[VIEWPOINT]Drowning in the sea of egotismDemistocles and Aristides, who commanded the troops of Athens at the Battle of Marathon, had completely opposite personalities. While the former was considered to be a model of greediness and slyness, the latter was respected as the troops’ most honest and clean leader. Aristides was known for his fairness, leading him to be called “Aristides the just.” The distrustful military leaders of Athens even chose him to stay behind to be in charge of the distribution of war trophies when they withdrew from the battlefield early to rush back home, because they were worried about the the security of their family members. However, Aristides was deserted by the Athenians. The Greek author Plutarch wrote an anecdote about him.
In 482 B.C., on the day when Athenians were to decide whom to ostracize for a 10-year exile, an illiterate farmer approached Aristides, who was standing in front of the balloting place, and politely asked him to write his candidate’s name, Aristides. Embarrassed, Aristides asked the farmer why. The farmer replied, “I am sick and tired of hearing him say that he is just and fair.”
That is right. If someone always insists he is just and fair, who will listen to the words of such a person to the end?
And that way of thinking will certainly lead him to be egotistical and self-righteous. For a man who is obsessed with that kind of thinking, there is no room for a sense of reality.
That is why the people turned a cold shoulder to a leader who behaved in such a way. This is an immutable truth, regardless of whether it was in Greece 2,500 years ago or in Korea now. Even though the leader distributed war trophies evenly without swindling anyone, the citizens knew they should not take the risk of danger that a leader without a sense of reality would bring.
Aristides wrote his name silently and handed it to the farmer. Then he left Athens for a 10-year exile. For his silent acceptance of the ostracism, Aristides was praised as a champion of democracy. But there was another reason that obliged him to leave Athens. At the time, the opinion of Athenians was divided about the danger of a Persian invasion. Demistocles insisted on building 200 warships in preparation for war, but Aristides proclaimed there was no need for such preparations. The two men did not budge an inch. So there was no other solution than to put one of the two out of the country. When the balloting day approached, the clouds of war loomed over Athens, and Aristides was forced to take responsibility for his own words.
Since it is so dangerous to be overcome by an egotism that ignores reality, many sages in all ages have warned against such folly, both in the West and in the East.
Confucius preached that mastering the way to exercise power with flexibility is the ultimate stage of learning.
The immutable truth is the universal law, and the appropriate adoption of the universal law is the right way to exercise power.
We should also be careful not to be overcome by dogmatism, because we are liable to do so if we rely, out of complacency, on one certain truth as a standard to decide everything. In the West, people strived hard not to drown in the sea of self-righteousness by keeping in mind the old Western saying, “All of his geese are swans.”
However, it is ultimately words that throw people off the pier into the sea of self-righteousness. People can change their thoughts at any time, but it is not possible to rescind words once they are spoken. We have seen many people who were at a loss for what to do after their arrogant words boomeranged back at them.
In the Book of Songs, the earliest collection of Chinese poems, there is a verse that reads: “A flaw in a white bead will disappear if it is ground, but a flaw in words will not disappear, even if it is ground.”
It is said that one of the disciples of Confucius pleased him by reciting that line three times a day. Ultimately he got married to a niece of Confucius. Nowadays, there is no way to be an in-law of Confucius, but it is a golden saying that will prevent us from making a slip of the tongue if we keep it in mind.
Actually, I began to write this article intending to offer advice to certain people. But I think I’d better not reveal their names here. Perhaps they are not the only ones who have made mistakes.
I am also asking myself whether I have made similar mistakes in the past. So, I ask them not to look askance at me. My only wish is that this article helps them change their minds.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hoon-beom