Moderation is a virtue not only in the East, but also in the West. It is well known that Confucius stressed the importance of being moderate, but so did Aristotle and Shakespeare. For example, Aristotle said, “The virtue of justice consists in moderation as regulated by wisdom.” Shakespeare also emphasized the importance of moderation even in passionate love: “Love moderately. Long love doth so. Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.” Benjamin Franklin, too, included “moderation” as one of his famous 13 virtues, “Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
Indeed, there are a number of English expressions that indicate the value of moderation and temperance. For example, we frequently say in English, “Don’t over do it,” or “Don’t push your luck.” We also say, “He went too far this time,” “This time, he crossed the line,” or “There’s a limit I won’t go beyond.” Even expressions such as “That’s reasonable,” and “That’s not fair,” imply the importance of moderation.
Moderation, then, is a universal virtue, whether Confucian or Christian. Korea has traditionally been labeled as a Confucian society. A true Confucian society should be populated by those who are moderate, temperate and restrained. In reality, however, Koreans have a reputation for being impetuous and quick-tempered. Foreigners point out that Koreans are very emotional, and easily aggravated and manipulated. It is true that when provoked, most Koreans do not seem to be able to control their feelings and often resort to extreme outbursts, violent reactions or emotional eruptions.
One example is the Dokdo controversy between Korea and Japan. When Japanese ultra-rightwing politicians deliberately provoked the Korean people over the Dokdo issue some time ago, the Korean people instantly boiled over. Instead of dealing with the issue calmly and rationally, we immediately staged protest rallies and our president rushed to visit the deserted island. Even our novelists and poets, who should be aloof from politics, either joined the president on his trip or individually visited the island to write patriotic poems on the controversy. Our hasty, emotional reactions remind us of what Voltaire said, “A wise man is superior to any insults which can be put upon him, and the best reply to unseemly behavior is patience and moderation.”
It would be incorrect, therefore, for Westerners to hastily stereotype Korea as a Confucian society. Today’s society is radically different from its predecessor during the Joseon Dynasty, which indeed was heavily influenced by Confucian philosophy. In fact, Koreans no longer subscribe to Confucian philosophy and few Koreans read the works of Confucius these days. Korean society is a place where Asian and Western culture co-exist, and where a curious mixture of capitalism and socialism prevails.
Nevertheless, many Westerners still wrongfully assume that Confucian philosophy is prevalent in Korean society and its education system. Indeed, I have recently encountered a number of foreigners who assume that under the influence of Confucianism, Koreans unconditionally accept the will of their parents, teachers and superiors. For example, an American recently wrote, “It is my belief that the Korean educational system’s biggest obstacle to producing more creative minds is a pervasive cultural problem rooted in Confucianism. One is taught to blindly accept the will of one’s parents and by extension anyone above you in the chain of command.” Perhaps the statement is applicable to early or mid-twentieth century Korea. But it is no longer true these days. Today, few Korean students blindly accept the will of their parents, teachers or superiors.
Recently, some Westerners came up with a strange theory about the unfortunate crash of the Asiana Boeing 777 in San Francisco. They pointed out the possibility that the Confucian custom of blind obedience to one’s superiors may have caused the crash. Such a statement is certainly a cultural misunderstanding. Few Koreans would agree with the ungrounded, absurd theory, because there is no longer such blind obedience in today’s Korean society. The chain of command, filial piety and respect for elders are rapidly diminishing as well. And so is the virtue of moderation.
Perhaps the only vestige of Confucianism found in today’s Korea is Mencius’ philosophy that emphasizes the importance of the people, not the King. That is why in Korea, people power has always been so strong and demonstrations abound. Karatani Kojin, the celebrated Japanese thinker, recently confessed that he was amazed by a scene in a Korean historical TV drama in which cabinet ministers of the Joseon Dynasty objected to the King’s decree citing the people’s welfare. Karatani said that such disobedience was not tolerated in pre-modern Japan.
Korea is no longer a Confucian society. At school, Korean students frequently challenge their teachers; at work, Korean employees often disobey their superiors and go on strikes. The Korean people do not easily accept or succumb to decisions made by authorities. It would be a grave mistake, therefore, to assume that Koreans blindly accept the will of their parents, teachers, bosses, politicians or anyone above them in the chain of command.
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. He can be reached at email@example.com. ― Ed.