Tuesday, September 14, 2010


He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it.
--Analects II, 1

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the death of one of the greatest political activists and visionaries of the Polish people, Jerzy Giedroyc. (First name “YEHTZ-ih”, last name “GED-roich.”; b. 27 July 1906, d. 14 September 2000.) Giedroyc worked his whole long life to promote a free and democratic Poland. Known as “The Editor,” he founded several publications thoughout the 20th century that gave voice to important thinkers and artists from all over Europe, including two Polish Nobel laureates, the writer Czesław Miłosz and the poetess Wisława Szymborska.

Giedroyc’s passionate belief in just governance and human rights, with a willingness to feed the minds and souls of his countrymen, to me suggests the Confucian virtue of Jen (sometimes written Rén). “Jen” has been translated into English as “Humanity” or “Benevolence,” but also as “Authority,” and even simply as “Virtue.” In the Analects and other writings, Confucius emphasized that the legitimacy of a ruler derives from Jen, his moral authority, which in turn cultivates morality among his/her people.

Likewise, Jerzy Giedroyc viewed morality as central to political leadership. Giedroyc lived at a critical time in the history of Poland. After a century of being ruled by other nations, Poland regained its independence as a sovereign nation in 1918, at the end of World War I, when Giedroyc was just 12 years old. He studied history at college and worked in the government, and then became the head of a political magazine, Polityka, at the tender age of 24.

Polityka gathered together politicians and writers who took advantage of the brief, fertile peace to proclaim bold visions for Polish society. In 1938, with Poland facing the imminent loss of its independence to Germany and later Russia, Giedroyc’s group issued a statement, “The Polish Imperial Idea,” in which they

reject[ed] the concept of politics as a free play of political parties whose main objective is to seize power and satisfy personal aspirations of their leaders... Political activity must not be isolated from care for common good, i.e. the state. Politics is tied with ethics, and demands a respect for basic standards. Moral authority is the most valuable asset of a political or state leader.

Such idealism persisted in Giedroyc’s vision as he worked after WWII to again win independence for Poland, this time from the Soviet Union. From offices in Paris, he created a new journal, Kultura, which for over half a century bolstered generations of Polish (and other) thinkers and artists. Kultura nurtured three Polish protest movements well into the 1970s. Poland finally overthrew Soviet control in 1989, voting in Lech Wałęsa as the first popularly-elected president of the Third Republic a year later.

I confess the story of Jerzy Giedroyc's life of faithful effort leaves me gobsmacked. Like so many, I find modern politicians snared by personal ambition and partisan squabbling. I see my nation lost, and far from the lofty precepts of Confucius.

Then I think about the saga of Poland, whose people did not even have free control of their nation, but finally won their independence, and I feel abashed . Giedroyc, like the north star, shines down history with the light of Jen to remind us that leadership with and for the human heart is (still) possible.

It starts with us. Whether we sign a petition, sit in a nonviolent protest, or simply learn about the ballot issues and vote our conscience, let us bring Jen, the virtue of moral leadership, into our daily lives.

May we see the gates of Jen, and perhaps (like Jerzy Giedroyc) make a home there. 

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