The classical literature of ancient China, like that of ancient Greece and Rome, appears to emphasize moral goodness as the foundation of wisdom. But Chinese classical teachings on statecraft offer another perspective: one that places a special emphasis on deception, subversion, and secret agents.
In a book titled The Tao of Spycraft, Sun-tzu translator Ralph D. Sawyer describes classical Chinese texts in terms of their preoccupation with “craftiness”; first, in military strategy; second, as a method of softening up an enemy through false defectors and agents of influence. Early Chinese chronicles offer object lessons in “stealthy intrigues … [and] perverse methods that should be denied the unrighteousness and kept from the dangerous,” according to Sawyer.
The idea of using evil means for the advancement of good became firmly fixed at an early date in classical Chinese thought. The sages of the orient did not take precautions against the corruption of those exercising power; rather, Chinese despotism grew out of traditions which justified evil actions as indispensable to survival.
Adding cynicism to cynicism, Chinese autocracy gravitated toward the doctrine of “the Mandate of Heaven,” which says that the acquisition of power (by whatever means) was proof of divine favor. According to this same logic, a ruler’s overthrow was proof of his unworthiness. Thus, success by any means was morally justified. The cynical use of dishonesty and cruelty by those in power would thereafter prove unstoppable in a never-ending game of dog-eat-dog. Thus the Chinese era of the Warring States would become the focus of a classical curriculum rooted in deceit, cruelty and murder.
The idea of a constitutional process, with limited power under the rule of law, was alien to Chinese thought and practice. Chinese sages wrote about virtue, but developed no practical means of limiting evil rulers. There is no Lycurgus in Chinese history — no Marcus Junius Brutus, no Cato, no Cicero, no practical champions of liberty. China’s advocates of practical wisdom were experts in the concentration of power, not experts in its limitation.
Of course, the ancient Greeks and Romans had their tyrants — like Dionysius of Syracuse and the Emperor Nero. These two figures received philosophical educations (Dionysius was taught directly by Plato, and Nero was a pupil of Seneca). Yet their behavior stood in opposition to the principles they were taught. The same cannot be said for the Chinese emperors and generals who learned Sun-tzu’s Art of War, emphasizing falsehood and espionage, together with the ideas of Han Fei-tzu — the Machiavelli of ancient China.
If Dionysius and Nero turned their backs on Plato and Seneca, the Chinese rulers received positive intellectual encouragement to act contrary to the teachings of Confucius and Mencius. But even the teachings of Confucius would prove dubious, because he was understood as saying “anyone who abandons a perverse ruler to support …. rebels claiming the Mandate of Heaven is a discerning defector, a hero rather than a traitor.” [Sawyer] Confucius was cynically interpreted to say, in effect, that if rebels win, they are virtuous. If they lose, they are not. This produced in China a legacy rich in treason, a history overpopulated by defectors and betrayers whose opportunism became synonymous with “moral virtue.”
The idea of using evil methods to defend the good was not effectively championed in Western thought until the Renaissance, when Machiavelli penned The Prince. Even then, Machiavelli was denounced by nearly everyone. Frederick the Great of Prussia wrote a book against Machiavelli’s ideas, titled Anti-Machiavel, in which he stated: “I have always regarded The Prince as one of the most dangerous works which were spread in the world….” Frederick went on to say,
…it is a book which falls naturally into the hands of princes, and of those who have a taste for policy. It is all too easy for an ambitious young man, whose heart and judgment are not formed enough to accurately distinguish good from bad, to be corrupted by maxims which inflame his hunger for power.
Given the hyper-Machiavellian content of some Chinese classics, we can only imagine the anathemas Frederick would have poured out against the “sages” of the East. Undoubtedly he would have noted the dismal history of China — a history of tyranny, betrayal and fatalism. Frederick wrote, by way of warning:
The floods which devastate regions, the fire of the lightning which reduces cities to ashes, the poison of the plague which afflicts provinces, are not as disastrous in the world as the dangerous morals and unrestrained passions of the kings; the celestial plagues last only for a time, they devastate only some regions, and these losses, though painful, are repaired. But the crimes of the kings are suffered for a much longer time by the whole people.
Frederick added that “The true policy of kings is founded only on justice, prudence and kindness….” He characterized Machiavelli’s philosophy as “full of horror….” — An effrontery to the public.
Though Frederick was an absolute king, he saw himself as subject to God, as owing duty to his people. He wrote his Anti-Machiavel on behalf of the Western philosophical tradition, which was grounded in the Old Testament prophets — informed by the Greek and Roman philosophers — and by the classical historians.
We read in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War the chilling “Melian dialogue,” in which democratic Athens dictated terms to a neutral city which they arbitrarily exterminated. When the Melians argued for justice, the Athenians scoffed. Thucydides shows the wickedness and short-sightedness of Athenian policy. For Athens was courting destruction, even then, falsely imagining itself invincible and beyond the reach of justice. (Athens would lose the war.) Thucydides underscored the disastrous consequences of the “might makes right” philosophy of the Athenians, and the appalling cost to society when evil men attain high office.
In The Annals of Imperial Rome Tacitus shows us how the despotism of the Caesars declined into the wickedness of abject tyranny, sexual deviancy, murder and madness. When Titus Livius wrote his History of Rome in the first century, he prefaced it with an appeal to the moral values of his country’s forefathers — comparing ancient nobility to modern depravity.
In this vein Livy recounted the generalship of Marcus Furius Camillus before the walls of Fallerii. According to Livy, a Greek tutor had treacherously lured his young pupils, the sons of the town’s leaders, into the Roman camp — offering these unsuspecting children as hostages with which to break the siege. Camillus had the Greek tutor stripped and scourged, handed the whip to the eldest pupil and let them return safely to their parents with their flayed and unfaithful teacher in tow. The people of Falerii were overawed by this noble act, and promptly surrendered to the Roman general out of gratitude, trusting their lives and property to him. Thus an enemy state was transformed, by honorable conduct, into a friend.
Likewise the Greek historian Polybius, in his famous commentary on the Roman constitution, praised the ancient Romans for their honesty and piety, to which he credited the success of their Empire. It was only afterwards, when success had spoiled them, that the Romans descended into moral degradation.
Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero upheld moral goodness and virtue — as did Confucius and Mencius. But the Chinese maintained, beneath the surface, an esoteric teaching that made Machiavelli look like a Boy Scout in comparison. So evil were the teachings of China’s sages, that China’s rulers saw them as dangerous in the wrong hands. Thus, in very ancient times these teachings were kept secret by the governments of successive kings. The dark underside of China’s classical teachings were conceived as “the essence of our state” (as one high-level Chinese official explained). “Since the classics contain timeless methods for governing, they cannot be loaned to other people’s.”
According to ancient Chinese generals and administrators, wise rulers do not allow others to read the “military strategies and the books of the philosophers, with crafty techniques.”
So if the Han emperor was unwilling to show his beloved relative these books … how can we today hand over classics filled with such information to our nemesis, the Western barbarians?
In Sawyer’s translation, one high official argues that the Western barbarians are sensitive and intelligent: “If they penetrate the Book of Documents, they will certainly know how to conduct warfare.” Crafty methods and concepts were, in themselves, secret weapons in a cultural treasure-trove of secret weaponry.
It is prudent to know evil techniques — not because we ought to practice them, but to recognize when others are practicing them on us. What is certain, at this time in history, is that China and Russia, and the far left, consistently employ Machiavellian methods — and those taught by Sun-Tzu. We must be clear as to where we stand and what we believe about their use. Subversion and deception are activities that corrupt the practitioner. Like weapons of war they can only be used reciprocally, and not without risk to the user. Just as killing in war is a terrible thing, and not to be entered into lightly, lying to an enemy is also dangerous. The penalty which nature readily imposes on liars is known by history through the cognitive degeneration of the tyrant. He lies and threatens everyone, and everyone is obliged to delude him in return.
As anyone can see, the left’s moral degeneracy is exemplified by a conceit so corrosive that moral idiocy and ideological sclerosis are immediately visible on every side. The ruling elites of the West, immersed in fables of their own making, can no longer recognize the truth. Less and less do they see or understand the situation they are in. Their tendency is to delude themselves; but how will that serve them? It must be the case, however invincible they seem, that they are doomed.
China and Russia, the two leading empires of the Sun-tzu legacy (and the legacy of Lenin), are awash in corruption and gangsterism. They are degenerate empires. The power they have accumulated can only be used for destruction, since they have no intrinsic moral worth. They will be damned by history, even as they attempt to deceive the historians.
If the legacy of Sun-tzu takes hold throughout the world, then history will everywhere conform to the laws and patterns of Chinese history. The West will then lie buried in its own rubble. Humanity will suffer a dark age — an age of blood and ignorance. Perhaps the human race will die of shame; for such an outcome would be, in truth, unendurably shameful.