[TODAY]The president needs a bell-ringerKing Milinda of Sagala, a wealthy commercial city in ancient India, was the descendant of one of Alexander the Great’s generals who died during a battle in Babylonia. King Milinda prided himself in being the greatest intellectual of the time and enjoyed debating, so he would meet renowned Hindu priests to ask philosophical questions. But usually disappointed with their answers, the king lamented, “India is empty! India is empty like a husk of grain!”
Then King Milinda heard about Nagasena, a monk skilled in argument, fluent in speech and eloquent in explaining right and wrong. So he visited the monk.
“Debate with me,” Milinda said.
“If you are here to debate as a wise man, I will. If you are here to debate as a prince, I will not,” Nagasena replied.
“How does a wise man debate?”
“A debate with a wise man consists of explanations and criticisms and the wise man does not get angry because of them.”
“And how does a prince debate?”
“A prince insists on only one thing when he debates and punishes those who don’t agree with him.”
Milinda invited Nagasena to his palace and held a debate with him as equals. Moved by the monk’s explanations of Buddha’s teachings, he gave up his throne to become a monk and in time gained the status of an arhat, or saint. The record of that debate, entitled Milindapanha, or Questions of King Milinda, played an important role in the development of ancient Buddhism.
President Roh Moo-hyun, who was known as a master debater, often got excited during his debate with rank-and-file prosecutors last Sunday. There were several close-ups during the televised debate that made the people hold their breath.
President Roh said that he felt offended when one prosecutor asked him not to “oppress them with debate.” Mr. Roh replied, “I am not someone who tries to oppress people with clever words.”
Several times during the debate, Mr. Roh said that he was offended. “So, I see you want to play rough,” he said at one point. He took it as sarcasm when the prosecutors used the expression, “government of public participation” and when a participant mentioned the incident involving his elder brother and job-seekers, he exclaimed, “How dare you try to drag the president down by mentioning his brother in this situation?”
There is a 2,300 year gap between this 21st century president of Korea and King Milinda of India in the second century B.C. But then or now, no real debate can be held if kings and intellectuals, presidents and prosecutors cannot agree on the ground rules applicable to both sides of a debate.
The president promised to debate the rank-and-file at the prosecution again if necessary. Given Mr. Roh’s love of debating, that was not unexpected, but any future debates would probably also be heated and emotionally-charged. Mr. Roh has a blunt personality that interprets what others say in his own manner and counterattacks by simplifying their words. What would happen should judges, laborers, college students or housewives ask to debate the president? Would Mr. Roh take them all on?
President Roh seems to have something in common with Gaius Gracchus, the flamboyant and plain-speaking reformist politician in the ancient Roman republic. Elected tribune of the plebeians, he devoted his life to agrarian reform and social welfare plans for the poor. An impulsive and passionate speaker, he would often get carried away when giving speeches. It is recorded that Gaius Gracchus would have his intelligent Greek slave Likinius stand behind him during speeches to ring a bell if he got carried away. Hearing the bell, Gaius would regain his composure.
The Latin word for speech, oratio, is from the same word family as the word for reason, ratio. Impelled by the aggressive comments of certain prosecutors, the president answered with oratio but without ratio. If he intends to hold more debates in the future, he should get the rules straight and upgrade his speech a bit as befits a president. Perhaps he could take a tip from Gaius Gracchus and have someone stand behind him to ring a bell.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie