Illustration by Isabel Ríos

Words’ Worlds: The Art of War vs. The Prince

The Art of War and The Prince are two texts that many people claim to be guides for all aspects of our personal, corporate and dating lives. However, are these interpretations a mischaracterization of the author's original intent?

Apr 10, 2021

This week’s article is centered around a simple question: what is it about these books that attracts an ardent, almost fanatical, audience to them? I’m not talking about a scholarly audience, made up of people who debate endlessly about whether Machiavelli’s The Prince is serious or satirical or which translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is best. I’m talking about the people who take these two texts — one from ancient China and the other from Renaissance Italy — and seemingly treat them as guides to their own lives. From business and security management to running a company and even dating, it seems that the political and military principles of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu can be applied to almost every facet of modern life.
You may have already guessed the problem as soon as Machiavelli was mentioned; unsurprisingly, books about how to win wars and maintain power in conquered territories give recommendations that are amoral and often brutal. The term Machiavellian is synonymous with deception and manipulation for a reason, even if the man himself didn’t fit that description, which may explain why you generally see more books and videos reframing Sun Tzu as an advice guru than Machiavelli. Even so, Sun Tzu doesn’t seem to have been much better. There is a story about the way that he managed to turn a group of concubines into a disciplined army: he beheaded the Emperor’s favorites because the group wasn’t taking the training exercises seriously. Both books are explicitly about how to lie and fabricate to get what you want, with Sun Tzu saying, “all warfare is based on deception,” and Machiavelli advising that the ideal state for a ruler is one where “everyone sees what you appear to be; few know who you really are.”
Those trying to push the principles of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu as guides to life often acknowledge the dark context behind the advice given and work around it by neutering the advice to the point where it can apply to anything. Sun Tzu’s last chapter about using spies doesn’t mean you should actually spy on your competitors because that would be illegal — it just means you should be informed about your competition in a general sense. Machiavelli telling princes to encourage their citizens to pursue their chosen trades so they become more exploitable — since they are dependent on fragile sources of income — becomes a defense of capitalism.
The generalizable nature of this advice when stripped of its context makes for many hilarious missteps. Examples include Machiavelli being misquoted multiple times as saying he abhors the status quo and wants to change it, when he actually advises the opposite, “alter neither the laws nor the taxes” after conquering a territory. The popular YouTube channel School Of Life even argues that The Prince should teach leaders to “learn how to scare and intimidate, control and bully, trap and beguile.” And of course, there’s the aforementioned Art of War For Dating, which interprets the Sun Tzu quote, “We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbors,” as “don’t start picking out new curtains with her or let her pack your sports memorabilia into storage until you know what she’s all about.”
Aside from the fact that these books are ripe for cherry picking, they most likely became revered as strategic life guides because they reflect the values of those who embrace them. Many sources attempting to explain and promote these books stumble into an obvious oxymoron: they acknowledge that both writers argued that the best way to win against an opponent is to avoid warfare as much as possible, and yet make everything a war. Even when you think everything is going okay in your life, you should be planning for the next big battle. True peace is seemingly never an option.
Imagine wanting to talk to an attractive person at a bar, or giving a presentation in a class, and approaching it in the same way a general would organize their soldiers. This mindset would doubtlessly appeal to the common corporate psychopaths who use these old revered texts to validate their existing view that people are just pawns to make them money. However, treating every relationship and scenario in your life as if it is a conflict waiting to happen will exhaust you and push away your loved ones.
Sun Tzu and Machiavelli are by no means the only analysts who have captured the popular imagination. Jordan Peterson’s new book has put him back on the map for many disaffected people seeking life advice, and the psychoanalytic theories of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud have always been popular because they cannot be falsified. Their theories, like Sun Tzu’s and Machiavelli’s, can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways to support an infinite number of conclusions. If you learned about The Art of War or The Prince in any of the contexts described so far, then your first exposure to those books was from somebody trying to push an agenda. The good news is that people are starting to reassess the relationship between texts like these and business ethics, especially regarding The Prince. A particularly uplifting interpretation of the text comes from politics professor Maurizio Viroli: “The Prince… has been used to justify the acquisition of power and profit in business by any means… But this is not Machiavelli’s true message. The Prince is about the kind of grand politics that open the path to glory; it was written for the founders of new and good political orders and for the redeemers of countries and people.”
While I’ve made fun of the misinformation that people have pedaled regarding both books, I don’t want to make anybody who has gotten something useful out of either of these books feel bad. Everybody has their own coping strategies for various hurdles in life, and I’m genuinely happy that you’ve found a guide that works for you. However, I would advise anybody reading any self-help book, whether if it was published months or centuries ago, to create your own meaning from it rather than taking second-hand interpretations as gospel. Life has its ups and downs, but you don’t have to conquer every stretch of land. Sometimes, it’s okay to just be at peace.
Oscar Bray is Staff Writer, Columnist and Staff Illustrator. Email him at
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