Sun Tzu wrote,
“Now, the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought.”
Note that in Sun Tzu’s time, temples, being large buildings full of noble purpose, were employed as military headquarters on the eve of marching out to campaign, so this is where plans were formed or at least, finalized.
“The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. “
This principle is easily summarized as: winners plan ahead. Even if winners are prepared to alter their plans according to circumstances, they nonetheless make plans to begin with; and all making of plans begins with a careful assessment of all the circumstances forming the background of a conflict.
The Moral Law: The motivating factor behind unified collective action; the strength of overall leadershp.
Heaven: The times and seasons, the weather factors, the broad, over-arching environmental factors.
Earth: The specifics of the terrain as they apply to field operations.
The Commander: Who leads what force? What is his or her nature, or adaptability to circumstances?
Method and Discipline: Which side is more organized and better supplied? How strong is the organization?
These are the “Five Constants” of warfare as judged by Sun Tzu, being factors which must be assessed at the outset of any conflict to shed light on the relative strengths of both sides. After all, only a fool plans against an opponent with strength clearly superior to his own in the exact same manner as an opponent with strength weaker than his own. Also, it’s not just about the aggregate level of strength; it’s who is responsible for these strengths and weaknesses, what they are in detail, where those strengths and weaknesses lie, when those strengths are in effect, and thus, as a result of the preceding, why advantages or disadvantages exist. Only with this knowledge can strengths be evaded and weaknesses exploited in an intelligent, systematic manner.
A higher level of wisdom is to understand that the point of planning is not the formation of the plan. (I realize this will seem highly counter-intuitive.) The point of planning is to assess the strengths and weaknesses of both sides in this level of detail. This being done, the strategist can depart from the plan on the basis of knowledge, not ignorance.
“Knowing yourself” and “knowing your enemy” was not some sort of abstract Taoist mysticism to Sun Tzu; he was a general, not a philosopher. He wanted to know himself, and his enemy, in concrete terms of direct relevance to planning for victory in the most effective and efficient manners possible. Only by rationally assessing reality as it is, not as one wishes for it to be, can a person develop a strategy that has a firm basis. In this way, even if the means are not part of philosophy themselves, the end result feels like an extension of natural law.
After all, Sun Tzu counseled to be like water, following the path of least resistance, yet striking with the force of a raging torrent. This is the result of not so much the plan, as the depth of the knowledge that was obtained in the formation of one.