In 1425 died, in Constantinople, a wise king, Manuel II Palaiologos, who left us, among other writings, a mirror of prince, written for his son and heir John. These letters reflect the mind of a ruler who, despite circumstances, tried to uphold the virtues of wisdom and moderation in his dealings.
Seven years earlier, in a land far removed from Byzantium in space and culture, a ruler came to the throne of Joseon, today’s Korea: king Sejong. He surrounded himself with persons of high literary and scientific talents. Among his many achievements can be counted the creation of an alphabet, much easier to use than the Chinese characters and therefore much easier to learn by the common people–the one used today in Korea–and various technologies, such as the water clock, the first rain gauge, and sophisticated military weapons. His literary and scientific achievements are so numerous, and his love for the people so well-remembered that he is one of only two kings in over 2,000 years of Korean history to have been bestowed with the epithet “the Great.”
He, too, left many writings, which reflect, as with emperor Manuel II, a mind ruled by virtue and wisdom. Below are excerpts from his writings. Plato would no doubt have found in him another model of a philosopher-king.
“It is in order to avoid confusion in undertakings by the people that they have a king rule over them. How, then, could a king hope to live up to the dignity expected of him as a ruler when he refuses to hear out his people when they bring to his attention injustices done to him?”
“A wise ruler should not neglect minority opinions and give a careful hearing. Nevertheless, it would be foolish for a monarch to make decisions based on a single person’s opinion.”
“Leading a sheltered existence inside a palace, I am not aware of all the going-ons among the people. If there are any matters that cause anguish to the people, you should report them to me without failing.”
“Although those of superior ranks are wiser than their subordinates and should be able to make the right decisions, the subordinates must not hesitate to correct their superiors, if they feel with certainty that the latter’s decisions are wrong.”
“The people are the roots of a nation, and the roots should be strong so as to create a peaceful nation.”
“One of the most essential ingredients of great statesmanship is trust, and especially expressing trust.”
“How could a king who should rule over all people and all things in the country with impartiality treat those of low birth any differently from the way he treats others?”
“Unlike many other occupations, scholars have the greatest responsibility to the people. Their work can ultimately improve the lives of all people for many decades. But if an academic becomes lost in his study, he cannot see how his work can benefit others. Therefore, like a well-balanced fencing stance, or a reasonable argument, the scholar’s life must be even and balanced.”