[OUTLOOK]Knowing the value of wisdomPublic distrust and disappointment over politics and political leaders grow deeper by the day. But in these times, when leaders are elected freely by the people, it would be a waste of time to do nothing but idly criticize.
However belatedly, the people and the politicians alike have to reflect upon themselves and admit to their own limitations. We are at a point where we must make a collective effort to learn what we can, and to humbly correct our mistakes.
What are we lacking most right now? Wisdom, first of all; secondly, a national consensus. The combination of the two can only lead us to crisis.
We should remember the leadership of the great King Sejong, who invented the Korean script, caused science and culture to blossom and laid the foundation for 500 years of Joseon Dynasty rule. King Sejong’s leadership was based on bringing together the wisdom and the will of the people. His first priority in state affairs was to create the groundwork for gathering the wisdom of the people.
Gathering wisdom ultimately means bringing wise people together. Courage, conviction and will are important qualities, but they cannot take the place of wisdom.
That is why the explanation offered by Professor Lee Sung-moo suggests a great deal. Professor Lee says that King Sejong, like his father King Taejong, dropped even those people who had made significant contributions to establishing the dynasty, if he thought that they were insufficiently wise.
This indicates that the wise people the country needs can be found if a fair system is used, one that is not burdened by past contributions or connections. The fact that more than 100,000 applicants participated in the state examination at the start of the King Sejong era shows us that the policy of finding talent through an objective state examination, rather than by recognizing past contributions, was an effective one. It provided an opportunity to contribute to the nation’s development by securing the active support of the people.
Jiphyeonjeon, the royal academic institute established by King Sejong, was a good example of his new system for bringing talented people together.
The king chose the wisest and most benevolent scholars, spared no support for their research and discussions, and used their opinions and advice in conducting the nation’s affairs.
It was a great system, one that would work anywhere and anytime. Power that keeps the nation’s wisest people at arm’s length, rather than honoring them, will only find itself in a bog of ignorance in the end.
But a system like Jiphyeonjeon presupposes an elite-centered national administration. Therefore, the problem of how to make this work in an age of democratic populism is one that needs to be dealt with wisely.
No one can deny that an elite is necessary if a highly developed country is to be successfully managed. The problem is that standards of equality and fairness can easily become confused in the process of selecting and nurturing such elites.
If the people begin to doubt the fairness of the process by which the elite is chosen, it stimulates an anti-elitist egalitarianism, and people come to have little regard for wisdom or for wise people.
So it is much more desirable to rely on a systematic and fair apppointment process than to depend on the random judgment of a person in power.
Not only did King Sejong systemize the appointment of elites with the state examination system, he made sure that the elite would not fall into the trap of self-righteousness by creating a decision-making process that sought out public opinion, by way of deliberations and competitions.
As Professor Park Hyun-mo has pointed out, important issues of the Sejong era, including diplomatic issues, were decided only after a thorough discussion process, one that took into account the opinion of all related authorities, based on the expertise of the Jiphyeonjeon scholars.
This system, which required discussion and the consideration of opinions on all sides of an idea or policy, reflected the idea that there is no such thing as a monopoly on wisdom.
Indeed, to ensure that the king himself did not drift into self-righteousness and unilateral thinking, he organized government administration around the prime minister. His decision to keep the wise prime minister Hwang-hi in place for a long time is suggestive, when one thinks about how our current system might be reformed.
For some time, it has been usual to hear the word “wisdom” in Korean political discussions. If a culture based on achieving wisdom through discussion should disappear altogether, the political climate will be truly barren and divided.
It is a relief that the Sejong National Management Research Center has finally been opened within the Academy of Korean Studies, and I hope that both the leaders of our society and the people themselves will have the wisdom to learn from King Sejong.
* The writer, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hong-koo