The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Wisdom of two great men for young people

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Jan. 29, 2019 - 17:01

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As one gets older, he inevitably becomes clumsy, oblivious and pathetic. He also loses vitality, resilience and flexibility, and suffers deteriorating eyesight and hearing ability. Thus, King Solomon laments in “Ecclesiastes,” “Vanity of all vanities! All is vanity/All things are full of weariness/A man cannot utter it/The eye is not satisfied with seeing/Nor the ear filled with hearing.” Then, Solomon describes the sadness of aging metaphorically, saying, “Or ever be silver cord be loosed, the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.”

Nevertheless, there is something that becomes sharper and brighter as one grows older: his farsighted vision and profound wisdom accumulated from lifelong experiences. Indeed, older people can see much farther than younger people and have a much wider spectrum of experiences than young ones. That is why young people should listen to or consult with older people. Unfortunately, however, in todays’ Korean society, young people neither listen to older people nor respect them. On the contrary, they tend to think of older people as totally useless obsoletes who should be banished from the earth.

Oftentimes, however, older people’s advice is useful. In the “Hobbit” film trilogy, older villagers keep warning that the sleeping dragon Smaug will wake up and come to destroy the town soon. Yet, young people in Laketown deride and dismiss older people’s warnings. One day, the horrendous dragon wakes up and sets the town ablaze. Watching their town being annihilated by the fiery dragon, the young people belatedly realize that they should have listened to older people. But it is too late. The episode tells us that it is always imperative to listen to wise men who have clairvoyant eyes and insightful wisdom.

Among others, German thinker Max Weber comes to mind. When discussing politics, Weber enlightens us, saying, “It is not true that good can follow only from good and evil only from evil, but that often the opposite is true. Anyone who cannot see this is, indeed, a political infant.” It is quite amazing that Weber had this kind of postmodern perception in the early the 20th century, when modernism, which acknowledged the boundary between good and evil, still prevailed.

We now live in the 21st century, and we still naively believe that “good can follow only from good and evil only from evil.” In reality, however, it is often the opposite, especially in this postmodern era. We should know that sometimes evil can follow from good, and good from evil as well. If not, we are simply “a political infant” as Weber points out.

Weber also aptly points out inherent problems of democracy, saying, “In democracy the people choose a leader in whom they trust. Then the chosen leader says, ‘Now shut up and obey me.’ People and party are then no longer free to interfere in his business.” It is true that as a system, democracy has flaws such as electing a tyrant as the leader if the voters are naive and infantile. Weber’s warning continues, “A government is an institution that holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.”

Weber values the role of journalism, saying, “Not everyone realizes that to write a really good piece of journalism is at least as demanding intellectually as the achievement of any scholar.” In today’s Korean society, people tend to disparage reporters and journalists. There may be some unreliable, ideologically oriented reporters. But we should respect and value many conscientious reporters and journalists who constantly watch over us and our nation.

Another prominent thinker, Edward W. Said, too, opens our eyes with his profound insights and wisdom. In his monumental book “Culture and Imperialism,” Said writes, “We are all taught to venerate our nations and admire our traditions. A new and in my opinion appalling tribalism is fracturing societies, separating peoples, promoting greed, bloody conflicts, and ultimately assertions of minor ethnic and group particularity.” In Said’s eyes, therefore, a third world’s ultranationalism as well as parochial tribalism are as harmful as Western imperialism.

Said also warns us, writing, “In our wish to make ourselves heard, we tend very often to forget that the world is a crowded place and that if everyone were to insist the radical purity or priority of one’s own voice, all we would have would be unending din of awful strife and a bloody political mess.” Although he was a Palestinian, Edward Said does not hesitate to criticize his own people’s parochialism and extremism.

Said grew up in a colonial situation as an Arab who had to receive British education. Instead of harboring grudges, however, he said, “These circumstances certainly made it possible for me to feel as if I belonged to more than one history and more than one group.” How cool he was!

In order to overcome our own black and white, parochial mentality and to prosper in this rapidly globalizing world, young Koreans should learn from the wisdom of Weber and Said.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of Malaga in Spain. -- Ed.