The Task of a True Statesman

Published: July 17, 2009

By Jim Lichtman
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Sitting in a Chinese restaurant, I remember opening a “fortune cookie” which read:  Confucius say… Wealth and renown gained without honor are nothing but drifting clouds.

More than 2,500 years later, the Chinese philosopher and social thinker would probably laugh to discover that much of his wisdom has been distilled and tweaked to fit inside the modern invention of a cookie which owes no more to its Asian heritage than the recipe for the cookie itself.

An exemplary person should be slow to speak yet quick to act.

“The real Confucius,” according to 2002 book by Russell Freedman, “was a minor government official in the ancient Chinese province of Lu.  He lived in troubled times, and he longed to take an active role in running the state.  Though he offered many bold ideas for reform,” Freedman writes, “his advice was ignored by the rulers of the day.”

Gee, what a surprise.

With China splintered into different, warring groups, and many so-called noblemen lacking both the skill and interest to perform even the most basic duties of government offices, Confucius asked, “What is the purpose of government?  It is to promote the welfare and happiness of the people,” he decided.

“An incompetent ruler or corrupt official,” Confucius points out, “forfeits the people’s trust, and when trust is lost, the country is doomed.”

What a shock.

“Confucius told his students that it was their duty to criticize any ruler who abused his power… a dangerous idea in an age when a displeased prince, with the wave of a hand, could order that man be boiled alive.

“And yet Confucius had the nerve to go even further.  The right to govern, he declared, should depend on a person’s character and ability, not on his birth.”  His best hope to change the political strife in China?  Education – education not only in the ways of wise governance but in character development.

“If you could take over the government,” a student asked the Chinese sage, “what’s the first thing you would do?”

“I would start using honest language,” Confucius said.

“Are you kidding,” the student said.

Clever talk and affected manners are seldom signs of goodness.

According to Freedman, “The first task of a true statesman, Confucius said, is to face the truth, and to use words honestly. That’s what he endeavored to do himself.”

Ethics is the infrastructure for the way things should work. With trust levels for most elected officials at an all-time low, ethics training should be mandatory and on-going with anyone who aspires to be a true statesman.

He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it.

“Is there a single word that could guide a person’s entire life?” asked a student.

“Perhaps it is shu,” Confucius replied, using a word that means “compassion,” “open-heartedness.”  He then explained:  “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.”

Five centuries before Jesus taught the Golden Rule, Confucius was inspiring hundreds of students to lead through virtue.

Maybe I should wrap this up in a few hundred fortune cookies and send them to Washington.


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