This is one of my favorite quotes.* I first heard it in the anime Kill la Kill, which is itself one of my favorites, and ever since, it’s stuck with me. Satsuki Kiryuin says it while putting on her kamui, Junketsu, (don’t worry, this makes sense in context) criticizing the watching butlers who warn her against such a rash action.
It reminds me of the very beginning of the Zhuangzi.
In the Northern Ocean there is a fish, the name of which is Kun – I do not know how many li in size. It changes into a bird with the name of Peng, the back of which is (also) – I do not know how many li in extent. When this bird rouses itself and flies, its wings are like clouds all round the sky. When the sea is moved (so as to bear it along), it prepares to remove to the Southern Ocean. The Southern Ocean is the Pool of Heaven.
There is the (book called) Qi Xie, a record of marvels. We have in it these words: ‘When the peng is removing to the Southern Ocean it flaps (its wings) on the water for 3000 li. Then it ascends on a whirlwind 90,000 li, and it rests only at the end of six months.’ (But similar to this is the movement of the breezes which we call) the horses of the fields, of the dust (which quivers in the sunbeams), and of living things as they are blown against one another by the air. Is its azure the proper colour of the sky? Or is it occasioned by its distance and illimitable extent? If one were looking down (from above), the very same appearance would just meet his view.
And moreover, (to speak of) the accumulation of water; if it be not great, it will not have strength to support a large boat. Upset a cup of water in a cavity, and a straw will float on it as if it were a boat. Place a cup in it, and it will stick fast; the water is shallow and the boat is large. (So it is with) the accumulation of wind; if it be not great, it will not have strength to support great wings. Therefore (the peng ascended to) the height of 90,000 li, and there was such a mass of wind beneath it; thenceforth the accumulation of wind was sufficient. As it seemed to bear the blue sky on its back, and there was nothing to obstruct or arrest its course, it could pursue its way to the South.
A cicada and a little dove laughed at it, saying, ‘We make an effort and fly towards an elm or sapanwood tree; and sometimes before we reach it, we can do no more but drop to the ground. Of what use is it for this (creature) to rise 90,000 li, and make for the South?’ He who goes to the grassy suburbs, returning to the third meal (of the day), will have his belly as full as when he set out; he who goes to a distance of 100 li will have to pound his grain where he stops for the night; he who goes a thousand li, will have to carry with him provisions for three months. What should these two small creatures know about the matter? The knowledge of that which is small does not reach to that which is great; (the experience of) a few years does not reach to that of many. How do we know that it is so? The mushroom of a morning does not know (what takes place between) the beginning and end of a month; the short-lived cicada does not know (what takes place between) the spring and autumn. These are instances of a short term of life. In the south of Chu there is the (tree) called Ming-ling, whose spring is 500 years, and its autumn the same; in high antiquity there was that called Da-chun, whose spring was 8000 years, and its autumn the same. And Peng Zu is the one man renowned to the present day for his length of life: if all men were (to wish) to match him, would they not be miserable?
There’s also a similar Japanese proverb.
How can a sparrow understand the aspirations of a phoenix? Only a hero can understand a hero.
In all three cases, though, the gist remains the same: the rabble cannot comprehend greatness. I think of these as encouraging. It can be difficult to feel as though no one understands you, but sayings like this can give you hope. I’m not usually a fan of such self-congratulatory stuff, though, or at least, I try not to be, but for whatever reason, I like this sentiment.
Perhaps it ties into my general admiration for great men and women who do what needs to be done, whatever anyone else thinks or says. It reminds me a bit of one of my favorite anecdotes, about Scipio Africanus.
Scipio Africanus, together with his brother, Lucius Cornelius Scipio, were sent by Rome against King Antiochus, and defeated him at the Battle of Magnesia. Upon his return, he was called upon by tribunes to render an account of the booty taken in the war.
He reached into his toga and pulled out his account book. “Here is the account of all the money and booty taken. I have brought it to be publicly read and deposited in the treasury, but, senators, I will now not do this nor thusly degrade myself. I will not render an account of four million sesterces to a treasury which I have personally enriched by two hundred million sesterces. When I returned from Africa, I brought back nothing but my cognomen. I was not made greedy by Punic wealth nor by brother by Asian, but each of us has more begrudgers than money.”
I just love that absolute confidence that owes nothing to others. He knows that he didn’t embezzle any booty, and he sees no reason to prove that to those who, unable to match his deeds, satisfy themselves with trying to tear him down to their level, instead. We see the same confidence in the above quotes. Those who are truly great are beyond normal human comprehension. Ordinary folks may scoff, and ask, “Why does he do such things?” But they do so out of ignorance, not wisdom.
Ask not the sparrow how the eagle soars, for the petty know nothing of greatness.