The president’s humanism

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The president’s humanism

“Without care and consideration for man, and without introspection about life, all inventions and systems will turn into a monster.” That is not a remark by a religious leader or a philosopher. It’s a comment made by President Park Geun-hye during a luncheon at the Blue House with the chief editorial writers and commentators of major media companies on July 10.

Stressing the importance of humanism, Park said she will pay special attention to the issue. It was impressive that she used a provocative but simple noun, “monster,” to define the current standing of humanism. Park majored in electronic engineering during her college years but she is well versed in the humanities as well. Her high school days were focused on the humanities, and she participated in literary and drama clubs.

The president published seven books, including a collection of her essays and her autobiography, and is a member of the Korean Writers’ Association. She once wrote poems. But her past is not enough to explain her special interest in the humanities and humanism. It must stem from deep introspection about people and life following the tragedies in her life. It may be an ironic blessing brought about by deep pain.

In between her father’s assassination on Oct. 26, 1979 and the start of her political career in 1997, Park had 18 “lost years,” to use the terminology of political circles. What were they like? After losing both her mother and father in assassinations, Park left the Blue House at the young age of 28. She then experienced repeated betrayals. “It was hard to even breathe,” Park recalled about the time, and she did everything she could to escape from the abyss of despair.

She visited the Buddhist temple that her mother frequented and read the Dhammapada and Diamond Sutra. She studied Catholic doctrine, which she was familiar with from middle school, high school and college. She read Korean classics and Asian philosophies.

Around this time, Park read “A History of Chinese Philosophy” by Feng Youlan, one of the most respected Chinese historians in the 20th century.

Park’s reading is particularly notable because she mediated and internalized the lessons and built her own view toward the world. Her diaries, essays and autobiography display her introspective thoughts about life, people and history and show a notable resolution to counter an uncertain future and destiny. In a diary entry dated Oct. 14, 1981, she contemplated a famous quote from Dostoevsky: “Do you understand that along with happiness, in the exact same way and in perfectly equal proportion, man also needs unhappiness!” She managed to live through that period of emotional imprisonment through reading, thinking and writing.

Some worry that she may have developed the same character flaws that some people with strong views have shown. They complained that she must have trouble communicating with others who are less introspective. And those concerns are sometimes realized. But Park remained aloof in unexpected situations such as during North Korea’s provocations, which demonstrated the need for true leaders to have inner depths.

Today’s Korea is controlled by murderous competition and greed, and her message that a person will turn into a monster unless he lives like a human is perceived as a strong determination. Now the issue is how she will utilize her humanism to make a world where people, not monsters, can live.

As recommended by philosophy professor Kim Ki-hyeon of Seoul National University, Park should refer to a report by the U.S. President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities submitted to then-President Bill Clinton in 1997. The report stressed that the creative power of arts and humanities will make a democracy healthier, and that arts and humanities must be recognized as public goods.

What are public goods? They are the goods and services that everyone is given the privilege to consume, whether they are poor or rich. They are like roads that people and cars use together. They signify that the government is responsible for building an infrastructure of humanism that allows people to enjoy such a philosophy as a key value of their lives. Humanism is not just for the elite or for a few. Then it is natural to start a national project to assist the humanities, which have been treated poorly until now.

The spread of humanism will become a strong driving force for Park’s key agenda of somehow making Korea’s economy more creative and forward looking. Today, the global trend is moving away from a knowledge-based economy with technological powers at the center to a creative economy where creative powers from humanities trigger the passion of innovation. We are at a stage where imaginative powers serve the people’s emotions, not technology, and that decides the success - or failure - of a product or a company.

Steve Jobs once said, “I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.” Park is saying the creation in a creative economy comes from endless interests and considerations of human behavior.

Park is trying to change the paradigm of Korean society, in which dynamism was oppressed for more than half a century. A historic challenge to transform a society tired of competition into a healthy one with human touches. Park declared a war on “monsters,” and the nation is waiting to see who wins.

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Ha-kyung
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