If you trust photographs, Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the now failed medical-equipment start-up, Theranos, is drop-dead gorgeous. Her pale-blue eyes, Hollywood-worthy features, perfect complexion highlighted by Steve Jobs-style black turtlenecks . . . What’s the old expression? She’s fetching! She’s also about to go on trial for fraud and, if convicted, could receive up to 20 years in jail. One thinks of the phrase “Beauty is as beauty does.” If you’ve read my last week’s blog, you’ll remember the four possibilities with regard to the spiritual-religious dichotomy. Well, I find four similar possibilities concerning beauty. One can be outwardly gorgeous but inwardly blighted; outwardly homely but inwardly angelic; unsightly inside and out; and, in the best of all worlds, outwardly beautiful matched by one’s beauty within. Plato claims that his beloved teacher, Socrates, was unprepossessing in appearance, to say the least, but inside he was all beauty. My favorite professor and later advisor at Yale was like that too. We’ll leave it to the jury to decide concerning Ms. Holmes...
So, what’s this big build-up have to do with the famous Chinese philosopher who died two-and-a-half millennia ago? Actually, a lot. Confucian ethics is based on the concept of the Rectification of Names, in Mandarin zhengming. According to Wikipedia, that wonderfully helpful source of knowledge if not wisdom, the Rectification of Names means that "things in actual fact should be made to accord with the implications attached to them by names, the prerequisites for correct living and even efficient government being that all classes of society should accord to what they ought to be.” The usual example is the king. A king should live up to being a just, equitable, and effective ruler of his people. Put another way, such names are really job descriptions, not just for kings, but queens, fathers, mothers, first second, and third brothers or sisters, teachers, priests—the list goes on. Once, one of the Master’s cleverest disciples asked him, “Master, what should I do if my father commands me to disobey the moral law?” Confucius taught that children should strictly obey their parents but that everyone was also required to follow the general code of ethics in matters of honesty, non-violence, accountability, etc. The clever student was sure he’d trapped the old man. But not so fast! “You should disobey,” Confucius responded. “But master,” the uppity disciple countered, “you said we must always obey our father.” Confucius sighed: “Don’t you understand that in that command, the person who gave it was no longer your father!” The name as job description!
Our saying that beauty is as beauty does makes the same point. So does the Javanese principle that in a piece of batiked material, each side of which is waxed and dyed independently, the design on one side must match the design on the other. In this regard, may our outer good qualities be matched by good qualities within. Otherwise, per Confucius, we should go “rectify the name.”
Now you know why this man is smiling!