King Sejong had certain peculiar characteristics that affected his reign, which was characterized by such an abundance of political, cultural, scientific, and technological advancements that one keen observer termed it “Sejong’s one-man renaissance.” One can be easily overwhelmed by his success and simply conclude, “Well, he was a just genius.” But Sejong was a man whose true nature remains elusive to those stuck in the conventional wisdom on “geniuses” or the highly intelligent. For instance, Sejong’s astute analyses on foreign affairs did not match his seemingly naïve diplomatic approaches. One is left with the conundrum: was Sejong a fool or a genius?
French Psychologist Jeanne Siaud-Facchin’s research, which is encapsulated in a box on the opposite page, may shed some light on this mystery. Applying her theory to the life and character of Sejong, one may see that Sejong was not “just a genius,” after all. In a nutshell, Sejong was highly gifted rather than highly intelligent. And these two phrases, “gifted” and “intelligent” do not mean the same thing according to the terminology of Jeanne Siaud-Facchin. For more detailed information on her ideas, please refer to the box mentioned above.
Assuming that Sejong was indeed gifted rather than intelligent, one may wonder what would happen if such a gifted person gets to rule a country. According to Siaud-Facchin, the gifted love to mingle with other gifted people to express their true nature with one another. Therefore, a gifted ruler would gather a group of gifted people around him or her and give them freedom to develop and express their true potential to the fullest. And this was exactly what happened in King Sejong’s reign.
Immediately upon acceding to the throne in 1418, Sejong inaugurated the Hall of Worthies (Jiphyeon Jeon, literally meaning “Hall of Gathered Worthies”), where talented individuals were gathered to freely immerse themselves in a wide range of scholarly activities. With such worthies, royal lecture sessions were held daily, in which classics, history, and current affairs were constantly discussed. This was where all the advancements were made in his era.
How can we be sure that those gathered at the Hall of Worthies were not the intelligent but were the gifted? According to Siaud-Facchin, one of the most fundamental attributes of the gifted is their attachment to principle even when such attachment may bring disaster upon themselves. This is a departure from normal behavioral patterns of average, rational human beings who seek to promote their own self-interest and avoid incurring harm to themselves, which is a trait shared by the intelligent. The following tragedy demonstrates that many of those at the Hall of Worthies belonged to the category of the gifted.
After Sejong’s death in 1450, his heir, Munjong, the inventor of rain gauge and multiple rocket arrow launcher, died prematurely—only two years after his enthronement. He was succeeded by Danjong, his eldest son aged thirteen, but Dangjong was forcibly deposed by his eldest uncle, Grand Prince Suyang, who became King Sejo. Finding no justifiable cause in this coup and thus finding it unacceptable on principle, many of those at the Hall of Worthies objected to Sejo’s illegitimacy and attempted to reinstate Danjong. The result? History records the six perished loyalists and the six surviving loyalists of the Hall of Worthies, the institution that Sejo eradicated, thereby ending a short-lived experiment of nurturing and utilizing the gifted for the betterment of society and future generations.
The hypothesis that Sejong himself was a highly gifted person is also borne out by his actions. One of Sejong’s few weaknesses and failings came from his attachment to principle he held dear. For example, he was almost always very lenient to most types of criminal offenders, but his leniency was rarely extended to those who committed crimes against their parents, husbands, masters, and seniors because he so firmly believed in the inviolability of familial and social order as established by Confucian sages in the classics. Furthermore, despite his superior analytical skills, Sejong conducted diplomacy in an inexplicably naïve manner, at least from the perspective of practitioners of realpolitik, which included his contemporary monarchs in both China and Japan. He wanted to maintain good relations with China and Japan by acting sincerely and generously toward them, with none of contrivances, quite regardless of their perceived intentions.
In conclusion, Sejong’s reign can serve as an ideal case study of how the gifted may contribute to their country. This shows that the Sillok has relevance as a collection of data for research in political and social sciences.