In this short series, lessons will be gathered from classical works on politics, and the parallels between ancient and medieval political texts and their modern contexts will be analyzed. The text is thousands of years old, and the meanings are not always clear, but the closest relevant meaning in English will be gleaned for application.

This will focus on the text, 群書治要, a collection of political wisdom compiled by political advisors in China for the emperors. A handful of quotes will be selected.

The first chapter of Part 10 is 學問, xue wen, which can be interpreted as active learning

Verse 9, Quote: 孔子曰:「生而知之者,上也;學而知之者,次也;困而學之,又其次也;困,謂有所不通也。困而不學,民斯為下矣。」

English interpretation:Confucius said, the best is innate intelligence, those who can truly grasp difficult topics and understand how to solve problems, the second best is those who study and work hard enough that they can get to the level of the first group, the third is those who can’t study, those who don’t have the aptitude, but the worst is those who don’t want to learn.

Application:Those who dismiss learning as unimportant fail to understand that learning is the only thing that helps the human condition improve. It is the only thing that separates us from the animals in our behavior and our society. Those who refuse wisdom, who not only deny schools, deny education, but resist facts and the truth when it challenges their own knowledge are dangerous. In an era of widespread democratization, populism, and demagoguery, closing one’s mind to outside beliefs, denying knowledge and refusing to learn threaten the very foundations of our deliberative democracy. To have an effective democracy that holds its leaders accountable, we need a well-educated and critically minded population. This was true when Alexis de Tocqueville surveyed America well over a hundred years ago, and it’s just as true now. Knowledge it what keeps democracy flourishing, and a culture that values education is needed to sustain this.

The second is 有恆, you heng, which can be interpreted as continuity

Verse 162, Quote: 聖人貴恆。「恆者德之固也 」。「聖人久於其道,而天下化 成 。」未有不恆而可以成德, 無德而可以持久者也。

English interpretation:Only with a continuity of policy can one enact meaningful progress. Without a set of guiding moral principles for action, and proper planning, power can neither be sustained

Application:Without a strategy for governance, there can be no effective policy or real change. Piecemeal efforts that are not planned for the long term will never bring about progress. This is true not only of overall policy strategy for government leaders, but also for advisors and administrators, whose continues support and guidance are needed to see a policy through. In this light, the public should remember to not only focus on the issues of today, but focus on longer term policy, the changes they want to see for their country, and select leaders who not only have the vision but the perseverance and perpetuity of ideas to see out that change.

Our short term planning in American politics, valuing pork, tax breaks, and stop-gap funding over long term healthcare, immigration, or tax reform has led to a political system focused on election cycles and not on big ideas or real solutions to the problems faced by America. If America, or the rest of the world for that matter, fails to learn from these mistakes and doesn’t choose to elect leaders that want to improve the country longer than the length of their term, leaving generation change, then democracy will lose its appeal to the billions in the world who live under autocrats who claim that leaders who don’t face election can get more done. Responsible action is better than unaccountable orders, and this is what is needed to show those living under totalitarianism that there is unequivocally a better system, democracy.

The third is 處世, chu shi, which means dealing with reality

Verse 182 Quote: 不以口譽人,則民作忠。故君子問人之寒則衣之,問 人之飢則食之, 稱人之美則爵之。

English interpretation:Don’t use empty words to feed mouths in times of famine. Be honest with one’s people to get loyalty when addressing them, and don’t rely on speeches and rhetoric, true leadership is with action, even if slow and deliberate.

Application:This is reflective of the Western saying, actions speak louder than words, and here rings true again. A leader, if they have the political and economic means to do so, should use all the tools at their disposal to help the people, and remember to help the people as a whole, not simply their donor class. The accountability issue right now is sharpest when looking again at Hong Kong politics. A Chief Executive, chosen by a select council of elites is allowed to make policy for a whole state, and then the world is surprised when her choices reflect the minority selectorate and not the wishes of the overall population. The action must help all people, and even in a majoritarian democratic system must respect all the people in the state, not only those of the winning coalition. This compromise is how a healthy democratic system can be sustained.

Further, a leader should never make empty promises or focus on rhetoric to the exclusion of policy goals, nor claim credit for things done that they did not do, or sooth the victims of their mistakes with more lies. A leader must be accountable, not simply in word, but in credible and concrete action. The ineptitude of a regime to effect real policy should be a sign of not only the inability of the leader to capture a majority of power, but an inability to use the power gained to compromise in order to benefit all. Policy is what changes lives, and though it need to be partnered with rhetoric, they are two sides of the same coin, and you can not have a credible government without real action.

Staff writer: Ari B