“Virtue is not solitary”
My search for Korea’s future in its ancient tradition of ethical government
I was rushing to a meeting around 11 AM on August 4th when a rather odd message from a friend showed up on my smart phone: “The President talked about your book!” I had no idea what the note referred to, or why President Park Geun-hye (I assumed that President Obama was unlikely to have read any of my books in Korean) would have mentioned me. It would be another two hours before I learned that President Park not only referred to my book “Another Korea That Only Koreans Don’t About” at her first cabinet meeting after her summer vacation, but that she made it the centerpiece of an argument for the next phase of her “creative economy” project, stating,
“Depending on what we do now, Korea can or cannot take the leap and become a No. 1 nation, create value in the international community and lead not only in the global economy but also in the arts and society.”
It was an honor for me to be recognized at such a high level in the Korean government and I was deeply impressed that Korea takes someone like me, a scholar of classical literature and Confucian philosophy, that seriously in the field of policy. I have always dreamed of a world in which an intellectual trained in literature could play a major role the policy debate as was the case in traditional Korea and China. Although the United States has many tremendous qualities that we still do not find in Korea, I can say definitively that it would be absolutely impossible for a scholar of classical literature to play such a role in my country.
But the most exciting result of that brief comment by President Park at the cabinet meeting was an invitation from the Minister Lee Geunmyeon, Director of the Agency of Personnel Management, to deliver a series of four lectures for high-ranking civil servants at the Central Officials Training Institute (중앙공무원교육원) starting the following week. I had delivered talks at Central Officials Training Institute, but this time was different. I was directed to talk with them about the value of Korea’s past for helping us chart a path for the future, about the deep truths to be found in the writings of scholars from past dynasties.
I stressed the experience that I had working with Korean government officials, starting with diplomats at the Korean Embassy in Washington D.C. and continuing with my work as advisor to the governor of Chungnam Province, and my consulting for the local governments of Gwangju, Ulsan and Seoul, as well as six different government research institutes.
I spoke of my maternal grandfather Louis Rouff who served as vice director of the ministry of revenue in Luxembourg and I talked about what an inspiration he had been for me as someone who helped Luxembourg to find a bright future even as it was sandwiched, like Korea, between the two great powers France and Germany.
I then described the tremendous challenges that an aging population, rapid technological change and climate change pose for Korea, and called upon the public officials in front of me to rise to the challenge, serving as a “skeleton” that can hold the nation together in a moment of crisis.
You see, although I am in love with Korean culture, I cannot eat spicy kimchi and I know nothing about Harryu dramas or K-Pop. I was drawn to this country by the writings, and the actions, of great Confucians like Dasan Jeongyak’yong that I read about in the course of my research. I suggested to the public officials that we can get out of the dead-end of short-term planning and profit oriented governance by returning to that great tradition and learning that Korea’s past is not something to escape, but something that can be the foundations for a new leap forward.
I quoted the 12th century French scholar Bernard de Chartres who wrote, “Modern people can see further than the ancients, but only because they are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of those giants of the past.”
I then called out to those public officials who believed that government could serve a positive role, that government could help us to build a better world, and told them not to feel alone and not to be afraid. I quoted the Analects of Confucius:
“Virtue is not solitary.
There will always be those who take its side.”
And called out them, saying,
“As you struggle to hold up a higher standard for Korea, and for the world, you may feel that the system is against you and that you are completely alone. But you are not! There are those around you, although they may not say anything, who are attracted to you and who support virtue…We are all waiting for you to show us the way.”
The lectures formed the most inspiring experience I have had in Korea and it is my sincere hope that Korea can inspire the world to seek out innovative solutions to future problems in the tremendous wisdom of the past.
“Virtue is not solitary”
The Asia Institute
August 13, 2015
Central Officials Training Institute
There is no greater honor for me than to have this chance to address the public officials who work every day to make Korea run and to speak with you about the critical issues that face us today.
I have had multiple opportunities to work together with Korean government officials over the last ten years and it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Starting with my work at the Korean embassy in Washington D.C. in 2005 and continuing with projects and seminars together with six different ministries, ten different research institutes, and also with the local governments of Chungnam and Gyeonggido, Daejeon Metropolitan City, Gwangju Metropolitan City, Ulsan Metropolitan City and Seoul Metropolitan Government, I have had a rich and rewarding experience in Korea over eight years.
Many of my close friends work in government and I am amazed by how much they are able achieve remarkable things despite the tremendous pressures to which they are subject.
I am the first professor in my family, as far as I know. But there have been public officials in my family. When I think about public servants I think of maternal grandfather Louis Rouff who served as vice director of the ministry of revenue in Luxembourg.
I never knew him, but he has been a great inspiration for me. He had wanted to become a painter, but ended up a bureaucrat. Luxembourg, like Korea, is a small nation stuck between two great powers, France and Germany. When Germany took over Luxembourg during the Second World War, my grandfather was one of a handful of public servants who refused to become a member of the NAZI Party.
He was dismissed from office and barely managed to survive doing odd jobs. After the war ended, he was allowed to go back to work, but he received no recognition and was in terrible financial straits.
This moment is a critical one for Korea. Technology is developing rapidly, the population of Korea is aging quickly and there is a new flood of foreign capital, and foreigners, into Korea that requires us to re-invent Korea and to re-invent government itself.
Climate change, the concentration of wealth, an aging society and the lack of concern for youth are a serious challenges for us. Everyone must do their part, but you, as public servants, are the ones who will make our efforts work.
Change must start somewhere in the face of great dangers. It will be you, in small groups, who articulate the problem and pose a solution. Government is the skeleton of a nation that holds together in crisis and can set a new course and carry it out.
I am a foreigner who was attracted by Korean culture. But it was not kimchi, or Harryu dramas, or Girl’s Generation that drew me to Korea. It was the great Confucian tradition of Korea, and above all the commitment of Korean intellectuals to good governance that has deeply impressed me.
I had the chance to translate some of the writings of Dasan Jeongyakyong a decade ago and they inspired me. In those writings I discovered a true scholar who dedicated himself to trying to make things better for ordinary people, who never lost his humanity even as he dived into the details of policy.
The Chosun Dynasty maintained high standards for governance over five hundred years and produced generations of people who were both scholars and public officials, many of whom adopted an attitude of humility while they maintained a deep passion for service.
We are in an age of short term planning where no one thinks more than a few years in advance, in which immediate satisfaction is the goal for politicians and CEOs, a world in which we make critical decisions based on market demand.
We consider it a boost to the economy to waste food, to indulge in plastic surgery or frivolous games. This is not the great Korea that I read about as a student and that sort of a short-sighted Korea has no future.
The legacy of the Choson Dynasty is long term planning. This short term thinking must stop. We should never assume that faster we do things the better.
Korea is haunted by certain myths that make it difficult for us to take full advantage of the culture and philosophy of the past. In a blind rush to become an advanced nation we have thrown away the culture that made Korea remarkable in the first place.
Most foreigners think Korea suddenly came into being in the 1970s. Koreans almost never speak about Korea’s achievements before then. The only story we hear is the “Miracle of the Han.”
But technology in Korea did not start in the 1970s. Korea was one of the most advanced nations in mathematics and engineering in the 13th century, and before, and has a long tradition of excellence in research.
Korea was not successful in its plans for rapid growth in the 1960s and 1970s just because Koreans work hard and loved their country. Korea had a tradition of excellence in governance from the Chosun Dynasty including tremendous institutional innovation, which made rapid growth possible. Koreans are good at organizing themselves and implementing policy because they stand on the shoulders of past leaders they have forgotten.
Korea did not become democratic because of student protests in the 1980s. There were intellectuals and students who worked in government, and outside of government, since the 15th century (and probably before) to insist on transparency in governance, to demand the rule of law and to promote a checks and balances.
Recognizing that past and seeing that technology, international relations, governance and democracy are not new imports to Korea but rather old traditions makes us stronger.
As the scholar Bernard de Chartres (12th century) once wrote “Modern people can see further than the ancients, but only because they are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants of the past.”
My role is limited. I cannot change Korea and I do not know Korea well like you do. But I can call out to you and tell you that there is a great tradition of governance in Korea that brought us people like King Sejong, King Cheongjo and King Jongjo, leaders who worked with government officials to create a better world. They started the project and now we will carry on that mandate.
That tradition is right there, right next to you–although you cannot see it. But you can tap into it, and start to imagine, to formulate and to implement a new path forward for Korea, and for East Asia and for the world. Where does it start? It starts with you.
Perhaps you think that there is no real way to change the system, no way to change the world. Perhaps you think that those above you, below you, and around you, are not interested in real reform, are not interested in creating a better world. They seem to only care about their own personal advancement and petty matters.
Let me say first that we never know where true leaders will come from; they could come from anywhere and we should not rule out anyone as a potential leader. And those who seem uninterested may in fact, secretly, be out biggest supporters.
We can take inspiration in the great leaders of government from Korea’s past. Their spirits are still right here with us.
I have a quote for those who may feel alone, who feel that their work is not appreciated.
It is taken from The Analects of Confucius
“Virtue is not solitary.
There will always be those who take its side.”
As you struggle to hold up a higher standard for Korea, and for the world, you may feel that the system is against you and that you are completely alone.
But you are not! There are those around you, although they may not say anything, who are attracted to you and who support virtue. They want you to succeed and to lead us in a better direction.
You are not alone at all. We are all waiting for you to show us the way.