Comments on the Tao Te Ching

using the D.C. Lau translation (Penguin Books, 1963)



Yin & Yáng and the I Ching

Zen and the Art of Divebombing, or The Dark Side of the Tao

History of Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy

History of Philosophy

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Copyright (c) 1997, 1999, 2000, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved


Comments on the Tao Te Ching, Note;
Sun Tzu and Flavius Vegetius Renatus


Sun Tzu sounds the most like a Taoist when he counsels against frontal attacks. One should direct one's army as though it were the supreme example of the Tao, water, . Water overcomes obstacles by flowing around and undermining them. The ideal battle for Sun Tzu is won before action is even joined.

One of the most important pieces of advice in Sun Tzu is stated very briefly: "[B]e sure to leave an opening for an army that is surrounded" [Victor H. Mair, The Art of the War, Sun Zi's Military Methods, Columbia University Press, 2007, p.104], or "When you surround an army leave an outlet free" [Lionel Giles, Roots of Strategy, The 5 Greatest Military Classics of All Time, edited by Brig. Gen. Thomas R. Phillips, 1940, Stackpole Books, 1985, p.40]. Sun Tzu does not explain why one should leave an opening. The effect of it, however, we can see in the Battle of the River Sajó (or Mohi), fought by the Mongols under the Khân Batu against King Bela IV of Hungary in 1241. After some Hungarian success, the Mongols surrounded the Hungarian camp. Leaving a gap in their encirclement, the Mongols tempted the Hungarians to flee, which they did, and could then be cut down on the run.

Where we find an explanation of this practice is in the Roman strategist Flavius Vegetius Renatus (De Re Militari, Lieutenant John Clarke, Roots of Strategy, The 5 Greatest Military Classics of All Time, op.cit., pp.65-175]):

THE FLIGHT OF AN ENEMY SHOULD NOT BE PREVENTED, BUT FACILITATED. Generals unskilled in war think a victory incomplete unless the enemy are so straightened in their ground or so entirely surrounded by numbers as to have no possibility of escape. But in such situations, where no hopes remain, fear itself will arm an enemy and despair inspires courage. When men find they must inevitably perish, they willingly resolve to die with their comrades and with their arms in their hands. The maxim of Scipio, that a golden bridge should be made for a flying enemy, has much been commended. For when they have free room to escape they think of nothing but how to save themselves by flight, and the confusion becoming general, great numbers are cut to pieces. The pursuers can be in no danger when the vanquished have thrown away their arms for greater haste. In this case the greater the number of the flying army, the greater the slaughter. [p.164, boldface added]

Nothing could so vividly describe the result of an action like that of the River Sajó. The reference of the "golden bridge," however, has not always been understood in military history. Thus, the Marshal Maurice de Saxe of France (1696-1750) in his "My Reveries Upon the Art of War" says:

The words of the proverb: "A bridge of gold should be made for the enemy," is followed religiously. This is false. On the contrary, the pursuit should be pushed to the limit. And the retreat which had appeared such a satisfactory solution will be turned into a route [sic]. A detachment of ten thousand men can destroy an army of one hundred thousand in flight. Nothing inspires so much terror or occasions so much damage, for everything is lost. [Brig. Gen. Thomas R. Phillips, op.cit., p.299]

De Saxe apparently is thinking that the "bridge of gold" means that one should allow the enemy to escape. He cannot have recently read Vegetius if he believed such a thing. But he is clearly aware that a retreating enemy can well provide an opportunity for attack. He does not express, however, as Vegetius does, under what circumstances a retreating enemy can be fruitfully attacked. We return to Sun Tzu again, who says, "Do not pursue an enemy who simulates flight" [Lionel Giles, op.cit., p.40]. An orderly retreat may be as difficult to attack as a resolute defense. Vegetius sees opportunity when the retreat of the enemy is a flight in panic, which can be induced by providing the "bridge of gold" to an army already demoralized. We must aways guard, however, against deception by an enemy who wants us to think that they are fleeing in panic. This was how the Arabs defeated the Romans at the Battle of Yarmuk in 636, delivering Syria and Palestine permanently into the hands of Islâm. The Arabs gave way and appeared to flee, but then they turned on the pursuing Romans, who had become disorganized in their own enthusiasm. In more subtle fashion, Hannibal had given way before the Romans at Cannae, to lure them into a pocket, where they were slaughtered.

The Taoist way of war is thus not so unique after all, and it even clarifies the value of Sun Tzu's advice when we compare it with strategists in Western military history. We might say that Vegetius does a much better job of explaining Sun Tzu than Sun Tzu does.

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Philosophy of History, Military History