Shengren – Chapter 1.1 – Philosophers and Sages

In his essay 思想家与哲学家 (Thinkers and Philosophers), the linguistic sage Ji Xianlin compared philosophers to scholars, non-philosophical ‘thinkers,’ and observed the following:[1]

Once they (the philosophers) bring all their theories together and try to build them into a universal system – generally all philosophers have this ambition – cracks will appear and flaws will be revealed, and the project will literally end in an embarrassment.

Thinkers I have in mind are not like that. They may have their own views on the things I just mentioned. They would, however, neither engage in any system-building nor engage in its cumbersome analysis. I remember an old Chinese couplet [from the Dream of the Red Chamber, 红楼梦]: ‘A thorough insight into worldly matters arises from learning; a clear perception of human natures emanates from literary lore.’ I believe that Thinkers do just that, they cave for insights into worldly matters, they are sophisticated human beings. They do not talk about the mysterious and unpredictable. Nor do they write obscure texts, and much less do they dream up a philosophical system. What they write down is moderate and peaceful (unpretending), and everyone understands [their thought]. After reading it, our eyes shine bright and blister, our minds are clear and free of confusion, and we realize: Yes, this is how things truly are.

A sage does think, too. A sage can do philosophy, but not every philosopher is a sage. A sage practices sagehood, which is linked to self-cultivation and the striving for balance, harmoniousness, and human perfection. A sage’s thinking is concerned with the relationship of himself with other human beings, and the relationship of human beings with the greater order of all things. Here is a striking definition of sages given by American scholar Robert C. Neville:

Sages understand memories and expectations, guilt and frustrations, joys and sorrows, suffering, pain, triumph, ecstasy, nobility, depravity, honor, degradation, sincerity, mendacity, stress and release. They understand the combinations and ambiguities of these in the lives of persons and in the affairs of people, and their understanding allow them so to follow the trail of what is important through the underbrush of triviality that they cleave to what is essential. Sages are those who understand people. What people? […] Sages must live from long experience, not from intuitive encounters.[2]

Definitions can be elaborated or concise, yet the most basic difference between a philosopher and a sage, I believe, is the following:

A philosopher is a wise man distinguished for wisdom and sound judgment.

A sage is a wise man distinguished for wisdom and from experience.[3]

According to this definition [above], philosophers and sages both are wise man. Being wise, wisdom, in itself is a very broad term, and we shall later see that the sage’s wisdom leans more toward sagacity, while the philosopher’s wisdom leans more toward knowledge. But what is meant by ‘sound judgment’ here? ‘Sound’ means logical and coherent, the drawing of the right conclusions from the given premises. ‘Judgment,’ according to Immanuel Kant, the father of German rationality, is subjective universality.[4] It means: ‘being indifferent to the existence of the object.’ As a result of that indifference, the philosopher’s judgments will be (ideally) ‘free from interest and inclinations.’[5]

We could also say: A philosopher does not need to connect to anything or anyone, nor does he have to be good person (that’s for the saints) or prove himself to be a worthy member of his community (as sages do). Not the philosopher’s person or moral character is idolized; his success will be judged solely against the novelty and provocation of the (sound) argument he presented.

The ancient Greeks thought of a philosopher as an eternal seeker of wisdom: someone who always searches the truth, comes close to it, but ultimately cannot attain perfect wisdom, ever. Perfection was reserved for the gods, if that. As opposed to a philosopher, the sage (or ‘sophos’) in ancient Greece was considered the bearer of wisdom: someone who already possessed wisdom and only needed to self-actualize himself. He was, for lack of better words, a demigod.

Plato was proud to be a philosopher. He argued that a sage or ‘sophos’ by definition was impartial to the joys of truth-seeking, because a sophos claimed he already possessed that wisdom. In Plato’s understanding, only a ‘philo-sophos’, a ‘lover-of-wisdom,’ fully realizes that a) perfect wisdom was unattainable, and b) that one nevertheless must always seek new knowledge, knowledge that would lead ever closer to the light. Sages were already light, and Plato could not take light. He preferred law. Only the eternal condemnation, one’s calling toward searching the truth, was true love. Consequently, Greek philosophers developed an aversion to sages and their perceived arrogance and hypocrisies, their acted sagacity. Neville gives the following definition of sagacity:

Sagacity first requires that one understands people. At the heart of this is the understanding of how people perceive, think, and act. Most people are aware of what they perceive, think, and do, but usually not of the texture of their perceiving, thinking, and acting as such. These three activities constitute a person’s most basic orientation toward the world.’[6]

Plato and his disciples condemned the sage’s character and called into doubt his sagely motivations. In The Sophist (c. 360 BC) and The Republic (c. 380 BC), he described the sophos as having a false sense of divine inspiration and suffering from a delusion about their own mythical status. Plato further ascribed to the sage a highly manipulative character and an erroneous belief in human supernatural and esoteric powers. From the philosopher’s point of view, the sages did not seek nor did they really care much about the truth; all the sages thought and cared about was, allegedly, their status, power, and influence. Like a false prophet who seeks an elevated place from where he could air his wrong beliefs and propagate his erroneous teachings.

Unsurprisingly, Plato’s criticism of the sages was an attack on Athenian politicians, as well as quack doctors, charlatans, and the competitors to his Academy [Greek: Akademeia] –name patron of today’s ‘academics’ and ‘academia’.

Over the course of Western scholarship, this Ancient Greece’s aversion to the sages would repeat itself over and over again, for example, in the New Testament, The Book of James 3:17-18: ‘Contrasting the false wisdom [of the sages] is true wisdom – Wisdom from God. God’s wisdom is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, and full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere.’[7] False wisdom, on the other hand, is that of the dreck and rabbel: human wisdom. Finally, the western Enlightenment and rational Academe schooled sagacity out of the European mind and made the sages obsolete and sagehood a remnant of the past.

Today, philosophy in Germany has become a highly thought-after occupation and the single most important approach to thinking—besides the scientific one—throughout all academic disciplines. Academic philosophy, which mainly consists of commentary on the existing philosophical works of others, is respectable and well paid. Becoming a public philosopher in terms of one’s writing and life work being dispersed by state media and state publishers is the equivalent of having your face masoned into bronze and stone. Becoming a sage is all that not. Graduate students in Germany study for a PhD degree, the Doctor Philosophiae. The state does not offer a Doctor Sapientia. In fact, most English derivatives of ‘sapere’ [Latin: wise] –sage, sagacity, sagehood– didn’t even make it into the German dictionary [as we shall discuss, later].

While the West celebrated its culture of philosophers, the East remained living sage cultures. Having said that Germany was a culture for philosophers and thus no country for sages, a couple of issues about the history that let to this dichotomy need to be addressed.

First, what had happened since the Greeks and during the rise of Christianity in Europe that caused the exodus of Western sage culture? The Germans do not call no thinker ‘einen Weisen’ for no reason. That title and designation had fallen into disgrace not by chance but by systematic attack and suppression, as we shall see.

Next, why did Eastern societies cultivate sages by the hundreds and thousands, while Germany has yet to produce (officially) a single one? Where have all the German sages gone? Moreover, what were the advantages and disadvantages of fully developed sage cultures over no-sage cultures? Surely, much has been reported about the advantages and disadvantages of the Western philosophical traditions and the lack thereof in the East. On the other hand, especially the advantages of sagacious traditions of the East were still under-reported or outright dismissed in Europe. Given the cultural survival and economical rise of so many Eastern nations, what will be the most obvious consequences (and benefits, depending) of not having developed a concept for sages and sagehood in Germany for the future?

Sages – or sophists, as they were called originally – did not have a good reputation in the ancient Greek tradition after the rise of the philosophers. The school of philosophers instead became the driving forces and ford-makers of Western history of thought and the development of European civilization. Sages were still present after Greece’s demographic and spiritual dominance in Europe had faded, but were few in numbers and not organized; this contrasted with the Far East where the Confucian sages founded Confucianism and the Taoist sages founded Taoism, for example. Over the ages, sagism was seen as more blasphemous and heretic, so that by the time of the 18th Century’s European ‘Enlightenment’ [having reached a state of deep understanding], it was too late and sagehood had become extinct. Hence the West’s new fixation on the intact, unadulterated and blameless East that needed to be explored, tasted, then disowned.

If sagehood wanted to be seen and felt again in Europe, it could only be re-discovered by studying Greek antiquity or – as a welcomed substitute – by consuming the ever-archaic, exotic and mythical Orient as it gradually published itself under the dictatorship of the European orientalists.

In the Eastern hemisphere of the world the sages and all their teachings flourished. Oriental sages were known and are still known in (foreign) terms such as shengren, gurus, arhats, Brahmans, shi (masters), and many more. This is not to say that all of the above are the same – they are not. An Indian rishis or Buddhist bodhisattva is very different from a Chinese shengren; just as India is very different from China: calling Confucius a Buddha or bodhisattva is as wrong as calling the Hindu-god Krishna a shengren. A German rationalist is not a French idealist, is not an English empiricist either: calling a rationalist an idealist is as wrong as calling an idealist an empiricist. Yet one calls the latter ones collectively ‘the philosophers’ because they bore out of the (Western) philosophical tradition, just as one called the former ones collectively ‘the sages’ because they bore of the (Eastern) sagacious tradition.

The sages shared and personified the sage’s traits, practiced the sagacious approach to wisdom and tried to achieve ‘sagehood’ through self-cultivation and personal experience. There were just as many forms of sagehood in the East, as there were philosophical schools in Europe; and today when we enlists some great sages of history, of the Eastern sages there are so many while of the Western sages there are only a few, ancient Greek ones: The Ancient sages of Greek: Solon of Athens, Chilon of Sparta, Thales of Miletus, Bias of Priene, Cleobulus of Lindos, Pittacus of Mitylene, and Periander of Corinth; the Wise Men of Egypt; the Ancient sages of China: the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (ch: 竹林七賢 [Zhúlín Qī Xián]: Ruan Ji, Xi Kang, Liu Ling, Shan Tao, Ruan Xian, Xiang Xiu, Wang Rong); the Vedic Seven Sages [Saptarshis] of India: Agastya, the Vedic Siddhar, and many more; the Sages of Talmudic (of the Jewish tradition); the Navaratnas (Hindu tradition): Śākyamuni; the Buddhist bodhisattvas and The Buddha; the Zen Patriarchs: Ananda, Nagarjuna and Asvaghosa; the Chinese sages: Confucius, Lao Zi, Mencius, Zhuang Zi, Hui Neng and Mo Zi, but also the Twelve Sages of Qilu (now Shandong); the Japanese sages: Honen, Shinran, and so forth; the Ten Sikh Gurus: Guru Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh; the Hindu sages (in the West often erroneously called the ‘Hindu saints’): the Raghavendra Swami, Jagadguru Mahaprabhu Shri Vallabhacharya; the modern sages such as Paramahansa Yogananda, Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, Shirdi Sai Baba, Ji Xianlin, Ren Jiyu, Thích Nhất Hạnh, Swami Sivandanda Saraswati, Gandhi, Ikeda Daisaku, or the Dalai Lama. The list goes long.

A common Western misconception about sages and sagehood is that they require a religion. Sagehood does not require religion at all. Confucianism is not a religion in any Western sense of the word, but a code of conduct. Buddhism is not a religion either, but a way of life. Sages first and foremost are great humanists. They share a compassion for their fellow human beings, and they always possess some of the following sagely traits:

Sages are spiritual beings who pursue the course of the Mean and a high level of human perfection. They personify the ideal personality. Sages mostly share a love for learning and are respectful, gentile, and kind. The embrace the way (the One) or in any other way are aware of oneness, thus they prefer ordering and harmonizing the world. They are at peace with others, do not content nor boast, while never losing sight of the humanity that unites them with all other members of society. As spiritual teachers they are modest, conspicuous and never consider themselves right. They often practice propriety, self-cultivation, filial piety, ancestor worship and many other rituals (such as meditation, mind-body practices) and are thus a role model for society.[8]

Since Western societies were indoctrinated by Christianity and philosophy, Western missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries to China did not know how to describe non-Christian and un-philosophical Chinese traditions. As a result Confucianism and Buddhism were categorized as ‘religions,’ albeit inferior ones. Chinese thinkers were ‘philosophers,’ but of substandard. Choosing familiar names for the unfamiliar does a lot of damage culture-wise, like calling Chinese 饺子jiaozi (dumplings) ‘Knödel’ or Japanese 寿司sushi ‘Fisch.’ It deprives the target culture of its original names, and the members of that culture of the benefits of having original names.

In both cases above, the food of Chinese and Japanese origins would have been devalued. Germany originally had nothing like jiaozi or sushi; but now, worse, the translators made it look like China and Japan had weird Knödel and Fisch. (Re-)Naming Chinese and Japanese food stuff here and there may sound trifle. The systematically (re-)naming of the Chinese and Japanese traditions, however, is not trifle, it is abuse.

The missionaries did not know any better than either calling Chinese sages (biblical) ‘saints’ or (Greek) ‘philosophers,’ albeit carefully reminding us that it was not really ‘religion’ or ‘philosophy’ in the Western sense of those words. Biblical vocabulary in particular was very convenient. It was used generously and as a result few Chinese terms survived. The Buddhist disciples – in Chinese: heshang – were called ‘monks;’ the Chinese great masters – in Chinese: dashi – were called ‘priests.’ The various Chinese schools of thought – in Chinese: jiao – were called ‘philosophies.’ Buddhists mystical texts or slokas – in Chinese: jing – were called (biblical) ‘holy texts.’

Cultural exchange always worked both ways, however imbalanced: Chinese and Japanese scholars, too, were eager to project their own names onto Western archetypes. Many called Jesus Christ and Plato shengren. For instance, the allusive ‘Four Great Sages’ (ch: sheng; jp: shisei 四聖) in Asia universally refers to Buddha, Jesus Christ, Confucius, and Socrates. A philosophical version of the Four Sages exists, too: In the Tetsugakudō-kōen, the ‘Philosopher Park’ in Tokyo, Inoue Enryō created his own ‘Four Wise Men’ set of sculptures by replacing the image of Jesus Christ with a sculpture of Immanuel Kant. Calling the philosopher Kant a ‘sage’ places him above other (mere) philosophers – an honor that he would have liked. In German culture, however, Immanuel Kant always remained a philosopher. In other words, the Asians evidently wanted the Western philosophers to become sages, and the Europeans wanted the Eastern sages to become philosophers. Without this trick, if one culture cannot account for what’s found in another, its claim to universality is incomplete.

During the 19th and 20th centuries of intense Western preoccupation with Asia – after all it was the European age of imperialism, colonialism, and orientalism – the Anglo-Saxon world had learned and thoroughly understood that shengren were not (biblical) holy men in any Western sense of that word in the same way that Buddhist spiritual beings were not holy men but arhats, bodhisattvas, or buddhas. English-language scholarship had learned that China always had and still has a long and continuous tradition of sages (sheng) and sagehood, as rooted and manifested in the Chinese spirit and way of life just as Greek philosophy and Christianity were rooted and manifested in the European spirit and way of life. Unfortunately, English speakers did not domesticate the Chinese loanword ‘shengren’ which would have been most appropriate and reasonable, and would have changed the course of Confucian history, but instead, because the English society was familiar to terms like ‘sages,’ ‘sagacity’ and ‘sagehood,’ called Confucius, Mencius, Laozi and all the shengren just that: ‘sages.’

‘Sage,’ that word, was Middle English, from Old French and Latin sapientia, meaning wise through reflection and experience or distinguished for wisdom. The term ‘sage’ in the English language does not bear any religious connotation and it that was an acceptable synonym for shengren, if shengren was to mean a man of highest wisdom, but – of course – could not substitute the Chinese original loanword entirely because shengren in addition to a man of highest wisdom (智 zhi) meant so much more to Chinese culture: highest virtues (德 de), proper conduct (礼 li), the striving for human perfection—the Middle way. Still, wisdom or better sagacity and the personification of highest wisdom are rendered elegantly and truthfully by terms like ‘sageness’ and ‘the sages.’ And that was that for the Anglo-American way to accommodate the concept of shengren.

Things were different and a lot more complicated, however, for the Germans. Germany had no concept of sages and sagehood, and Latin sapientia discontinued its original meaning, sagacity, in the German vocabulary. Instead the word ‘Sage’ [with a capital S] in German now referred to a legend or folk tale. The only way to convey the English meaning of the sage in the German language is by translating it as ‘der Weise’ (the wise man [note the gender: die Weise {feminine} meant ‘manner, mode, and fashion’].

That said, Wiseman (or ‘Weiser’) is so much less powerful a concept than ‘sages.’ But for German standards, at least the word ‘Weisen’ conveyed the idea of ‘Weisheit’ or wisdom. Had Weisen been used as standard translation for shengren, it would have corresponded neatly with the English sages. Besides, ‘Weiser’ was the only proper translation of English ‘sage.’ But the Germans – as a general rule – did not do that, they did not call the shengren ‘die Weisen’ but instead continued to call sages ‘die Heiligen’ (the saints or holy men), or else re-moderated the Chinese sheng-tradition however way it pleased them. Among the many illustrious German translations for shengren – if it was translated at all – were: Göttliche (god-like men, demigods), Berufene (appointees), Kulturheroen (cultural heroes), Genies (genius), Sittenlehrer (moral teachers), and many more [see Chapter 4]. Some German missionaries such as Karl Gützlaff and Richard Wilhelm were evidently Christian fundamentalists and wanted to evangelize China and the Chinese people at all cost. Translating sheng as ‘heilig’ and sheng(ren) as ‘Heilige’ (and tian as Heaven or God of course) was a superior strategy of the Church to convert the common Chinaman. Not all the German missionaries were incurable Christian propagandists like Karl Gützlaff, yet many other translators of Confucius’ The Analects, for example Wilhelm Grube, Wilhelm Schott, and Franz Xaver Biallas never correctly translated sheng(ren) either. Some German orientalists and philosophers had no religious agenda whatsoever; nevertheless they all felt irritated – if they felt anything at all since most of them never heard the original name – by the sheng and the concepts of sages and sagehood in general. German textbooks on Chinese sages often read something along the lines of: ‘A philosopher, but unlike philosophers; a holy man, but unlike holy men.’[9] Describing Chinese Confucius as a Western ‘philosopher’ or ‘saint’ was to describe a paradox. But Confucius is not at all paradoxical, he is a shengren. German scholarship got it wrong for hundreds of years – that was the sad truth.

Not having any ‘Weisen’ (sages) was one problem; not calling other countries’ sages ‘die Weisen’ was another. Every culture probably has a range of names that have been discredited or replaced, came history. One striking example is the German world for a leader: ‘Führer.’ Since Adolf Hitler, the dictator, had personified this term, it was consequently banned in Germany. Call it political correctness. But in the victorious Anglo-Saxon world, of course the word leader was entirely positive, desirable, honorable, and continues to be used in politics and business and everywhere. This is just one example of how a certain title or archetype falls out of favor in one country, but thrives in another.

Now, ‘Der Weise’ is not a complete taboo like ‘der Führer,’ and there is no semantic connection between those words – nevertheless the idea of a pejorative arises: ‘Der Weise’ (the sage) has lost much of its goodwill (if the sophists ever deserved any) in terms of the integrity and reality of the person describes. It could actually harm a philosopher’s reputation to be labeled as Weiser. The following is a list of the ‘Weise’-term used in German tradition (discussed in more detail in Chapter 3); all of these items are either pejorative in nature or archaic and reserved for mythology, legend, and fantastic literature:

  1. Sophos, the wise man (Socrates) – archaic
  2. The Stoic sage (The sophists of Greek antiquity) – archaic and pejorative
  3. Three wise men (Oriental sage) – un-European
  4. Nathan the Wise (Lessing) – un-European
  5. Die weise alte Frau, der weise alte Mann (Fairy Tales) – folkloric
  6. Referred to a melody ‘Weise’ meant ‘elevated,’ ‘archaic’ – outdated
  7. The Wise man as archetype (Grimm/Jung) – mythic, folkloric
  8. Wise persons in fiction (Fantasy literature) – fantastic

German scholars found it irritating to (re-)use the archaic and folkloric term Weise, a denotation that had served well the tales of the Brothers Grimm. Would fairy tale characters apply to China’s greatest thinkers? Besides, ‘der Weise’ was not a name for any dead or living German thinker, ever. All Germans had proper occupations and titles; a ‘Weiser’ was not among them. Germans were called ‘Dichter,’ ‘Philosophen’ or, generously: ‘Denker,’ as in the epigram ‘Dichter und Denker,’ but never were they called ‘die Weisen’ (the sages). ‘Der Weise’ (plural: ‘die Weisen’) often evoked mythical or Oriental ideas. If applied to a modern thinker, ‘Weise’ bore the negative connotations of being outdated and un-scientific, and, in the rare case of a pensioned and chain-smoking politician like Helmut Schmidt, the former German Chancellor, it could be a friendly yet caricatured gesture that was essentially that: belittling and patronizing. Used this way in politics, ‘der Weise’ was pointing to the rare instances of high morals and integrity – of a politician, alas! – rather than of true wisdom or sagacity. In other words: It was mockery. People want to be called by their professions, or by names like poets or writers or philosophers, not to be ridiculed as stoic, sandal-wearing know-it-all. Moreover, Western culture had come to extremely value youth over old age, knowledge over wisdom, progress over reflexion, judgment over experience. So, nobody wanted to be considered old and wise, because in such a nation it sucks. Gert Scobel in his book Weisheit (2008) thus asked the right question: ‘Warum fehlt uns Weisheit?’ [Why do we lack wisdom?]. The answer was: Germany must do well without.

[1] Ji Xianlin, 2009: ‘一旦他们想把自己的理论捏成一个完整的体系的时候–一般哲学家都是有这种野心的–便显露出捉襟见肘,削足适履的窘态. 我心目中的思想家,却不是这个样子。他们对我在上面谈到的那些问题也可能会有自己的看法. 但是,他们决不硬搞什么体系,决不搞那一套烦琐的分析。记得有一副旧对联:’世事洞明皆学问,人情练达即文章. ‘我觉得,思想家就是洞明世事,练达人情的人。他们不发玄妙莫测的议论,不写恍兮惚兮的文章,更不幻想捏成什么哲学体系. 他们说的话都是中正平和的,人人能懂的。可是让人看了以后,眼睛立即明亮,心头涣然冰释,觉得确实是那么一回事.”

[2] Neville, 1978, p. 54

[3] Webster Dictionary, 2010

[4] Kant, 1987, p. 54

[5] Bruno, 2010, p. 70

[6] Neville, 1978, p. 55

[7] New Testament, Book of James, 3:17-18

[8] A summary of sagely attributes taken from quotes in this text by Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Mozi, Tu, Gu, Taylor, and Schwarz

[9] Wilhelm, 1925, p. 64

Pattberg, Thorsten (2011), Shengren – Above Philosophy and Beyond Religion, LoD Press, New York