Thursday, August 08, 2013

Socrates and Confucius on Leadership

Thursday, August 8, 2013
10:20 AM

Research report

I am still fascinated with my utopia, my Ur world government. What would be the ideal governance that would prevail there? All my life I have been building and refining this imagined stepping stone to world government in my head. Since it has no physical existence, I build it up and tear it down at the drop of a hat. As soon as a problem crops up I go from raising to razing to rebuilding from the ground up. The construction changes as my enquiry into the nature of democracy advances and my questions change. Socrates put one question perfectly that I wrestle with constantly. Who should rule? His answer covers all the bases.
 "The true kings, the true magistrates, (...) are not those who wear crowns, those who have been elected by just anyone, those who have been chosen by lot, nor those who have used force or fraud, but those who know how to rule." (Xenophon, Memorabilia III, 9, 10).
Here, Socrates lists each of the most important ways of gaining power: birth or experience (wearing a crown), election (the characteristic road to leadership in an  oligarchy or meritocracy, but not, contrary to popular misconception, democracy), sortition (i.e., lottery for public service posts, as in a jury; this is the real characteristic of democracy, which assumes that all citizens are equal), of despotism (force) or kleptocracy (fraud). But the only legitimate path to leadership is, he says, is through demonstrable knowledge. Rule of those who know how to rule. Call it epistemocracy.
Lately, I discovered that this same idea, that power should go to those who can show they know, was best taken up in China. And by "best," I mean that they actually invented a way to assure that those to take high posts in government demonstrate that actually know what they are doing in a clear, systematic way. That invention is the written civil service examination. This led to rule by Mandarin. The Mandarins were the first group of leaders ever who could say with full assurance that they paid their dues, they showed in an objective manner that they know what they are doing when they take a post in government.
This is a momentous discovery that, I think, should be taught in every history class from primary school on up. I am still reeling from this realization, and I have been reading history all my life.
When you discover something like that, you change your reading habits. I immediately turned to a book about Confucius that happened to be sitting on my bookshelves. It is a biography of Confucius written in 1971 by one Betty Kalen. My question going into it was, how did the teachings of Confucius lay the groundwork for the invention of written exams? Clearly, Confucius did not say, "Use written tests if you want to have rule by Mandarin." But his teachings were a precondition somehow.

Kalen writes that the ultimate ideal of Confucian thinking is "Ta Ting," a world commonwealth. This, Confucius says, is the "great principle." In other words, he was a founder of the principle of universal peace that, the Writings tell us, is the goal of all other Baha'i principles. UP is the ring that rules them all, as JRR Tolkien might have put it. Kalen states that at United Nations headquarters in New York there hangs a plaque of black marble, inscribed in gold in the Chinese calligraphy of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the "father of the Chinese revolution." The quotation is from the Li Chi, the Book of Rites. In other words, it is traditionally ascribed to Confucius.

"When the Great Principle prevails, the world is a commonwealth in which rulers are selected according to their wisdom and ability. Mutual confidence is promoted and good neighbourliness cultivated. Hence, men do not regard as parents only their own parents, nor do they treat as children only their own children. Provision is secured for the aged until death, employment for the able-bodied, and the means for growing up for the young. Helpless widows and widowers, orphans and the lonely, as well as the sick and the disabled, are well cared for. Men have their respective occupations and women their homes. They do not like to see wealth lying idle, yet they do not keep it for their own gratification. They despise indolence, yet they do not use their energies for their own benefit. In this way, selfish schemings are repressed, and robbers, thieves and other lawless men no longer exist, and there is no need for people to shut their outer doors. This is called the Great Harmony." (Confucius, In Life and Legend, by Betty Kelen, Thomas Nelson, Inc., New York, 1971, p. 103-104)

Great Harmony! Sounds a lot like "Most Great Peace," doesn't it? I just had to see what this plaque, hanging at the UN in New York, looks like. No, I do not read Chinese, but just the same, I had to see it. This is surely one of the founding documents of any future world government. This, surely, is something that every person of Chinese heritage must be immensely proud. It must be like the US Constitution is for Americans, the subject of story, song and action movies.
So I did what anybody does who wants to see anything nowadays, I looked for the plaque of marble, inscribed in gold, on Google images. Not a trace. As far as I can tell, just a couple of years after Kelen's book was published, China entered the U.N., and demanded that the plaque be taken down. What the UN did with it, I have no idea. If you want to see the quote, in English translation, you have to go to California and see a roadside statue of Confucius:

I looked into this some more and found that official rulers of China, including the republic of Sun Yat-sen, the guy who did the calligraphy, did their best to repress all memory of Confucius. The Communist regime of Mao especially suppressed Confucius. Until, that is, about ten years ago. Now the Chinese government is supporting "Confucius societies" in universities around the world. So, maybe there is hope that China's founding document will once more find its way into the UN building.

More on my research later.


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