Was King Sejong the World’s Greatest King?

At the end of our lives, we can look back and thick about the things we did, did not do, and tried to do. We’ll judge these things individually mixing in achievements, obstacles overcome, regrets, experiences, and so on. History, where it’s retained, remembers individuals in or around power, what they did and what others thought of them. 

As a result, one of the criticisms of history is that it’s all kings and dates, but while this is quite often true, some of those kings rise above the power games, wars, and religions of the time to be genuinely great kings. One of those is King Sejong (1397-1450) of Korea. He is most famous for inventing the Korean alphabet – hangul, but he is also the only Korean king to be granted the title Great, and it’s truly deserved. Let’s have a quick look at his reign, philosophies and achievements.

Background on King Sejong’s Rule

Despite being the third son of King Taejong, Sejong was soon made heir apparent and groomed for kingship at a young age. This was because his eldest brother Yangnyeong was deemed too free spirited and too deeply involved in his love of hunting and leisure activities. Some say, however, that Yangnyeong had the good grace to abdicate in favour of Sejong who excelled from a young age at many areas of study.

When Sejong became heir-apparent in 1418, his second brother Hyoryeong removed himself from public life by becoming a monk. As any student of history or fans of Game of Thrones knows, having brothers on the lose is a big threat to kings. So to have one abdicate to enjoy his pleasures and the other to become a monk, is pretty useful. 

So, at 21, Sejong was made the 4th king of the Choson dynasty in joint rule with his father Taejong who officially retired but mentored his son’s early years. This lasted for four years until Taejong died. At the end of his life, from 1442 to 1450, due to ill health, Sejong did the same with his son Crown Prince Munjong.

King Sejong’s Philosophy of Kingship

Plato believed the best form of rule to be the benign dictator, the person with absolute power who genuinely ruled with the best intentions for their people. Today we live in a world where individual people are herded into artificial groups and treated as statistics – hence Tolkien’s belief that bureaucracy would be the generator of the greatest evils in the world (an idea I agree with). King Sejong had a different philosophy.

His philosophy of kingship was to not consider his people as objects or statistics, but to believe in their individual and collective greatness, ingenuity, and potential. In short, he trusted his people with the power to learn and create whereas most rules seek to use and constrain people are resources. Therefore, King Sejong set out to help his people raise themselves to higher levels of culture, spirituality, and learning.

As part of this he laid out the philosophy of kingship for the leader and governance for lower officials as being to create the environment necessary for this to occur. As part of this he increased Korea’s ability to print and replicate learning materials, he patronised the arts, strengthened the nation’s defenses, and encouraged scientific developments. 

During the last 3,000 years Europe has accounted for 97% of all scientific, technological, and philosophical innovations. However, in the early 15th century, of the 60 scientific innovations recorded, 29 were by Koreans, 5 by Chinese, and 26 elsewhere in the world (mostly Europe).

King Sejong Created the World’s Best Alphabet

Perhaps his most famous achievement is the creation of the Hangul alphabet. This is said to be the most perfect alphabet yet invented and can be applied to all languages though is currently only used for Korean. One of the reasons it is great rests on the fact it can account for all sounds and part of this is due to the fact it’s based on the shapes of the mouth, throat, tongue, nose etc.. in making those sounds.

Prior to the creation of Hangul under King Sejong, the Koreans wrote in classical Chinese though there were also some native phonetic alphabets like gugyeol and idu. Korean and Chinese sounds were, however, largely incompatible and that meant learning tens of thousands of Chinese characters which proved difficult for most people. 

King Sejong’s solution to this problem in order to fulfil his desire to educate the whole kingdom, was to create a more accessible and universal alphabet. The goal was to make the alphabet something everyone in the country could learn and see as part of their national identity. This lead to the development of 28 characters which were based off the shape of the mouth during pronunciation. These characters could be combined into syllabic blocks which would then be strung together to create words and sentences. King Sejong combined the alphabet, developed between 1443 and 1446 with a philosophical manual called Hunmin Jeong-eum

King Sejong Led By Example

Recently I explained to a friend the definition of hypocrite. I, like many other people, had been living under a misapprehension with regards to this term. Derived from the Greek philosopher and physician, Hippocrates, I thought it meant saying one thing and doing another. However, it really means saying others should do one thing but exempting yourself. For example, an alcoholic might say “don’t drink alcohol” while drinking it themselves – this makes them a tragic human because they believe in what they are saying. A hypocrite might be someone like Kim Jong-un or Fidel Castro who amass great wealth and dine well while encouraging equal privation upon their people.

King Sejong was not like this at all. Despite suffering from diabetes, King Sejong starved with his people when there were famines. Korea has limited land for cultivation. The land is mountainous and there’s little space for agriculture. This is combined with cold winters and hot summers, so famines happen. The lack of food made him weak, but he believed leadership meant suffering with the people rather than standing above them while they starved. It’s a great example too few people live. Overall, it’s easy to see why he was such a great king and I hope to learn more about him in the future.

I’d like to thank my Korean friends who have told me about King Sejong and shared information on his reign and achievements. All Koreans can be rightly proud of him.