Guy Debord's 1988 essay “Comments on The Society of the Spectacle opens with this epigram from Sun Tzu's The Art of War:

However critical the situation and circumstances in which you find yourself, despair of nothing; it is on the occasions in which everything is to be feared that it is necessary to fear nothing; it is when one is surrounded by all the dangers that it is not necessary to dread any; it is when one is without resources that it is necessary to count on all of them; it is when one is surprised that it is necessary to surprise the enemy himself.

There is a footnote on that page that reads as follows:

Guy Debord's epigraph is taken from the first European translation of The Art of War, by the Jesuit JJ.L. Amiot (1782). The best available English translation, by Samuel B. Griffith (Oxford 1963), does not include this passage. [Malcolm Imrie] And so we have translated directly from Debord's French.

However, I have not been able to find any passage in my modern translation (Lionel Giles) that appears similar to the one quoted by Debord.

What is the contemporary translation of the line that Debord used in the epigram to his essay? Or was it completely invented for the first European translation by JJ.L. Amiot?

1 Answer 1


Debord’s pseudonymous translator made minor mistakes as to the date of the original translation, which was 1772 (not 1782), and the name of the translator, which was J. J. M. Amiot (not J. J. L.). Here’s Amiot’s translation:

Quelque critiques que puissent être la situation & les circonstances où vous vous trouvez, ne désespérez de rien; c’est dans les occasions où tout est à craindre, qu’il ne faut rien craindre; c’est lorsqu’on est environné de tous les dangers, qu’il n’en faut redouter aucun; c’est lorsqu’on est sans aucune ressource, qu’il faut compter sur toutes; c’est lorsqu’on est surpris, qu’il faut surprendre l’ennemi lui-même.

Sun-tse (5th century BCE). ‘Les XIII Articles sur l’Art Militaire’. Translated by Jean Joseph Marie Amiot (1772). Art militaire des chinois, pp. 134–135. Paris: Didot l'Aine.

This is from article XI ‘Des neuf sortes de terreins’ and corresponds to the following paragraph in Giles’ translation:

Soldiers when in desperate straits lose the sense of fear. If there is no place of refuge, they will stand firm. If they are in hostile country, they will show a stubborn front. If there is no help for it, they will fight hard.

Sun Tzu (5th century BCE). The Art of War XI.24. Translated by Lionel Giles (1910). Project Gutenberg.

Note that it is not the case that “the best available English translation, by Samuel B. Griffith (Oxford 1963), does not include this passage” as claimed by Debord’s translator. This mistake is understandable, since Amiot’s translation is so free. Griffith’s version of the passage is as follows:

In a desperate situation they fear nothing; when there is no way out they stand firm. Deep in a hostile land they are bound together, and there, where there is no alternative, they will engage the enemy in hand to hand combat.

Sun Tzu (5th century BCE). Art of War XI.30. Translated by Samuel B. Griffith (1963). Oxford: Clarendon.

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