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Fight (Book) Club

Fight (Book) Club Political philosophers’ punches: on Plato and Machiavelli vs. Sun Tzu

The war in Ukraine is the starting point for the creation of a new global structure. The process might last several decades. For the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West is truly faced with a united and purposeful adversary whose endgame is yet to be determined.

In order to know how the future world will look, it is helpful to have some ideological fountainhead in order to be able to understand the ideological structures of the current major players. The existing philosophical backbones will be used to define new relationships on the global stage.

For the purpose of our investigation, we will focus on the European Union and China, and we will investigate their philosophical foundations through the prisms of three books. In the case of the EU, the books will be Plato’s Republic and Niccolò Machiavelli’s Prince. In the case of China, it will be Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Obviously, I am sure there are many other important books which have had significant cultural influence in EU and China, but considering the size of the article and the main points the article wishes to convey, these three books will suffice. 

On the EU 

The philosophy of politics in the EU can be divided into two levels. The first level is the strategic one and the second is the tactical level. The strategic level is represented by Plato’s Republic and this is the level we will investigate first.

Many of the features and flaws from Plato’s Republic can be found in the current existence of the EU. The whole structure of the EU with its Commission, bureaucrats, and EU funds is strongly reminiscent of the structure of the perfect Republic suggested by Plato.

What is interesting is that while the structure has been implemented to a large extent as designed by Plato, the flaws in the Plato’s design have also been implemented. For an in-depth analysis of the Republic’s flaws, one should consult The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl Popper, on whose work this paper relies heavily.

What is the ideal structure of the Republic? The Republic should have a philosopher class that will idle and think about the world. Guardians should take care of the stability of the Republic. The captains of industry should create a strong economy and provide the philosopher and the guardian castes with the necessary funds while plebs should do what they are told to do.

Let’s look at the philosophers and the guardian caste of the Republic. The philosopher caste should idle and think about what must be done. There is no reason for philosophers to have any special education or skill in order to perform their duties. No reason to be an expert in anything. Belonging to the philosopher caste puts one in a position of higher power and authority. Being a member of the caste grants the member the route to power.

Belonging to the caste and doing jobs without any skill or knowledge can easily be seen in the resumes of Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde. Von der Leyen was a minister of Family Affairs and Youth, Labor and Social Affairs, and then of Defense. Clearly, all related fields which are connected to her education as a medical doctor. Christine Lagarde has a Law degree and was a minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, minister for Economy, Finance, and Industry, Head of IMF, and head of ECB. Therefore, she is knowledgeable about not just one particular segment of applied economics, but all of them.

The two provided examples of top people just switching jobs without any real experience or education are standard in the EU hierarchy. While such behavior and human resource management would be unthinkable in the corporate world (yet, some might invoke few notable exceptions), it is thinkable in the political world. Given that the two leaders are members of the philosopher caste, being in position without any real knowledge and experience is their privilege.

Although these two are the most prominent examples of the EU’s ruling philosopher class, there are many other examples of people just switching jobs and remaining in power without any formal education or experience in the field. The explanation for this destructive behavior given by the rest of the politicians is simple: it is a political position, hence only a politician should be in a political position. If there is a formal need for experts, then the politician can use the knowledge of those experts. How a person who is not an expert is going to judge the quality of experts (s)he is employing has never been answered by any politician.

Following Plato’s prescriptions, the Republic should also have its guardians. Those are clearly EU bureaucrats which are unknown, highly paid, and have a duty to protect the Republic from anyone who might destabilize the behemoth structure of the EU stability.

The EU bureaucracy is just like any other: the main objective of any living organism is to grow and protect itself. We are seeing a constant increase in the number of employees in the EU Commission and a constant need for more control and regulation over the rest of the EU. Ever-increasing and all-encompassing regulation.

The main fault here is the fact the EU has actually followed the suggestions from Plato to the letter in the most philosophical of all aspects of the Republic and that starts with the idea of EU’s unity and purity. Once the idea was implemented, it became less and less pure and in time it could easily turn into autocracy, and this is exactly what is happening to the EU.

Popper predicted all of this and that is the reason why Popper was so adamant that Plato’s Republic is a horrible form of government and that it truly represents a closed society. Popper warned that the caste system in the long run is essentially anti-humanistic and contrary to the basic needs and desires of human beings: freedom to choose and pursue happiness.

Following the proposition that the original idea of the EU was corrupted over time, we can move onto the tactical execution of the EU politics which show how a great idea was corrupted when it came to implementation. At the tactical level, the political machinations in the EU are in fact the implementation of tactics suggested by Niccolò Machiavelli in his book, The Prince. Here are some particularly important quotable thoughts from The Prince:


Everyone can see what you say, but few can see what you are.”

People trust their eyes not their ears.”

The Prince must necessarily learn not to be good.”


The first quote is the foundation for the one and only value of EU politics: hypocrisy. If the EU institutions can maintain appearances, everything will be fine. Considering the author’s background in economics, the examples of hypocrisy will be mainly from the economic sphere:

- Austerity is the best policy in case of Greece, but not in the case of Germany. When Greece was in trouble, austerity was the best policy and only through fiscal discipline could the country be repaired, we were told. But once Germany had a problem with its cheap energy from Russia, then fiscal expansion was the best way to solve problems.

- Since 1998, France has had only two years (2000 and 2001) with debt/GDP ratio of under 60% according to Eurostat, although Maastricht rules clearly demand public debt to be under 60% of GDP.

- Germany nationalized Uniper however all EU Eastern countries in the 1990s were “suggested” to privatize their telecoms and banks since foreign private ownership is so much more efficient than the domestic national ownership.

In the case of people trusting their eyes not their ears, the best example is the energy policy after the start of the war in Ukraine. One of the first calls for action was to stop using Russia’s energy. However, once Russia stopped delivering gas, the EU politicians proclaimed that Putin is using energy as a weapon. In fact, all Putin was doing was executing the proposed EU policy: no energy from Russia. So, by executing the political demands of the EU Commission, Putin became the bad guy twice: when Russia sold energy and when Russia did not sell its energy. Another example of ultimate hypocrisy is the trade with Russia after the sanctions were imposed. The trade actually went up. Based on data from Bruegel, the trade with Russia in 2022 was higher than trade with Russia in 2019 (though the explanation may be that Russia sold less but more expensive – read energy – goods).

The last quote from Machiavelli in our example (“The Prince must necessarily learn not to be good”) is the most tragic of them all. For a ruler to maintain their rule, according to Machiavelli, the ruler has to stop being good. Since princely power is an objective, the only purpose of the EU Commission is to increase its power. If this is the main objective, then the acts are performed or policies implemented have to be focused on maintaining the power of the EU Commission, not on the benefit of the people. If those two align, that is OK, but if they do not, then power comes first. How else can we explain the killing of cows in the Netherlands when food prices are rising by double digits? How else can we take the constant demands that people should “make sacrifices” for the EU values while the benefits of the EU policies are small and seldom? And in the end, if there are bad policies it is the people’s fault and the only way to improve on bad policies is to have more government regulation.

It is never the philosopher’s fault. Even if the policies were bad, they did not succeed because of the people. And constant increase in regulation and need for more government oversight is the only political constant in the EU. It is a fundamentally tautological proposition: the bad polices are the result of the government, but the only way to solve those bad policies is to have more government.


On China


Bo Jang, in his book, The Ugly Chinaman, emphasizes the engrossing influence of The Art of War on Chinese society. We shall use this observation and study the tenets of the foreign policy of China from Sun Tzu’s perspective.

The modern emphasis from The Art of War is exceptionally negative: treachery, deception. The most often used quote is that “all war is based on deception” and, since all relationships are struggle, then all relationships must be based on deception, lies, treachery. However, if one reads closer the actual text of Sun Tzu’s work, not just meme quotes, it becomes clear that it is, in fact, an anti-war book. The Art of War spends a lot of time warning about the cost and dangers of war, not on possible benefits. From the start, it is clearly stated that:


The art of war is of vital importance to the State.

It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.


The very first two verses of the text clearly point out how seriously war should be taken. Later in the text, there are several instances when it is clearly stated how expensive waging war is and how much it costs the country to wage war. Two verses from Part II, Waging War, point this out:


The skillful soldier does not raise a second levy, neither are his supply-wagons loaded more than twice.

With this loss of substance and exhaustion of strength, the homes of the people will be stripped bare, and three-tenths of their income will be dissipated; while government expenses for broken chariots, worn-out horses, breast-plates and helmets, bows and arrows, spears and shields, protective mantles, draught-oxen and heavy wagons, will amount to four-tenths of its total revenue.


From the text, it is clear that war is a serious affair. The execution of war requires enormous expenses. The parts about treachery and deception are used in relation to the enemy. Not in relation to the personal relationships and most certainly not as examples of values and virtues. The Art of War is a macro state book. Not a micro, personal relationships book.

We are now going to move into the analysis of how The Art of War is used in foreign global relations. Here we will focus on the deception of the enemy and look at the following quote:


Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.


When Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, China shot rockets over the island so that everyone could see them. That is straight from the playbook “when far away, we must make him believe we are near”.

The focus on planning and resources is of particular interest to us. If we assume The Art of War to be the Chinese equivalent of The Republic, we can see stark differences in the approach to government and to the treatment of the people.

The Art of War is focused on people and, since people are the ones producing all other resources, the people are the ultimate scarce resource (though some might object pointing to the notorious Chinese lax view on casualties, epic during Mao’s reign, maybe because of the relative abundance and… disposability in their case). Therefore, any move should be analyzed for its long-term effects on the wealth of nation. This is most explicitly stated in part XIII, The use of spies (non-italicized emphasis added):


“Raising a host of a hundred thousand men and marching them great distances entails heavy loss on the people and a drain on the resources of the State. The daily expenditure will amount to a thousand ounces of silver. There will be commotion at home and abroad, and men will drop down exhausted on the highways. As many as seven hundred thousand families will be impeded in their labor.

Hostile armies may face each other for years, striving for the victory which is decided in a single day. This being so, to remain in ignorance of the enemy’s condition simply because one grudges the outlay of a hundred ounces of silver in honors and emoluments, is the height of inhumanity.”


What is often mistaken is the focus on the importance of treachery for the overall execution of strategy and deception. Chinese global political strategy can be easily read from Sun Tzu and we will contrast Chinese’s global strategy from Sun Tzu with the EU one based on Plato and Machiavelli.


Plato and Machiavelli vs. Sun Tzu: who will win?


The quintessential question is how to view the current state of the world within the proposed framework? In the beginning of the article, we have stated the war in Ukraine is just one of the moves towards new global realignment. We are now going to move the analysis of the war in Ukraine using the two frameworks. Plato and Machiavelli, on one side, and Sun Tzu, on the other.

Using The Art of War, we can understand the levels of warfare. From Part III, Attack by Stratagem, comes the following text: 

Thus, the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities. 

The first level of war is to attack the overall strategy of the enemy and the second level of war is to attack the enemy alliances. Both of these have occurred with the war in Ukraine.

Mao Zedong once said: “our strengths are our weaknesses, and our weaknesses are our strengths”. So, if someone were to use this dictum on the EU – read Germany –, how would one go about it? The German economy had two main strengths behind it: cheap Russian energy and access to relatively cheap labor, as pointedly noted also by Joseph Stiglitz in his book, The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe. How does one turn those strengths into weaknesses? Well, shut off cheap Russian energy and cause inflation to increase the price of labor. Again, a quote from Sun Tzu’s Part VII, Maneuvering: 

To be near the goal while the enemy is still far from it, to wait at ease while the enemy is toiling and struggling, to be well-fed while the enemy is famished: this is the art of husbanding one’s strength.” 

This is exactly what we are seeing in the EU. While inflation in the EU is rising, the standard of living is falling and the economy is in stagflation, what is happening to the Chinese economy? It is growing, the Covid-19 restrictions are being removed and inflation is falling. While the EU is toiling and struggling, the Chinese economy is well-fed.

If we take a long view and look at the war in Ukraine as a first in many moves for the creation of a new geopolitical map, then we can use this assumption for further analysis. If the Ukraine war will have a long-term political significance, then what we are seeing is the true clash of civilizations. It is the main event: Plato and Machiavelli vs. Sun Tzu. Who will win? The answer is obvious for me: Sun Tzu.

The main reason why Sun Tzu will win is not that he has better values, Sun Tzu will win because he proclaims that a ruler should take care of his people. War is bad for people and overall policy should be considered in terms of cost to the people. On the other hand, what does Plato proclaim to the people? That the plebs should be ruled by a superior caste and the cost of policies for the people is irrelevant.

Sun Tzu uses merit for achievement and Machiavelli measures quantity of power as achievement.

Sun Tzu understands the cost of war and that people get lonely. 

Now a soldier’s spirit is keenest in the morning; by noonday it has begun to flag; and in the evening, his mind is bent only on returning to camp. 

On the other side, the EU is forcing people to shut down heating and consume less just because there is some “green transition” which has to be done no matter the cost. Netherlands is killing cows while the prices of food are rising in double digits.

Values are not the policies which politicians force onto people. Values are what bring people together. In a nation like Europe, which has such a rich and turbulent history, threats and violence are never the way. Yet that is exactly what the EU is doing to Hungary or to any other group/country which questions the ruling caste.

The EU has failed to translate its good original values into practice. This idea has degenerated into bureaucratic autocracy and freedom has become a dirty word. This is the reason why Sun Tzu will win, not because he is better. But because the EU has, just like Karl Popper has predicted it would, lost its core values. The original idea of united Europe within the EU has degenerated and those who want to stop the degeneration are not referred to as reformists but are being branded as fascists wanting to install despots.

The ability to think freely and make choices has been a dream of humanity for centuries. For most of the world, this has been achieved in the 20th century. Now we are at the brink of turning backward and going back. What is most disturbing it is being done by an organization founded on liberty and freedom: the European Union. 

Photo source:

[Max Slevogt, Titans Battle (1907), Hannover, Landesmuseum.] 


Bo Yang, The Ugly Chinaman and the Crisis of Chinese Culture (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 1992).

Machiavelli, Niccolo, Vladar (Zagreb: Znanje, 2020).

Platon, Država (Beograd: BIGZ, 1976).

Popper, Karl, The Open Society and its Enemies: The Spell of Plato (Abingdon-on-Thames, Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011).

Stiglitz, Joseph, The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016).

Sun Tzu, The Art of War, (Translated by Lionel Giles).




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