Wen the Stoic


There’s an interesting interview with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao by Fareed Jakaria on the CNN website. Wen again talks about his love of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and how it plays a crucial role in his political philosophy.

This philosophy, as far as I can tell, is one of Stoic resilience in the face of catastrophe, such as the earthquake that hit China in May, when Wen immediately flew out and took command of the recovery situation.

He spoke at greater length
in New York in September:

I had a background in geological studies and I am familiar with an important theory in the study of the history of geological periods: that is the catastrophic theory. In the past six years since I took office as the Chinese Premier, it is fair to say that we have encountered numerous disasters and difficulties.

From the outbreak of the SARS epidemic, to the sleet- and snow-storm that hit southern China, and then to the massive earthquake that devastated Wenchuan, Sichuan province, and from the accidents in the coal mines to the food safety incident that occurred recently, all this has given us a very informative experience, and we have learned new things from overcoming these difficulties. As I always say: what a nation loses in a disaster will always be compensated by progress later on.

As you may know, I very much enjoy reading Meditations, a classical work written by Marcus Aurelius. In this classical work I once read: as for so-called great men, where are they now? They are all gone. Some of them may be enough to form a story and some others may not even be enough to form half a story. So I would rather prefer leaving some spiritual legacy behind, mainly as the following two points:

Number one, in the wake of a disaster, we should not yield to the difficulties, rather we should have the courage to face up to the difficulties head-on and we should have the courage to lead our people to surmount the difficulties. To do that, we need to have a firm stand; we need to have courage and confidence.

Number two, as far as a government is concerned, a government should be responsible for its people, should be dedicated to serving the people, and should be marked by dedication and its clean and honest behavior. Except for these, a government should not have any privilege whatsoever. All the power belongs to the people and all the power should be used for the people.

As an old Chinese saying goes: a spring silkworm keeps producing silk until it dies and a candle keeps giving light until it burns into ashes. I am already sixty-seven years old, and I will dedicate the rest of my power and energy entirely to the Chinese nation and to the Chinese people and I hope that when I leave this world people will remember that I, as the Premier, have actually followed the two principles that I mentioned before, and that way I will also rest in peace.”

Grandpa Wen’s love of Marcus Aurelius has done wonders for the old Stoic’s reputation in China. The Meditations has been in the top ten bestseller list there for several months.

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