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Historical feature: Sejong of Korea – The Philosopher King

“There will be no end to the troubles of the state or indeed of humanity until philosophers become kings or until those we now call kings really and truly become philosophers.”

King Sejong the Great

This is one of the most famous quotations from Plato. It is taken from his work The Republic, which in attempting to set out the benefits of a just life, illustrates the soul of the just man by describing the government of a just state.

Plato’s definition of ‘philosopher’ is what we might describe as a mystical rather than an academic one. The philosopher is one who has attained wisdom (‘beheld the true nature of the Good’), as opposed to mere knowledge. That is, his learning has made him just – he is not simply clever and well-read.

I remember, when reading the life of Sejong in Ha Tae Hyeong’s King Sejong the Great, being struck by the similarity between Sejong’s ‘Jade Hall’ – a close-knit institution of study where the brightest and youngest scholars were housed to conduct research and projects for the good of the people – and the community of guardians described by Plato as the rulers of the just city.

Plato expressed doubt that his vision of the ideal city could ever be realised, or that a philosopher was ever likely to be elevated to the level of ruler, given the corrupt nature of most governments. Plato did attempt during his lifetime to educate a real-life monarch (Dionysius II) in the hope of making a king into a philosopher, a process that proved ultimately unsuccessful.

Aristotle appears to have had a similar lack of success with his pupil Alexander the Great, who despite his many achievements could not be said to embody the disinterested beneficence of the Republic’s philosopher king.

Looking at the history of Western civilization, it would be natural to conclude that ‘king’ and ‘philosopher’ in Plato’s sense are – in practical terms – mutually exclusive. Indeed, this is the cynical view set out in the first book by Plato’s interlocutors: that justice is no more than a social contract, which is violated as soon as a man has enough power to impose his own will on those around him.

What would Plato have made of the rule of King Sejong?

Plato: Philosopher King

With respect to education, which takes up a large part of the Republic, Sejong was devoted to the process of learning and acquiring wisdom throughout his entire life. In East Asia, the books that were available tended to be of the more esoteric variety, concerned with understanding the true nature of the universe and one’s place in it, rather than tales of romance or studies of human emotion. This conforms to Plato’s lofty view that education was the process of understanding the ‘ideal form’ of things, rather than their earthly manifestation.

Plato also states that the people in his ideal city would have a sense of ‘oneness’, in that the misfortune and fortunes of others would be counted as one’s own.

Looking at the acts and words of Sejong, it is clear that he ruled with this mentality. When a famine arose, he would starve himself in the belief that his own faults had brought on the disaster. When a terrible crime were committed, he would grieve as if he had both suffered and committed the crime.

Plato devotes a great deal of time to discussing the relative merits of various political systems. How would Joseon Korea under Sejong have been classified in relation to the just state?

Politically, Plato ranks ‘rule by the just man’ (one in whom reason holds sway over the other faculties) as the highest form of government, and tyranny (rule by the man in whom the passions hold sway over reason) as the lowest form of government. In between these two, and in descending order, he places timarchy (rule by those who seek honour), oligarchy (rule by those who seek money) and democracy (rule by the mob).

It is important to note that the democracy of Plato’s Athens was far purer than our own and hence less constrained by checks and balances. While we elect politicians every half decade or so, Athenians voted on every issue in a packed assembly, highly suggestive to the machinations of eloquent demagogues, and hence more exposed to rash decisions.

Sejong was in no obvious sense of the word a democrat. However, many of his sayings express – if not sovereignty of the people themselves – the sovereignty of the welfare of the people. ‘A king’s office is to serve the people. That is all’. He would describe the people in terms which neighbouring states normally reserved for the rulers themselves.

Much of his time was spent frustrating the efforts of conniving politicians and venal magistrates, in which one can discern the other two forms of government – timarchy (love of honour) and oligarchy (love of money) respectively.

His greatest conflicts with his senior government officials often arose when he perceived the interests of the people at large to be at odds with those of a small but powerful minority.

In terms of character and behaviour, he was the opposite of the tyrant as described by Plato. It is hard to think of an example where a monarch’s personal comfort and gratification exerted less influence over his actions. His sleep regimen appears to have consisted of a few hours every night, and he was constantly fasting and refraining from delicacies in response to a disaster or perceived misdemeanour on his own part.

The benefits to the country as a whole during Sejong’s reign vindicate Plato’s view that the state governed by a truly just man enjoys the greatest happiness.

The Sujeongjong Hall in the Gyeongbokgung Palace
The Sujeongjong Hall in the Gyeongbokgung Palace – on the site of the Jiphyeonjeon (King Sejong’s Jade Hall or Hall of Worthies), where Hangul was developed (source)

During Sejong’s day, life expectancy increased, the seeds of universal literacy were planted with the invention of the Korean alphabet Hangul (despite fierce opposition from high-minded scholars), and innumerable further innovations in the areas of agriculture, medicine and publishing, all of which benefited the wider population rather than the privileged few, laid a foundation for Korea’s prosperity in the centuries to come.

It is a pity that Sejong’s rule remains overlooked and unexamined in Western intellectual discourse. I have always felt that behind Plato’s irony and occasional pessimism, there lay a sincere hope that the ideals he saw trampled in his own lifetime – notably in the execution of his teacher Socrates, one of the rare ‘just’ men – could be realised one day.

It seems that the circumstances need to be right for such a leader to appear. The fact that such a leader existed and can exist, is a hopeful place to start.

Subsequent monarchs of Korea had Sejong as their benchmark.  One can only assume that his example encouraged and to some extent forced them to become better rulers of their people. Sejong could theoretically perform the same function if today’s rulers had his example before them.

This is one of the many benefits one hopes Korea will give the world as its culture becomes more widely known.

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