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Wisdom of the Ages

By Barbara Gordon - Posted on 26 October 2008

I was thinking about leaders today, and about how we decide which guys would make good elected officials. When you set aside platform, I think we all pretty much agree on what kinds of characteristics make for ideal leaders. In fact, it seems like the characters we value in our leaders today are probably the same ones that have been highly regarded throughout the ages. So, to test my theory I decided to go back. Way back. I pulled up the quotes of ancient sages King Solomon (tenth century, BCE) and Confucius (fifth century, BCE) to see if either one had any wisdom on the virtues required of leaders. This is what I found:

"For a lack of guidance a nation fails, but victory is won through many advisers." -- Solomon

One of the complaints many have had about the Bush administration is that he and Cheney have been sort of Lone Ranger executives. Sure they have advisers, and sometimes they even let the advisers advise, but rumor has it that the two of them listen politely before going ahead with whatever their plan was to begin with, regardless of any concerns raised. Colin Powell says he cautioned President Bush about the long-term implications and complications involved in invading Iraq. He says he did everything in his power to dissuade Bush from invading, but Bush insisted. Now, six years later, I think most of us wish Bush had heeded wise counsel. And indeed many of us now value a leader's willingness to accept counsel so much that we've watched both McCain and Obama closely to try to get a sense of how they interact with their campaign advisers.

"A ruler with discernment and knowledge maintains order." -- Solomon

Clearly we still value both discernment and knowledge. A majority of voters polled now say that Palin makes them less likely to trust McCain with the presidency. Why? Because they say that Palin lacks the requisite knowledge for the vice presidency, and the fact that she does makes them question McCain's discernment.

"If the people have no faith in their rulers, there is no standing for the state." -- Confucius

Trust is quite an issue in this election. After all, many Republicans trusted Bush to uphold Republican notions of limited government, only to have him extend executive privilege to its greatest extent ever. Many Democrats feel that Bush betrayed our trust by overstating Iraq's nuclear capabilities to justify his war. I remember during the primary how often I heard voters say they couldn't support Romney. Why? Well, they weren't sure exactly why, but they just didn't trust him. Now I hear many Obama supporters say the same of McCain, and many many McCain supporters say the same of Obama.

"If a prince's personal conduct is not correct, he may issue orders, but they will not be followed." -- Confucius

Boy are we ever obsessed with politicians and their personal lives. We've had a few too many politicians cheat on their wives, or fool around with underaged interns, or get caught with their pants down in a public restroom. Perhaps we shouldn't care, but we do. And Confucius's comment indicates that people always have.

Why don't we trust our leaders who make personal mistakes? Because we feel that those mistakes reflect on their integrity. And if an official has no personal integrity, why would we think he'd have any integrity in office? This is why we see the obsession with the personal lives of McCain and Obama. Did you hear about McCain's first wife? What about Obama's friends? Has McCain had an affair? Which church does Obama attend, anyway? We talk about these things in part just because we like to gossip; but also because, just as Confucius's contemporaries did, we simply expect our leaders to have their private lives in order.

"The art of governing is to ... practice government affairs with undeviating consistency." -- Confucius

Constancy: the rarest of political virtues.  We want leaders who are consistent, who live by the same personal and political principles day after day and year after year. And when it comes to elections, everybody wants to know what a candidate will do, so we look at his track record to try to make projections. Unfortunately, anymore it seems the records are too inconsistent to indicate much. And so we begrudgingly crown nearly every candidate for office a flip-flopper and have to choose the least of the evils. But if there's one thing you can say for Obama, it's that he's predictable. He may be a liberal, but by golly he's consistent. You know exactly what he stands for. And that's important.

So, as you can see I only found a handful of ancient quotes on government. But I thought it was interesting that every one of them was still applicable and reasonably accurate today. It kind of makes you wonder if three thousand years from now, people will still be discussing the character of their leadership, and still seeking the same virtues therein.




Excellent blog post!

Umm, "Barbara", right? *checks name to be sure* 

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, & wiser people so full of doubts.
-- Bertrand Russel

You can use John's name again on Tuesday. Just a heads up.
A wonderful post! It was a great read. Let me know if you find some more great leadership quotes. Thanks for looking those up- nice to know our reasoning has a solid history :)

How about this under "Wisdom of the Ages"

The Ethic of Reciprocity

"Every religion emphasizes human improvement, love, respect for others, sharing other people's suffering. On these lines every religion had more or less the same viewpoint and the same goal." The Dalai Lama


Bahá'í World Faith:
"Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee, and say not that which thou doest not." "Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself." Baha'u'llah

"And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbour that which thou choosest for thyself." Epistle to the Son of the Wolf

"This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you". Mahabharata, 5:1517

"...a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?" Samyutta NIkaya v. 353
Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." Udana-Varga 5:18

"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." Matthew 7:12

"Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you" Analects 15:23

"Tse-kung asked, 'Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?' Confucius replied, 'It is the word 'shu' -- reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.'" Doctrine of the Mean 13.3

"Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence." Mencius VII.A.4

"One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself" Mencius Vii.A.4

"This is the sum of the Dharma [duty]: do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you." Mahabharata 5:1517

"(5) Humanists acknowledge human interdependence, the need for mutual respect and the kinship of all humanity."

"(11) Humanists affirm that individual and social problems can only be resolved by means of human reason, intelligent effort, critical thinking joined with compassion and a spirit of empathy for all living beings. "

"None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." Number 13 of Imam Al-Nawawi's Forty Hadiths."

"Therefore, neither does he [a sage] cause violence to others nor does he make others do so." Acarangasutra 5.101-2.

"In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self." Lord Mahavira, 24th Tirthankara

"A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated. "Sutrakritanga 1.11.33

"...thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.", Leviticus 19:18"What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary." Talmud, Shabbat 31a

Native American:
"Respect for all life is the foundation." The Great Law of Peace.

"All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves. All is really One." Black Elk

Roman Pagan Religion:
"The law imprinted on the hearts of all men is to love the members of society as themselves."

"The heart of the person before you is a mirror. See there your own form"

Compassion-mercy and religion are the support of the entire world". Japji Sahib "Don't create enmity with anyone as God is within everyone." Guru Arjan Devji 259

"No one is my enemy, none a stranger and everyone is my friend." Guru Arjan Dev : AG 1299

"The basis of Sufism is consideration of the hearts and feelings of others. If you haven't the will to gladden someone's heart, then at least beware lest you hurt someone's heart, for on our path, no sin exists but this." Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, Master of the Nimatullahi Sufi Order.

"Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain, and your neighbor's loss as your own loss." T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien.

"The sage has no interest of his own, but takes the interests of the people as his own. He is kind to the kind; he is also kind to the unkind: for Virtue is kind. He is faithful to the faithful; he is also faithful to the unfaithful: for Virtue is faithful." Tao Teh Ching, Chapter 49

"We affirm and promote respect for the interdependent of all existence of which we are a part." Unitarian principles.

"An it harm no one, do what thou wilt" (i.e. do what every you want to, as long as it harms nobody, including yourself). The Wiccan Rede

"That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself". Dadistan-i-dinik 94:5

"Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others." Shayast-na-Shayast 3:29

From the Philosophers

Plato: "May I do to others as I would that they should do unto me." (Greece; 4th century BCE)

Socrates: "Do not do to others that which would anger you if others did it to you." (Greece; 5th century BCE)

Seneca: "Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors," Epistle 47:11 (Rome; 1st century CE)

Monty Python: "Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations." The Meaning of Life (UK, sometime in the late 20th century)

the endorsements are rolling in. 

It is very nearly become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind - James Baldwin

I'm trying to figure out how to use this comment feature .anyhow..I think the Monty Python quote sums it up quite nicely doesn't it but there are and have been many sages who understand the need for inclusiveness and cooperation, rather than the opposite. I'm a greencard holder hoping to apply for citizenship and am relieved to see that FINALLY republicans are speaking out not only against this nonsense McCain/Palin campaign, but the hijacking of their party by the neoconservatives.

I'm sure you get a lot of flack for it, Americans, no offense, can be the most insecure group of people on the planet (read; intolerant or fearful) of any country that espouses itself to be a first world nation and 'advanced'. Keep up the good work and stay with your convictions, to which ever party or politician that might lead you,

 great post.


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