The Counsels of Cormac: An Ancient Irish Guide to Leadership

The Counsels of Cormac: An Ancient Irish Guide to Leadership

by Thomas F. Cleary



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The Counsels of Cormac: An Ancient Irish Guide to Leadership by Thomas F. Cleary

Long before Machiavelli’s The Prince, How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Japanese Book of Five Rings, Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People, and The Fifth Discipline, there was the indispensable, bare-bones advice of the great Irish king, Cormac, who imparted essential lessons on how to be a great leader and how to live a life that was both productive and fulfilling. In these pages is the wisdom of thousands of years of Celtic civilization, now available in a masterful new translation by Thomas Cleary.

In the tradition of the Tao Te Ching and The Art of War, this ancient manual offers moral and practical instructions for wise and successful leadership—all imbued with distinctly Celtic flavor.

Celtic lore is replete with legends recounting the contact and cooperation between the ancient Irish peoples and the other great cultures of antiquity (including the Minoan, Egyptian, Greek, and Hebrew) and their influence on Celtic ideas and values. Knowledge was highly prized by the Celts, and their pursuit of learning encompassed everything from seeking an understanding of the ordinary to contemplating the inexplicable. The emphasis on education extended to the selection of leaders: elected by the freeholders of each territory, kings were expected to be well-schooled in all branches of knowledge. Traditionally, manuals of instructions were written to ensure the cultivation of people capable of leadership. The Counsels of Cormac, attributed to King Cormac MacAirt, who ruled in the third century CE, is one of the best-known classics of this tradition.

Cormac, portrayed by Irish poets and historiansas one of the greatest of the Irish high kings, is particularly famed for his achievements in culture and for the personal qualities he brought to governing. In the words of a later historian he was, “wise, learned, valiant and mild, not given causelessly to be bloody as many of his ancestors were; he reigned majestically and magnificently.” Thomas Cleary’s highly readable contemporary English translation of The Counsels of Cormac brings the legendary king’s sage advice to present-day readers. From a to-the-point chapter outlining the “traditional prescription for a chieftain” to a charming discourse on “what is fitting for a chieftain and an alehouse” (a Celtic version of how to create a productive and pleasurable workplace), The Counsels of Cormac is perfect for those seeking to enhance their own leadership abilities, learn from the wisdom of the past, and connect with the roots of Celtic civilization.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385513135
Publisher: Doubleday Publishing
Publication date: 09/21/2004
Pages: 50
Product dimensions: 5.45(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.35(d)

About the Author

Thomas Cleary holds a Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University. He is the translator of more than fifty volumes of Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, and Islamic texts from Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, Pali, and Arabic.
From the Trade Paperback edition.

Read an Excerpt

O Cormac, Grandson of Conn," said Carbre, "What is best for a king?"
"That's easy," said Cormac:
Composure rather than wrath,
Patience rather than contention,
Geniality rather than arrogance.
Attention to tradition,
True reciprocity,
Hostages in custody.
Military action for just cause,
Justice without bloodshed,
Leniency within the integrity of the law.
Goodwill to tribes,
Distinct guarantees,
Just judgments,
Fasting against neighboring territories.
Glorifying the sacred,
Respecting poets,
Adoration of God.
Productivity in his reign,
Attention to every unfortunate,
Many charities.
Fruit on trees,
Fish in estuaries,
Fertile land.
Ships invited into port,
Goods imported from overseas,
Appropriation of things cast up by the sea.
Silk clothing,
A hand wielding swords in defense of every tribe,
Attacks across borders.
Let him visit the ailing,
Let him improve the condition of the indigent.
Let him have legitimate claim to truth,
Let him rebuke falsehood.
Let him love justice,
Let him quell fear.
Let him destroy criminals,
Let him bring just pronouncements,
Let him support every branch of learning.
Let him purchase what is valuable,
Let him improve what is worthless,
Let him have abundant wine and mead.
Let him knit every peace treaty together,
Let him declare every clear judgment,
Let him speak every truth.
"For it is through the truth of the chieftain that God gives all that."
O Cormac, Grandson of Conn," said Carbre, "What is the proper authorityof kingship?"
"That's easy. The authority that rules over a stable land I have and will give back to you," said Cormac to Carbre:
Let him contain the powerful,
Let him execute the evil,
Let him foster the good.
Let him subdue outlaws,
Let him stop robbery and theft,
Let him establish order in relations.
Let him contract peace treaties,
Let him establish law,
Let him correct injustice and punish illegal acts.
Let him sentence criminals,
Let him free the innocent,
Let him protect the righteous,
Let him constrain the unrighteous.
Let him warn outlaws:
Full liability for everyone responsible,
The whole penalties for accessories with knowledge,
Half penalties for those without knowledge.

With the dignity of a king
And the prerogatives of a chieftain,
Let him maintain the integrity of the right proper to every man
Of what is his of sea and land
With rightful properties for the tribes that are his.
In regard to crimes of hand,
Goings about of feet,
What the eyes look at,
Misdeeds of speech,
What the ears listen to,
With true facts in confidence
He clarifies and attends to the right of every chief:
Let him bring every one together under law.
"These are the legal prescriptions, the rights and duties, of a chieftain in respect to tribes."
O Cormac, Grandson of Conn," said Carbre, "What is best for the interest of a tribe?"
"That's easy," said Cormac:
Gathering of good people,
Frequent conferences,
An inquiring mind.
Consulting the wise,
Destroying every evil,
Bringing about every good.
A regular court,
Following traditions,
A legal assembly.
Administration of law by the chieftain,
Just leadership,
Not oppressing the wretched.
Protection of amity,
Leniency toward those of good morals,
Consolidating relationship.
Piecing together related information,
Carrying out administration of government,
Authority of ancient alliances.
Treaty of friendship without cancelation,
Militia without vainglory,
Sternness toward enemies, innocence toward kin.
Generous pledges, complete repayment, just rulings;
Honest witnesses, contracts without fraud, interest on loss;
Equivalence of contractual obligations, seasonal lending, pledges according to statuses.
Wholesome lending, loans for proper purposes;
An equivalent for every good;
Dignified response, permissible measure.
Study of each art,
Knowledge of each technical vocabulary,
Diversified skills in crafts.
Argumentation using legal precedents,
Pronouncement with legal maxims,
Giving alms, justice, and mercy to the poor.
Sureties against judgments,
Honest contracts.
Listening to the venerable, deafness to common fools.
"Let him not be lax about the interest of the tribe, let him not be greasy in the banquet hall--this is best for the interest of the tribe."
O Cormac, Grandson of Conn," said Carbre,
"What are things fitting for a chieftain and an alehouse?"
"That's easy," said Cormac:
Composure in the company of a good chief:
Brilliance of lanterns,
Effort for the multitude,
Arranging the seating.
Generosity of dispensers,
Quickness at dispensing,
Readiness of supply.
Consideration for the chief,
Temperance of high spirits,
Brevity of storytelling.
A cheerful face,
Welcome to poets,
Silence during a poem,
Melodious music.
"This is fitting for a chieftain and an alehouse," said Cormac to Carbre.
O Cormac, Grandson of Conn," said Carbre,
"From what is chieftaincy acquired over tribes,
clans, and nations?"
"That's easy," said Cormac:
It is gained by excellence
Of appearance, tribe, and discernment;
Wisdom, dignity, and generosity;
Heredity, integrity, and eloquence;
Warding off outlaws and having many friends.
What are the traditional prescriptions for a
chieftain?" said Carbre.
"That's easy," said Cormac:
Let him be well-controlled,
Let him be sober,
Let him be proactive.
Let him be of goodwill,
Let him be affable,
Let him be humble.
Let him be high-minded,
Let him be quick,
Let him be firm.
Let him be a poet,
Let him be a traditionalist,
Let him be wise.
Let him be generous,
Let him be genial,
Let him be tender.
Let him be strict,
Let him be caring,
Let him be compassionate.
Let him be just,
Let him be perceptive,
Let him be constant.
Let him be forbearing,
Let him be abstemious,
Let him uplift those disabled by indigence.
Let him deliver just judgments,
Let him feed every orphan,
Let him destroy every bad example.
Let him hate falsehood, let him love truth;
Let him be mindless of malevolence, let him be mindful of kindness;
Let him be accompanied at conventions, let him be alone at secret councils.
Let him be brilliant in company,
Let him be the sun of the banquet hall,
Let him be host of conventions and congresses.
Let him be a lover of knowledge and wisdom,
Let him be a constrainer of evil,
Let him be administrator of punishment to everyone who is undutiful.
Let him entertain each individual according to his right,
Let him give each individual his due,
Let him be a judge of each individual according to his status,
Let him be a benefactor of each individual according to his professional degree and according to his skill.
Let his pledges be sure,
Let his enforcement be lenient,
Let his judgments and decisions be incisive and not ponderous.
"For it is by these traditional prescriptions that kings and chieftains are judged," said Cormac to Carbre.
O Cormac, Grandson of Conn," said Carbre, "What were your ways when you were a
"That's easy," said Cormac:
I was one who listened to the woods;
I was one who watched the stars;
I was one who was blind to mysteries.
I was silent in the wilderness, talkative in society;
I was genial in the banquet hall, troublesome in combat;
I was quick to stand watch, I was kind in friendship.
I was a healer of the sick,
I was gentle to the feeble,
I was strong against the powerful.
I was not harsh, so as not to be satirized;
I was not pliant, so as not to be servile;
I wasn't clinging, so as not to be a burden;
I was not loquacious, even if intelligent;
I was not aggressive even though strong;
I was not daring even though quick.
I didn't ridicule the old though I was young;
I wasn't arrogant though I was dominant;
I would not talk about anyone in his absence;
I would not ask but would give.
"For it is through these practices that a youth may harden so as to become mature and a regal warrior."

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