In the many forms it may take, conflict has been with the human race since the beginning of time. Conflict may occur within the self or with other; it has caused wars and created strife throughout whole countries as well as in the lives of individuals. The world has never not known conflict, yet many still seem to be distraught when it occurs in their realm. Conquering conflict then seems to be the conflict itself. Whether the conflict is spiritual or militaristic, resolving and conquering it sometimes uses the same tactics. The Art of War and The Wisdom of the Desert are two books that, though their audiences may lean in opposite directions, the theme of conquering conflict is at the heart of each book.
Resolving conflict successfully can be done in many different ways. At times it may be necessary to engage in forceful or violent methods, other times more subtle means can be employed. The Art of War by Sun Tzu gives instructions on waging a successful war, while The Wisdom of the Desert teaches the lesson of “turning the other cheek” when faced with physical opposition. This is not to say however, that the desert monks did not vigorously fight against internal as well as external conflict, for conquering evil was their main purpose in life. One of the main themes in both these books is using strategy in facing conflict. Military commanders know how important planning and executions to winning a battle, not to mention a war. Sun Tzu explained strategy in his book. He states:
The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but a few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat; how much more no calculations at all! (Clavell 1983, 11)
So if the commander is thoroughly able to carry out his plans, he will have beaten the enemy before stepping onto the battlefield. Sun Tzu argued that success was in the hands of the commander since, “the consummate leader cultivates the Moral Law and strictly adheres to method and discipline; thus it is in his power to control success.” (Clavell 1983, 20) Strategy is key to success, not just in war but in any aspect of life.
The monks who lived in lived in the desert felt strategy was important, but used it in an entirely different context. Their strategy was to avoid conflict at all costs and if it did occur, then it should be resolved peacefully. At the same that they advocated peace, the desert fathers also felt the conflict with evil should be dealt with actively. In his book The Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton wrote:
The saints of the desert were enemies of every subtle or gross expedient by which ‘the spiritual man’ contrives to bully those he thinks inferior to himself, thus gratifying his own ego. They had renounced everything that savored of punishment and revenge, however hidden it might be. (Merton 1960, 18)
Patience and charity were the strategies used by these desert Abbot to overcome conflict. One episode in Merton’s book tells of some robbers who came to the home of a monk and wanted to steal all his possessions. The monk replied:
My sons take all you want. So they took everything they could find in the cell and started off. But they left behind a little bag that was hidden in the cell. The elder picked it up and followed after them, crying out: My sons, take this, you forgot it in the cell! Amazed at the patience of the elder, they brought everything back into his cell and did penance, saying: This one is really a man of God! Merton 1960, 59)
There was an elder who had a well-tried novice living with him, and once, when he was annoyed, he drove the novice out of the cell. But the novice sat down outside and waited for the elder. The elder, opening the door, found him there, and did penance before him, saying: You are my Father, because of your patience and humility have overcome the weakness of my soul. Come back in; you can be the elder and the Father, I will be the youth and the novice: for by your good work you have surpassed my old age. (Merton 1960, 59)
In both of these episodes, humility and patience are the tools for resolving conflict. This is much unlike Sun Tzu’s strategies which use force to conquer the opposition. In another sense however, both types of strategies have wisdom in their concepts. By planning, a leader can conquer the enemy and by submission a person can save himself from opposition.
Discipline is also a major theme in each of these books. The desert monks were disciplined in their lifestyle just as the war leaders and their soldiers were disciplined in their training. While the monks lived in solitude, the soldiers lived in tightly knitted units. Sun Tzu wrote, “If, in training soldiers, commands are habitually enforced, the army will be well disciplined; if not, its discipline will be bad.” (Clavell 1983, 49) Authority, punishments and rewards all go along with discipline. In another quote Sun Tzu writes:
If soldiers are punished before they have grown attached to you, they will not prove submissive; and, unless submissive, they will be practically useless. If when soldiers have become attached to you, punishments are not enforced, they will still be useless. Therefore soldiers must be treated in the first instance with humanity, but kept under control by means of iron discipline. This is a certain road to victory. (Clavell 1983, 49)
Victory for the war leader lay in the discipline of his troops as well as himself. The leader must train himself completely to plan his moves, and the troops must be trained to obey his every command or all will be lost.
Trust and harmony are also important issues in these two books. Soldiers must be able to trust their commanders just as the novices trusted the abbots of the desert. Harmony in these
relationships were equally important. As Sun Tzu explained:
Without harmony in the state, no military expedition can be undertaken; without harmony in the army, no battle array can be formed. In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign. Having collected an army and concentrated his forces, he must blend and harmonize the different elements thereof before pitching his camp. (Clavell 1983, 30)
Being able to harmonize the soldiers into one working unit relates to the Taoist religion. Taoism puts great emphasis on harmony and balance between people as well as nature. Sun Tzu realized this and made it a central factor in his book. If the soldiers and the generals were in harmony then the commands and the maneuvers would be in harmony, thus allowing a victory over the enemy. The monks of the desert also required harmony as well as humility with their brothers in order to achieve victory over evil. One such example of this harmony and humility is given in this episode:
A Brother asked one of the elders: What is humility? The elder answered him: To do good to those who do evil to you. The brother asked: Supposing a man cannot go that far, what should he do? The elder replied: Let him get away from them and keep his mouth shut. (Merton 1960, 53-54)
Humility is the way to achieve harmony in the abbot’s way of life, for if the desert fathers can be humble and forgive those who do wrong to them, then they will be able to overcome conflict. This way of thinking allows them to overcome the most powerful of evils; Satan. One episode in Merton’s book explains how one man did just this:
Once Abbot Marcarius was on his way home to his cell from the marshes, carrying reeds, and he met the devil with a reaper’s sickle in his path. The devil tried to get him with the sickle, and couldn’t. And he said: I suffer great violence from you, Marcarius, because I cannot overcome you. For see, I do all the things that you do. You fast, and I eat nothing at all. You watch, and I never sleep. But there is one thing alone in which you overcome me. Abbot Marcarius said to him: What is that? Your humility the devil replied, for because of it I cannot overcome you. (Merton 1960, 52-53)
By becoming a completely humble man, this abbot was able to conquer his most powerful enemy of all. The abbots tried to remain calm and peaceful in their lifestyle and resolve conflicts with silence or perhaps a kind word. Their philosophy was to fight against evil with all their might, but at the same time enter into conflict peacefully. While Sun Tzu felt conflict was necessary on all levels, large or small he also felt peace was important. It is interesting to note that James Clavell’s forward in The Art of War states, “’the true object of war is peace.’” (Clavell 1983, 7)
One point that seems to be true in both books is knowing yourself and knowing the enemy. Sun Tzu wrote:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. (Clavell 1983, 18)
The saying is simple, but true for if you know how the enemy will react, then you can beat the enemy at his own game. The monks also felt self-awareness was important. Merton relates one episode of an elder giving advice to conquer evil:
A certain elder said: Apply yourself to silence, have no vain thoughts, and be intent in your meditation, whether you sit at prayer, or whether you rise up to work in the fear of God. If you do these things, you will not have to fear the attacks of the evil ones. (Merton 1960, 47)
The monks approach was to concentrate on bettering themselves through prayer and meditation so that they would be prepared when temptation arose. If they knew themselves, they would be able to conquer evil much more easily.
The control of a large force is the same in principle as the control of a few men it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers. Fighting with a large army
under your command is nowise different from fighting with a small one: It is merely a question of instituting signs and signals. (Clavell 1983 21)
Once again control is central to the efficiency of the army. With a forceful and organized leader, the plans would proceed smoothly and victory would be a much easier task. This also relates to the enemy, for if a commander knew that the enemy was disorganized, then he would always have the advantage in battle. If the leader of an army could strike when his enemy was unprepared, the he would be the winning opponent. All of this directly relates to Sun Tzu’s strategy of making careful calculations to the last detail. Sun Tzu warns commanders:
Unhappy is the fate of the one who tries to win his battles and succeed in his attacks without cultivating the spirit of enterprise, for the result of a waste of time and general stagnation. The enlightened ruler lays his plans well ahead; the good general cultivates his resources. He controls his soldiers by his authority, knits them together by good faith and by rewards makes them serviceable. If faith decays, there will be disruption; if rewards are deficient, commands will not be respected. (Clavell 1983, 76)
Authority, control and faith were all a part of the necessary tools to make victory achievable. These are also concepts of the Taoist religion. Taoism believes strongly in proper authority over people, in order to guide them on their spiritual pathways. Control over the mind, body and spirit are strong principles as well. Taoists believe that if they can control negative impulseses then they may conquer any temptation. It is the same in battle, if the army controls its maneuvers, then they will be the ultimate victors. Faith in one’s self and in the leader is equally important, since trust must be established before an authority figure can command his soldiers.
Although the soldiers must fight the battle, the commanding officer is ultimately responsible for the outcome. His careful planning, strategic moves and ability to issue orders determines the course of action. Sun Tzu gave this instruction to the generals:
Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical. No ruler should put troops into the field merely to gratify his own spleen; no general should fight a battle simply out of pique. Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content. But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never again come into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life. (Clavell 1983, 76)
This statement gives the impression that Sun Tzu was not for war unless absolutely necessary. He makes it clear that when in war, the commander must make his moves extremely carefully and only fight for a cause that must be upheld at all costs. He cautions overzealous generals to remember that once the damage is done, it is permanent.
Once again while The Art of War represents war as a sort of necessary evil, The Wisdom of the Desert gives much kinder solutions to the trials of everyday life. The monks are in a spiritual battle from within themselves and from opposing external forces. These hermits turned away from harsh tactics of beating down the enemy. They are still able to conquer; it is just in an extremely more subtle way. They believed in solitude for escaping the corruption of mankind, but at the same time they were expected not to flee temptation when it occurred. Merton relates on such episode:
The Fathers used to say: If some temptation arises in the place where you dwell in the desert, do not leave that place in time of temptation. For if you leave it then, no matter where you go, you will find the same temptation waiting for you. But be patient until the temptation goes away, lest your departure scandalize others who dwell in the same place, and bring tribulation upon them. (Merton 1960, 73)
The desert hermits were advised to face whatever temptation may come and to make sure their brothers were not inflicted by trouble because of them. At all times the hermits were to think of others rather than themselves and to sacrifice anything they had so that another would be comforted. This is the Christian way of thinking, which informs its followers to love, comfort
and never judge one another, including enemies. One story gives a perfect example of how the brothers should act:
Certain of the brethren said to Abbot Anthony: We would like you to tell us some word, by which we may be saved. Then the elder said: You have heard the scriptures, they ought to be enough for you. But they said: We want to hear something also from you, Father. The elder answered them: You have heard the Lord say: If a man strikes you on the left cheek, show him also the other one. They said to him: This we cannot do. He said to them: If you can’t turn the other cheek, at least take it patiently on one of them. They replied: We can’t do that either. He said: If you cannot even do that, at least do not go striking others more than you would want them to strike you. They said: We cannot do this either. Then the elder said to his disciple: Go cook up some food for these brethren, for they are very weak. Finally he said to them: If you cannot do even this, how can I help you? All I can do is pray. (Merton 1960 75-76)
These monks were expected to give all they could to everyone they might meet, which included those who wronged them. It is part of the Christian philosophy to be kind and charitable to everyone and never to judge a person who has sinned, since all are sinners. Patience and humility are again emphasized as important traits, as Merton quotes one elder saying; “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord and humility with patience.” (Merton 1960, 75) These values are in a ways similar to the strategies of Sun Tzu, who stressed patience in controlling the movements of an army but felt the opposition should be dealt with swiftly and at times severely. The monks wanted peace in their lives, but realized just as Sun Tzu did that a fight would be necessary to accomplish it.
The Art of War and The Wisdom of the Desert both deal with the theme of conflict. Sun Tzu wrote of conflict in a war atmosphere while the monks fought a more spiritual battle on a daily basis. Each however, used certain tactics to overcome any problems or complications. Sun Tzu encouraged detailed planning and strategy as well as harmony within the army to conquer the foe. In the same way, the monks used strategies of their own to overcome temptation and
weakness of the heart and mind which was their own worst enemy. They felt that by prayer, love patience and humility, all conflicts of internal and external nature could be conquered. They, too, needed to know what temptations were at hand in order to succeed in conquering them. Although the way of dealing with conflict is vastly different in each of these books, the theme is true for all mankind. People will always be faced with difficulties and strife, but it is how they are dealt with in the beginning that determines whether the outcome will be positive or negative.
Merton, Thomas. 1960 The Wisdom of the Desert New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation.