There is a proverb: "People cannot be judged by appearance; sea water cannot be measured by pecks. Among the disciples of Confucius, Zai Yu’s eloquence was first rate. However, he was overly rash and fool-hardy. Every time he stepped beyond the bounds of propriety in his speech or actions, he inevitably failed. On the other hand, Zhantai Mieming (whose other name was Zi Yu) was rather homely, and at their first meeting Confucius did not think he had much talent. Later, he gradually discovered that Zi Yu was a righteous gentleman who cautiously abided by the law and did not take shortcuts. And so Confucius exclaimed with a sigh, "A folk proverb says, 'Judge a horse by how it pulls a chariot; judge a scholar by how he lives.' How could we ignore this? If we judged people by appearance alone, we would be wrong about Zi Yu. If we judged people by their speech, we would be wrong about Zai Yu." His meaning was that we should not overlook the advice of that proverb. Before we can determine the caliber of a horse, we have to see how it pulls a chariot. In appraising a scholar, we have to look at his daily living habits. If we only consider a person's appearance, we will be prejudiced against Zi Yu. If we only believed a person's words, we will overestimate Zai Yu. It is then very likely that, because we are unable to employ a person according to his talents, we will lose the person and take a loss ourselves! Therefore, we cannot evaluate a person based on the first impression that we get from his external words and behavior.
Actually, people like Zai Yu, who was intelligent and talented, yet overambitious and careless in behavior, and like Zi Yu, who had great ability hidden beneath a plain exterior, are around us, too. It is just that we easily make the mistake of judging people by their appearance or by their words, thereby failing to appreciate people's talents or else overestimating them.
Looking at it from another angle, if our own looks are plain, we should start by working on our inner cultivation, so that in times of peace we can come out to serve the country well, and in times of chaos we can retreat into seclusion in the countryside. If we are blessed with the appearance of being very capable, we should also increase our inner virtue, and not be like an embroidered pillow that is pretty to look at but not much use. We should also avoid letting our tongues wag carelessly and bring disasters upon ourselves. This is the Middle Way.
If you look at great men and women of the past and present, around the world, you will see the benevolence and humility with which they go about their daily activities. Benevolence and humility are the foundation of the human spirit. All the theories of government and politics boil down to teaching us how to win people's hearts and skillfully guide them. Great leaders and heroes succeed because they are able to win people's hearts. Those who fail, fail because they lose people's hearts. What people value and respect is the practice of genuine virtue, not flowery words, handsome appearance, or great power.
Alexander the Great was a wise king of Greece. One time he visited a city in the south. All the great and minor government officials and all the local men of repute gathered to greet him. Only the great philosopher Diogenes did not go. Thereupon Alexander the Great personally went to pay respects to him. When he arrived at Diogenes' dwelling, he saw him sitting there, basking in the sun. He went up and made a half bow, said that he had long admired the philosopher, and asked, "Is there any matter in which I can offer my help?"
Diogenes said, "Yes. All I ask is that you move to the side a bit so that you don't block the sun!"
Alexander was amused and left without feeling the least bit upset.
One time, after George Washington had assumed office as the first President of the United States, he went out on horseback for a pleasure ride, dressed in civilian clothes. Passing by a river, he noticed a military official directing two soldiers, who were trying to lift a large wooden plank onto the river bank. The bank was very high and the plank was heavy, and the two soldiers could not manage to lift it, though they were exerting their utmost strength. The official kept yelling, "Use more strength! Use more strength!" but did not attempt to help them.
Washington said, "They have already exhausted their strength! Why don't you give them a hand?"
The official glared and said loudly, "I'm a lieutenant, do you know that?"
Washington said, "Sorry, I wasn't aware. If I had known you were a lieutenant, I wouldn't have insulted you!" So saying, he took off his coat and jumped down to help the two soldiers lift the plank onto the river bank.
Eisenhower was another American President. Once, when he was still a military official and was inspecting an army barracks, he discovered the national flag hanging upside down. That was a serious mistake in the army, and the two officers who were in charge of raising and lowering the flag turned pale in fear. But Eisenhower kindly told the two, "Children! You have broken a serious military law. Now I command you to immediately lower the flag, set it upright, and raise it again!" Eisenhower's kindness won him the support of the entire U.S. military, who fondly referred to him by his nickname, Ike. It was not by mere chance that he later won the Presidential election.
The famous French military leader, Napoleon, was rather plain-looking and short in stature. However, he had remarkable resolve and vision. One night during the war, as he was inspecting camp, he came upon a sentry who had fallen asleep while on duty, leaning on his rifle. Napoleon himself stood guard until the sentry woke up. That sentry was so frightened that he got on his knees and begged forgiveness. Napoleon said, "You have toiled so hard in fighting this war with me that you have not had time to sleep. Now that you have awakened, you must do your job well. Don't let the enemy sneak in!" Now, wouldn't you think that sentry would do his best to follow Napoleon's orders from then on?
Another time, after he had become the Emperor of France, he and the beautiful Empress Josephine were strolling in the streets dressed in civilian clothes. A man carrying a heavy load was coming towards them. Napoleon pulled the empress to one side and allowed the man to pass first. The empress asked, "You are the Emperor. Why do you move out of the way for a common civilian?"
Napoleon said, "The emperor and the civilian are both people. He is carrying a heavy burden, while the two of us are emptyhanded. If we let him pass first, it makes his job a lot easier; meanwhile, we have not lost the dignity of our royal position." From then on, the wise Josephine held him in even higher esteem and aided him in achieving great deeds.
These anecdotes illustrate that people are respected for virtues other than their meritorious achievement and titles.