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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.

The paragraph above is taken from The Art of War. I have a hard time understanding what "to remain in ignorance..., is the height of inhumanity" means.

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‘Height’ here means ‘apotheosis’ or ‘ultimate level’: the height of inhumanity is the very farthest you can go in inhumanity—it is impossible to be more inhumane than this. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 7 at 20:41
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Although it's actually less common, I think depths of inhumanity is often more appropriate. Not that it would work as an exact replacement here, because you can normally only do things like plumb or descend to those depths. We never say anything is the depths of [something bad]. –  FumbleFingers Jan 7 at 22:43

4 Answers 4

up vote 25 down vote accepted

The height of inhumanity means the in the most inhumane manner or the most extremely cruel, brutal behavior, (a crime against humanity)

Sun Tzu's argument is: war always brings frightful misery and vast expenditure of blood and treasure. A war may drag on for years unless you are kept informed of the enemy's condition, and are ready to strike at the right moment. The only way to get this information is to employ spies, and it is impossible to obtain trustworthy spies unless they are properly paid for their services. But it is surely false economy to grudge a comparatively trifling amount for this purpose, when every day that the war lasts eats up an incalculably greater sum. This grievous burden falls on the shoulders of the poor, (referred to earlier as "men lacking at the plough-tail") and hence Sun Tzu concludes that to neglect the use of spies is nothing less than a crime against humanity.

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Thanks. By the way, would you mind explaining the meaning of "There is nothing as eloquent as a rattlesnake's tail." as well :) –  Terry Li Jan 7 at 21:03
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A rattlesnake is a poisonous snake with scales at the end of it's tail modified to form a rattle. When the snake is threatened, and about to attack, it shakes it's tail (it rattles) as a warning. Eloquent speech is powerful, persuasive, expressive and effective. So is the rattle of a rattlesnake - no one who hears it doesn't know, very effectively, that there is a great danger that he will be bitten by a poisonous snake. :) –  medica Jan 7 at 21:15
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Great to pick up a new proverb. Thanks Susan. –  Terry Li Jan 7 at 21:18

Sun-Tzu (who did not write in English) is speaking of spending money to save lives in your army; it being inhumane to allow your troops to die if you could simply bribe a few enemy soldiers to tell you of their positions, movements and/or routine.

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Ditto Susan and Janus, let me just add a possible clarification: "the height of" is a common idiom meaning the extreme case of something. It can be positive or negative. "He displayed the height of ignorance when he made that absurd remark." "Sally always demonstrates the height of fashion and style." Etc.

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I also read The Art of War few months ago. While finding it pretty interesting, keep in mind we are reading a translated text which is obviously filtered by the translator. As FumbleFingers commented to your question and Elliott pointed out in his reply, there are other possible translations which may slightly change the meaning of a paragraph. I am pretty sure my translation was a bit different though my copy was in Italian and I do not have it right here with me to double-check.

To finally answer your question, the meaning of "height of inhumanity" has been already explain by other answers: a commander should value the life of his soldiers more than money, not being so he is committing the worst crime against humanit

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