Shengren – Chapter 3.11 – Das Genie (Genius)

The man who is truly great is one who does not lose his child’s heart.[1]

– The Book of Mencius

Really each child is to a certain extent a genius, and every genius to a certain extent a child.[2]

– Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung

In his Konfuzius – Gespräche (1919), Richard Wilhelm translated shengren on two occasions as ‘Genie;’[3] and, again, in the 1974 edition.[4] An unusual translation, that comes across more like a compliment than a true shengren synonym. In European culture, genius is not a person, but a spiritual guardian,[5] or, as Immanuel Kant taught: a ‘GENIUS can also be explicated as the ability to [exhibit] aesthetic ideas.’[6] In particular, a genius has taste (or is guided by it, either way), and to have taste is linguistically linked to Latin sapere (to taste, to have taste, to be wise).[7] Semantically, then, genius is somehow related to sapientia and thus sagacity. Interesting association, but is Wilhelm’s ‘Genie’ a valid (albeit a one-time) translation or title for a shengren?

As noted, Wilhelm, a Protestant missionary, turned the shengren into Heilige (saints, holy men) and, as expected, made heavy use of biblical vocabulary elsewhere in his many texts. On other occasions, he talked about ‘von Gottes Gnade’ (by the grace of God) and ‘göttlich’ (divine, god-like). To render the shengren as ‘Genie’ however seemed more like Wilhelm’s advancement into sociology, better yet: into psychology, which is unsurprising since he famously befriended the psychologists Karl Jaspers, Siegmund Freud, and Hermann von Keyserling. Technically, the concept of genius in the Western hemisphere had always been revolving around Anschauung (perception), [8] in this case: how someone perceived the world.

The two quotes at the beginning of this section, one from The Book of Mencius, the other from Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Imaginations, are in message very similar: The bright or clever child is curious and open-minded and—more importantly—it is unprejudiced.

The mind of the bright child slowly diminished over the years, however, and, in the majority of people, extinguished during their ‘age of manhood, the Philistines incarnate.’[9] If someone were able to keep one’s childlike innocence; that one would truly be a very special, unique person: a genius. Genius seemed like an evaluation linked to developmental psychology, and thus was unacceptable as translation for the word shengren in the same way that genius was unacceptable as translation for other literal categories such as poet, writer, or philosopher.

Still, academics probably wanted to know: Was Confucius a genius on Western terms? Since genius was related to perception of the world, it clearly separated those with abstract knowledge—the mere scholarly, talented—from the few with intuitive wisdom—the spiritual, visionary. In this respect, genius was a socio-psychological departure from Wilhelm’s ‘Heilige’ although the creative fancy lasted but one single translation line or two. Aside from Wilhelm—to the best of our knowledge—only Shihlien Hsü translated shengren as genius.[10] The following passage describes the notion of genius and what sets it apart from the talented and gifted—in Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Imaginations (1819):

Actually all truth and all wisdom ultimately lie in perception; but unfortunately perception cannot be retained or communicated. At best, the objective conditions for this can be presented to others purified and elucidated through the plastic and pictorial arts and, much more indirectly, through poetry; but it rests just as much on subjective conditions that are not at everyone’s disposal, and not at anyone’s at all times; in fact, such conditions in the higher degrees of perfection are the advantages and privilege of the few. […] Therefore, as a rule, the man of the world cannot impart his accumulated truth and wisdom, but only practice it. He rightly comprehends everything that occurs, and decides what is conformable thereto. Books do not take the place of experience, and learning is no substitute for genius […].[11]

This perception of genius who saw a different world than the rest of his comrades was not explicitly discussed in the Confucian canon, although it could always be induced, of course, as seen from the Mencius quotation. In Confucianism, intuitive wisdom was a deeper understanding of the hidden mechanics of the world through discipline, reading the classics, and guidance by rituals and moral conduct. In modern Chinese, genius was 天才tiancai, a person of extraordinary ability [it means descendant from Heaven]. In Latin, the word genius derived from gen, meaning to be born or to beget: ‘Genius functions as an attendant to one’s actions.’[12] That would pose the question whether the sages were born that way or sagehood made them that way. Confucius surely was attended by genius. But, really, he was a shengren.

[1] Legge, 1985, 8.40: ‘孟子曰:’大人者,不失其赤子之心者也.’

[2] Schopenhauer, 1819, II, 3.31: ‘Wirklich ist jedes Kind gewissermaaßen ein Genie, und jedes Genie gewissermaaßen ein Kind.”

[3] Wilhelm, 1919, pp. 88, 114

[4] Wilhelm, 1974, p. 98

[5] Bruno, 2010, p. 9

[6] Kant, 1987, p. 217

[7] Watkins, 1985, p. 58

[8] Schopenhauer, 1819, p. 1243

[9] Schopenhauer, 1958, p. 396 (transl. by Payne, E. F. J.)

[10] Hsü, 1932, p. 30

[11] Schopenhauer, 1958, p. 74-75 (transl. by Payne, E. F. J.)

[12] Bruno, 2010, p. 9, p. 116

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

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