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