V. Excel & Exalt

~ Leonidas at Thermopylae by Jacques-Louis David

The clever soldier not only wins but also excels in winning with ease[1]. His victory brings neither reputation for wisdom or credit for courage. He wins his battles by making no mistakes. The spirit of combat is in the mind of the soldier 24 hours a day[2]. When he steps out of the door of his house, he is prepared to see the enemy. He is always on the battlefield; ever prepared and ever ready for combat.

There is an old story told by Aesop of the ants and the grasshopper. It was a cold winter’s night and the ants began dragging out the grain that they had stored during the summer. A half-dead grasshopper passed by the ants in their labor and begged for food. When asked by the ants what he was doing last summer, he replied that he was singing all day long. In response, the ants laughed as they shut their storehouse and told the grasshopper to try dancing all winter.

Life is strife. From the moment we are born, our bodies work hard to replace dying cells every day. Our immune system combats various diseases that threaten to harm us. To put bread on our tables, we work and toil our lives away. In effect, we sacrifice the time of youth for survival in old age. Those that are born with a silver spoon in their mouth do not realize that the luxuries that they have become so accustomed to are but the fruits of the hard work of others. They know not that it is through these hardships that we learn and grow by adapting to the changes and challenges around us to emerge as stronger men.

According to a famous definition, life is the continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations[3]. All life evolves according to the principles of natural selection. The organisms that are successful in adapting to the environment in which they live would improve their ability to survive and reproduce. This ensures that the offspring of the surviving organisms with such adapted variants would leave more descendants than those lacking it. Natural selection explains not only the reason for survival for some species but also the extinction of others.

The implications of natural selection on human beings are clear. With challenges come responses to overcome them[4]. Through these responses, we increase the chances of our survival and success. Success is dependant on effort[5]. It is not sufficient that we adapt to challenges as they come but also to anticipate future challenges and prepare for them. Hence, the ideal way of life should not be a life of leisure but a meritocratic lifestyle. And the philosophy behind a meritocracy is simple; superior productivity and performance from intelligence and effort. But although the philosophy of meritocracy is simple, its practice is not.

The Spartans of old found a solution to fostering a society of soldiers governed by merit. They had a way of life and a system of training that ensured that their young were prepared both mentally and physically at all times. Agoge was the name of this distinctive Spartan system of upbringing and training that ensured that young men of Sparta were brought up in an austere lifestyle, full of hardships, with the purpose to develop smart obedience, perseverance under stress, self-control and moderation.

Even the laws of Sparta were not written down and Spartan youth were instructed to memorize them by heart to embed these principles into their daily life[6]. Such training ensured that only the physically strong, intellectually capable and deceptively cunning could survive even within their society. This guaranteed for a long period of time the hegemony of Sparta in Ancient Greece. It was not just their physical prowess, military tactics or intellect that enabled them to be masters of Greece but their disciplined lifestyle of hard work and diligence.

Similarly, such principles should be adopted in the lifestyles of those that would seek to practice meritocracy. One should abstain from drinking hard liquor and all other similarly unproductive habits. It is commonly said that Bacchus has drowned more men than Neptune[7]. How true this is when men often drown themselves in ecstasy and delusion, seeing not the truth but a mirage of their hearts’ desire. They seek not to correct the problems that they see in the world but to escape them momentarily in their mirth and madness.

The life of the ideal man is governed by merit. Of the three remarkable rulers who gave China over a century of prosperity and peace, two had similar lifestyles. Emperor Kangxi followed a rigid and disciplined routine throughout his reign. He rose from slumber at 5 a.m., washed himself and drank tea before proceeding to a small temple to pray and contemplate. He then read extracts from the classics, histories and other subjects before carrying out his official duties and business as emperor. At 2p.m., he relaxed with reading, calligraphy, painting, or hunting. And in the evening, he returned to deal with official paperwork until late at night.

His grandson, Emperor Qianlong, adopted a similar disciplined lifestyle. He rose at 6 a.m., and ate at 8 a.m., with each meal lasting not more than 15 minutes. In the morning, he dealt with official business of the court. In the afternoon, he read, painted or wrote verse. He followed the same lifestyle irrespective of where he was and retired at age 60 so as not to reign longer than Kangxi. There was no room for idleness in the lives of these two men. Hard work for them was as natural as eating and sleeping. They led by example, being the living embodiment of the ideals that they sought to see in their subjects.

Both Kangxi and Qianlong were not only men of merit. They both sought to encourage of society of meritocracy. In his Valedictory Edict, 20 December 1722, Kangxi stated, “be kind to men from afar and keep the able ones near, nourish the people, think of profit of all as being the real profit and the mind of the whole country as being the real mind, protect the state before danger comes and govern well before there is any disturbance, be always diligent and always careful.

The examples of these two emperors are clear. The way to continuously improve is by adopting a meritocratic lifestyle that help to nurture and nourish intellectual development in order to better adapt to the changing environment. A life of leisure is dangerous as it breeds incompetence, idleness, ignorance and decadence. Therefore, seek to eliminate the bad habits in your lifestyle while adopting the good habits in the lifestyle of others. Although old habits die hard, and habit is a second nature[8], remember that it is the first step that is the hardest. Thus the old saying, “well begun is half done[9].”


[1] Attributed to Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

[2] Adapted from the modern translation of Bushido Shoshinshu by Taira Shigesuke.

[3] Definition attributed to Herbert Spenser’s Principles of Biology.

[4] See The Study of History by Arnold Toynbee.

[5] A quotation from Sophocles.

[6] It was alleged that its legendary law-giver, Lycurgus, had even forbidden the writing down of its laws.

[7] Bacchus is the god of wine, Neptune the god of sea.

[8] A quotation from Cicero’s De finibus (1st century BC).

[9] A very old saying, cited by Plato and Horace among others.


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