The quest for power, glory and wealth


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 pow­er­hun­gry 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, South 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 South 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 South 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 “myeongye” (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. Kim Seong-kon is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of English at Seoul Na­tional Uni­ver­sity and pres­i­dent of the Lit­er­a­ture Trans­la­tion In­sti­tute of Korea.

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