Jonathan Haidt talks about the power of ancient wisdom in The Happiness Hypothesis. Well, The Art of War was compiled around 600 BCE, though nobody knows who wrote it (likely, it was written by a bunch of people). It’s popular among oligarchs, salesmen, martial artists, and of course, military men. However, I like to look at it a book about conflict management and accomplishing goals. The whole book boils down to three sentences.
Zhī bǐ zhījǐ, bǎizhànbùdài. Bùzhī bǐ ér zhījǐ, yī shèngyī fù. Bùzhī bǐ, bù zhījǐ, měi zhàn bìbài.
Know the opponent, and know yourself, and in 100 battles, you will not see peril. If you do not know the opponent, but only know yourself, for every victory there will be a defeat. If you do not know the opponent, and do not know yourself, you will lose every battle.
–Sunzi, The Art of War
The rest is just detail to try and figure that simple principle out.
Coincidentally, its a simple concept that serves as a basis of all critical thinking. See, ancient peoples were still just people like us. Their brains were the same as our brains, their problems were similar to ours, and their needs were still very similar to ours here and now. So, intelligent people in ancient times tried to figure out things much in the same way we do now.
Know the Other
This may seem simple, but people have this nagging habit that our own Adam Hansen calls dumb-barring. We have the habit of seeing the worst in people, and then treating them accordingly. Obviously, regardless of what you want from someone, if you see them one way, and they are different than your preconception, you’re going to have problems.
It’s not easy to properly assess a target, opponent, significant other, or even a friend. That’s how we get into arguments and wars. Sunzi also said, “The most beautiful victory is the one gained without battle.” If you know your counterpart well enough, you will not get into conflict in the first place.
Think about it: let’s say your boyfriend is looking grumpy. Your first impulse is to cheer him up in one way or another, by a cake, a kiss, or some cuddling. But what if his reason for grumpiness is because he’s uncomfortable with the amount of intimacy the two of you share? Your action would be counterproductive. A better approach would be to first understand why your boyfriend is grumpy in the first place. How to do that is situation dependent, be it conversation or empathetic understanding. But over time, the methods to understand the other become clear, and are reproducible.
“Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”
Now the critical point: who the fuck are you? Do you know? And if you think you know, are you sure?
If people understood themselves, there wouldn’t be a demand for psychologist and therapy. If people understood themselves, they’d be able to cast the beam out of their own eye.
I often find myself wondering if what I believe to be true about myself is really true. Sometimes people call me an asshole. Sometimes people call me a sweetheart. Sometimes I question if I’m a good person, if I am a smart person, if I am a worthy person. Sometimes, the opponent I’m confronted with is my own mind. There are tons of tools that exist to better understand oneself, and the action of understanding oneself is the most critical aspect of approaching life’s trials and triumphs.
So what do we know? Very little. That’s the point, though. The rest of The Art of War is filled with strategy for refining and improving one’s knowledge and tactics for triumph when faced with a bad situation. That’s the whole point of psychology and psychoanalysis. But it all revolves around knowing.
You can’t know everything. You can’t ever really even know yourself. But the closer you get to understanding who you are, and who the people around you are, the more beautiful your victories will be. Even if they’re little victories.