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[Kim Seong-kon] In shadow of power and glory

Men constantly seek power and glory. Once you taste that nectar, there is no turning back. It is like an addiction. That is why politicians cannot leave the political arena once they set foot in it, even though it is perilous and dangerous. For example, lawmakers keep running for a National Assembly seat even though it costs them a fortune. 

Once elected, you will find yourself suddenly surrounded by magnificence and escorted by faithful aides and secretaries who will treat you as if you were a crown prince. In addition, you can ride a chauffeur-driven luxury car. The same is true for high-ranking administrative positions in the government.

However, these glorious things abruptly disappear like a mirage, as soon as you step down from the post. That is why you desperately cling to a high-ranking position that will continue to bring you power and glory. And that is why the older you are, the more power-hungry you become. When you grow old, you feel as if you are losing your power and glory and thus want a powerful position as psychological comfort.

Suppose you stepped down from your position that gave you power and glory. When you get up the next day, you find that everything is gone: your spacious office, your loyal secretary and your chauffeured car. No one calls you to say hi or flatter you. Suddenly, you find yourself totally alone and become devastated psychologically. Who would want that to happen? That is why old men crave for power and glory.

Is a powerful position always good, then? According to Greek mythology, it is not. Damocles envied his king, Dionysius, who he thought had absolute power and authority, surrounded by his subordinates. King Dionysius then offered his throne to Damocles temporarily, so the latter could taste the power and the glory he envied so much.

Damocles gladly sat down on the throne, full of expectations. But once he sat on the throne, he found a huge sword dangling right above his head, held only by a slender hair from a horse’s tail. At that moment, Damocles realized that with power comes tremendous responsibility and stress. The sword of Damocles illustrates that those in positions of power always face imminent and ever-present peril.

Nevertheless, Koreans tend to constantly seek power because they think it will bring them glory. Indeed, even scholars of the humanities openly aspire to hold a position of power. Writers, too, secretly wish to wield power in the government as a Cabinet member. Strangely in Korea, even scientists are interested in administrative positions in the government cabinet.

There is a historical reason for this. During the 500 years of the Joseon Dynasty, writers and scholars of the humanities were the ones who occupied positions of power and ruled the nation.

By the end of the 19th century, passing the national exam to become a government official was the only way to climb up the ladder of social ascension and success. At that time, a high-ranking government post brought fame and glory to you and your family, whether you were a scholar or a writer. That tradition still persists to a certain extent. Perhaps that is why even today Koreans yearn for a powerful government position.

Traditionally in Korea, people seek fame because it guarantees power, glory and wealth. The problem is that we often do not distinguish “fame” from “honor.” For example, we translate the English word, “honor,” into “myeong-ye (fame)” in the Korean language. When we Koreans want to say, “We seek honor,” therefore, we say, “Myeong-ye reul chugu hada,” which also means, “We seek fame.”

Likewise, we translate “hall of fame” into “Myeong-ye eui jeondang” which means “hall of honor” in Korean. However, a truly honorable man would not seek fame, not to mention power and glory. It is no wonder few truly honorable men can be found in our society, because instead of seeking honor, we almost always seek fame, hopelessly confusing the two. It is only natural that we have so many people who want to become rich and famous, because that makes them honorable.

When we recite the Lord’s Prayer, we end it by saying, “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.” Graham Greene’s famous novel, “The Power and the Glory,” which is an allusion to the Lord’s Prayer, juxtaposes divine power and glory with mundane power and glory, symbolized respectively by a Roman Catholic priest and a police lieutenant in the Mexican state of Tabasco in the 1930s.

It is a shame that we cling only to mundane power and glory, instead of respecting divine power and glory. King Solomon reminds us of the meaninglessness of seeking power and glory when he says, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” We should seek honor instead of fame or power. The truly glorious thing is honor, not fame or political power.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. ― Ed.