I realize that some of my recent posts have been nerdy to the extreme so I won’t bore you with the path that brought me to the following passage from an 11th century Chinese philosopher. He starts with a question that has often crossed my mind, having been the CEO of some small towns in NJ. His answer speaks to what is sorely missing in our world today, but I do have questions to which I will return after this quote.
In governing a hamlet of ten families, it is impossible to complete the task even if one teaches everybody most earnestly to the point of whispering in his ears. How much more difficult in an extensive empire with millions of people. The answer is this: Purify the heart, that is all. By purity is meant that one, whether he is active or tranquil, does not violate humanity, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom in his speech, appearance, seeing, or listening. When one’s heart is pure, men of virtue and talents will come to help him. With the help of such men the empire will be governed. Purity of heart is indeed important, and the employment of men of virtue is an urgent matter.
We don’t need to look beyond today’s headlines to see the lack of purity of heart in those who govern, their daily violations of humanity, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. My question concerns the last American president whom most people would agree was pure of heart: Jimmy Carter. One reason people see him in this light is that he himself confessed to seeing his own impurity.
Where the presidency of Jimmy Carter challenges Zhou Dunyi’s argument is in the many ways he was an ineffective leader and poor administrator. One might argue that Carter’s presidency failed because he did not employ “people of virtue.” Then one must ask why didn’t he employ enough of them. From there we get into harder questions about whether the pure of heart really can operate the levers of power effectively and still stay pure of heart.
Zhou Dunyi was not speaking as an idealistic academic. In a footnote, Wing-tsit Chan tells us that Zhou “had a busy official career. He was district keeper of records (1040), magistrate in various districts (1046-1054), prefectural staff supervisor (1056-1059) … among others.” It would be interesting to learn how effectively he governed while remaining pure of heart.