Shengren – Chapter 3.3 – Die Weisheit (Wisdom)

Wisdom […] lives alone with God; and to not visibly act to the contrary is what might be called human wisdom.[1]

– Immanuel Kant, Zur Geschichtsphilosophie

In German language, Weisheit and the person who embodied it, der Weise, belonged to the world of legends and fairy tales. That wasn’t always so. Before the technical term and type Philosoph became a German word in the sixteenth century [until then it had been circulated as Latin/French loanword], little stigma was attached to native or folk wisdom. Paracelsus used Weltweisheit [world-wisdom] to appeal to its universalism.[2] The ethno-German Weisheit [sagehood] meant a certain lifestyle and way of conduct that was the direct result of evaluating a situation or a people’s intention correctly. No sagehood was required. You could say that wisdom was an open source that everyone could partake. Hence die Weisen had never been truly defined as in say Confuciunism. The Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe (1955) provides the following archaic definition:Wisdom, wîsheit, wistuom (corresponding to gr. Sophia, Latin sapientia), is the lifestyle and conduct that springs up from the right assessment of things and people.’ And it reads on: ‘Wisdom is not synonymous with science in sense of exact research and organizational unity of knowledge.’[3]

Distortion-free from the papacy (the office of the pope) and the syndicate of the philosophers, folk wisdom was free for all and it was not organized knowledge. The sage was to be wise and the saint was to be holy; only the philosopher was to have knowledge:

The West with its philosophical approach put more emphasize on the acquisition of knowledge; while the East with its sagacious approach put more emphasize on the accumulation of wisdom.

The European orientalists saw wisdom—whether in pre-philosophical Europe or the Far East—as quite un-scientific, a conviction that dated back to Aristotle the philosopher: ‘wisdom is a form of goodness, and is not scientific knowledge but another kind of cognition.’[4] The ‘goodness’ or kindness or friendliness and hospitality often attributed to Asian societies did not prevent the Europeans though from taking full advantage of their own knowledge-driven civilization and their technological superiority.

Wisdom ‘the manifested uncertainty and incompatible multiple truths’[5] seemed vague and rather undesirable to European philosophers and scientists. Accordingly, sagacity or wisdom, whenever it was met in Africa, South America, and Asia, was looked at as the anthropological finding of some rare species or ancient fossil. Wim van Binsbergen, a professor for inter-cultural philosophy, described ‘wisdom’ in modern comparative scholarship as follows: ‘The word wisdom is often used vainly in academic texts today, to denote, not time-honored modes of knowing complementary to scientific knowledge, but rather, within a given North Atlantic / globalizing discipline (e.g. physics, law, econometrics) the obsolescent conventional approach of an earlier vintage.’[6] In such an advanced society where wisdom could be done away with, professional wisemen, if they didn’t associate with the syndicate (philosophy) or used religious faith as a decoy were taxed with being charlatans: ‘not exact research’ (Hoffmann), ‘un-scientific’ (Aristotle), and ‘obsolete and vintage’ (van Binsbergen).

German orientalists—its all lies for careers—who studied Buddhism and Confucianism had better reported saints and philosophers in China—this would greatly expand Westernization and, personally, grant such ideologues coverage and publications and a place in national history. It didn’t matter that there were no saints and philosophers in the ancient texts. What mattered was who did translation that everybody reads, as the missionary Richard Wilhelm exemplified:

And so is the type of great men that shaped European history habitually a very particular figure: half warrior, half statesman. (…) Ever new layers of society push themselves above the rest, and into the light of history, with their demands. Those demands are initially refused by the prevailing layers. But eventually, after some longer or shorter struggle, those demands have to be recognized.[7]

Wilhelm saw a demand in Germany for saints and philosophers in China, so he made them up. It didn’t matter than Legge, Loomis, Watters, and the other Anglo-Saxons imperialists objected to all-too-obnoxious dogmatic translations; for the German sinologists if only dogmatic translations were promoted boldly and recklessly enough, like all things in war and politics, the winner would dictate history. And Wilhelm was right: The German-speaking world to this day indeed called the shengren ‘Heilige.’

Enshrining philosophy in China and enforcing evangelism. Was China’s tradition on a death watch, was it gone—a shattered legacy of its former self? Germany itself had no die Weisen, and never saw the need to cultivate another antiquated sage culture. The columnist Uwe Justus Wenzel in his Űber das Geheimnis der Philosophie (2009) defended the German tick: ‘Yes, philosophy is wise –and wise enough not wanting to embody wisdom itself.’ Johannes Hoffmeister, chief editor of the Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe (1955), warned about the dangers of wisdom:

Even if in popular opinion someone may be considered wise without the slightest understandings of science, [nevertheless] the path to wisdom, if it shall not be impassable or misleading, in humanity inevitable must go through the sciences.[8]

The Germans only respected Oriental sages if those sages stayed—as the Greek ones did—in their history books and epic poems in which, according to world historian Oswald Spengler (1918), ‘the truth was still linked to wisdom.’

As far as the wisdom of the East goes, becoming Chinese or Indian would not have been a wise career move for any German, and those who did actually come to love the Orient, in heart and mind, even married an object of their study, and procreated half-breeds, were forced to stay away from Germany [‘Aussteiger,’ or drop-outs] or else, in the rare cases they did return to their fatherland, or never left, were denied access to the inner circles of power and had to subscribe to a life of hippidom on the esoteric fringes of society. They became cynics and cultural pessimists and they loved to read Arthur Schopenhauer.

The cultural pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer physically avoided Asia and lacked any experience with Asian traditions, and for that matter had not met a single Asian scholar, yet he became the Oriental philosopher. He saw and understood something in the writings about the East that deserved salute and recognition from Western philosophy. Schopenhauer attributed the highest form of wisdom to Indian and Buddhist scriptures, and he used sagely vocabulary like Weisheit, Weise, Weisheitslehre extensively in his The World as Will and Imaginations, with the expected result that his writings borderline on spiritualism and mysticism, which, thanks to his large posthumous fame and following, came to challenge dogmatic materialism, progress, and modernity:

The living knowledge of eternal righteousness, the balance of the balance, which unites the malum culpae with the malum poenae, requires a total rise above individuality and the principle of its possibility; that living knowledge just like the related pure and clear knowledge about the essence of all virtues will always remain inaccessible to the majority of men. That is why the wise ancestors of the Indian people had communicated them directly—as much as figurative and rhapsodic presentation possible—in terms and language only in the Vedas and esoteric wisdom teachings that were accessible to the three reincarnated castes. For the folk religion and exoteric teachings on the other hand, the founding fathers had expressed that living knowledge only in form of myths.[9]

Schopenhauer promoted the Vedas, a sacred collection of rhymes and folklore dating back to perhaps 1000 BC that he couldn’t read, as ‘the fruit of the highest human knowledge and wisdom.’ His wisetalk in the above quote needs closer examination, because it provides insight into the German use of Weisheit: ewig (eternal), Waage- (scale), malum culpae (evil of fault), malum poenae (evil of punishment), Ur- (ancient-), Weisheitslehre, Religion, esoterisch, exoterisch, mythisch, Frucht (fruit, Old Testament), and Weisheit (wisdom). All these German terms are either biblical or mythic-archaic. Consequently, Schopenhauer’s description of Eastern cultures felt like walking majestically back through time. It evokes biblical and mystical images to a German readership. On the other hand, the Hindus who lived in Vedic Pakistan/India and grew up with the sage tradition, no matter how old the Vedas, felt their culture alive and modern just as the Europeans felt philosophy to be alive and modern despite its proven antiquity. Language could be a prison, indeed.

The Europeans, usurping the sage cultures, planted biblical saints or European philosophers in Asia. Some thought this could be halted, remedied, or reversed again in the future, say, if China could convincingly explain to the Germans that Goethe was a shengren; or India could convincingly explain to the Germans that Goethe had the qualities of a rishi; or Asia Studies could convincingly explain to the Germans that die Weisen truly exist. German philosophers, if they had some sense, left the backdoor open to de-westernization, and so did Leibniz some 334 years ago:

The ancient wisdom of the human race will not be displaced by the events in Galilee. By contrast, Indian wisdom will flow into Europe and will bring a fundamental change in our knowledge and thinking.[10]

In Christian societies, the highest wisdom was reserved for the omnipotent sky-ruler. In progressive circles, human wisdom never became a currency – knowledge did. Folkloric wisdom (Volksweisheiten) was seen as pedagogy (Erziehung) –transmitted mostly through children books and moral tales such as Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen, H. Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter, or W. Busch’s Max & Moritz. In here, the authors parted with collective, valuable life lessons [for survival?] on the questions of right and wrong, good and evil, rich and poor, and all family relations [hierarchies] and social conduct. Those stories were literal ‘Hausmärchen’ or ‘Household Tales,’ and not school curriculum.

It was typically a mother or grandparent who would read such tales to their children or grandchildren before bedtime, so when the orientalists used folkloric wisdom vocables in their translations of China their readers would inevitably be taken back to the innocency and aboriginal terror of their childhood. And, to no surprise, this image of a busy nation of children, with childish institutions, run by adult children, became one of the most powerful stereotypes. Herder regarded China’s childishness as Volkscharakter, preventing China permanently from evolving, growing up:

Let this be the stage of a still imperfect culture, but it is necessary for the childhood of the human race; for where there were no such educators of the people, they remained eternally in ignorance and inertia. A kind of brahmanas, mandarins, bikkhus, lamas, etc. was necessary for every nation in its political youth; indeed, we can see that it was precisely this group of human beings alone that carried the seeds of artificial culture in Asia.[11]

Leibniz once said that folk wisdom was a ‘state of mind that wallowed in the naïve, childlike, only spatial attainable’ and therefore is ‘short-whiled Glückseligkeit’ (felicitousness).[12] The hard-working girl is rewarded, the lazy girl is punished [in Frau Holle]; gold rains down from the stars on the charitable girl [in Sterntaler]; the wicked boys get grinded and eaten by the geese [in Max & Moritz]; the girl who plays with fire, burns alive [in Die gar traurige Geschichte mit dem Feuerzeug]. Girls, and boys alike, if they carry themselves decent and brave all obstacles, will marry a prince, or princess, inherit a kingdom, and live happily ever after [in Eisenhans, Rumpelstilzchen, Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot, and many more]. Folk wisdom seemed to be a force of goodness.[13]

So, wisdom could be in folklore –texts! But could it be in dem Volk? Could wisemen roam the streets of Jena and Leibniz, Göttingen and Koblenz? Certainly not, because civilization’s childhood was over. Wisdom was not a profession. Science and hard facts were: ‘Our nations are, therefore, animals which, unwittingly at the stranger, devour good and evil, spices and poison, coffee and tea, silver and gold. Educators were missionaries or scientists, not sages.

German Weisheit was related to harmoniousness, as Leibniz called it: ‘Rücksicht auf harmonische Zusammenstimmung’[14] [lit. Regards for harmonious togetherness]. Goethe added: ‘Das Verhältnis zu seinesgleichen und also zur ganzen Menschheit’[15] [The relation between oneself and all men]. Those German definitions were all materialistic; they all applied to the abstract concept of wisdom, a philosophical term, making it very concrete academe –an object of study. They were not, however, permanent attributes that could be easily assigned to a real person: One could regard the harmonious togetherness; one could not be the regarding the harmonious togetherness. Weisheit was not a full-time job, neither a vocation nor a calling; Philosophy, on the other hand, was precisely all that in Germany.

Besides, what was the ‘personification of wisdom’, ein Weiser, if he had than existed, supposed to do in German society? Without a University Weisheit degree. Without the bureaucracy. Without a work-place. Without scientism. Everyone could be weise if he gets old or in that short-whiled moment of bliss [or approximation]; but a fixed source for Weisheit? Founding a Schule der Weisheit (as that refugee Count Hermann Keyserling did in 1920 in Darmstadt)? – Always suspicious.

Oh English, you had it [slightly] better! The English language (and the French) did not need to participate in the German discourse about die Weisheit [female, by the way]; it could sidestep wisdom, that term, in Oriental studies with synonyms such as sages, sagehood, sagacious, sagacity, sageness—all derived from Latin: sapientia. If Latin legitimizes it, how can it be bad: The British could import from their [former] colonies all those Oriental gurus, yogi, lamas, and shamans and, in the name of diversity and multiculturalism, let them be gurus, yogi, lamas, and shamans. America was even more generous (and geographically, could host so many more types) in its tolerance for all sorts of incoming birds—quacks, quibblers, and prophets included. This was one of the reasons why the German-speaking ‘spiritual leaders’—from C. G. Jung (Switzerland) to Hermann Keyserling (Germany) to Rudolf Steiner (Austria)—all exported their wild cults to America, Land of the Free.

The Germans in Germany, on the other hand, met Oriental cultures in books and instantly suffered from sagacious conceptlessness. Victor von Strauss in his Lao-Tse’s Tao Te King (1924) confessed to this diversity problem as the ‘incommensurability of Chinese terms and definitions.’[16] His observation, of course, did not stop Von Strauss from continuing the German tradition of calling all, say Taoists: ‘Heilige’ or ‘heilige Menschen.’[17] Nobody could disprove it because there were no Taoists in the German streets. In China, businessmen, actors, politicians, and professors are Taoists. They are not ‘holy men,’ in a good way. Imagine tens of thousands of practicing Taoists had sailed to Germany and walked about the street of Hamburg and Bremen. This would have made all the Christian talk about Chinese ‘Heilige’ and ‘heilige Menschen’ look rather silly. Soon, the Germans would learn that Taoists gentlemen were called daojun, and their exquisite deities xianren, and that Taoists were practicing tai-chi (boxing), waidan (alchemy), mastering qi (energy) and li (force)—all of it (if all words were equal) untranslatable. But of course, no human Taoist sample arrived, and nobody knew the correct Chinese terms in Hamburg and Bremen. Thus, sly German academicians, gatekeepers to ‘correct’ German knowledge, scoring for team Germany, twisted the Taoist inventiveness in their own and Christianity’s favor.

Let us go back to Leibniz and his wisdom being Glückseligkeit. The philosopher devoted an entire chapter in his Deutsche Schriften (1677) to German Weisheit (wisdom), which of course to him and by extension of the German mind was also humanity’s Weisheit, for two reasons: first because all European thinkers saw themselves at the center of the world, and second because philosophy was about sound judgment which, once it was demonstrably sound, was always universal with regards to that philosophizing. Leibniz was not a sage, and was not called ein Weiser. But in the chapter mentioned he described the effect that—hypothetically—a spiritual being of the highest human wisdom would have on his surroundings: To him it was all about communicating goodness. The following description of Glückseligkeit (in English more closer: felicitousness) is surprisingly void of philosophy, and Leibniz probably consciously avoided biblical language and reference to holiness altogether because the ‘highest wisdom’ described in it was holistic and all-the-world’s human nature:

The highest felicitousness of the highest and most enlightened people appears in such a way that they are capable to act upon their felicitousness as if they had a thousand hands and lived a thousand times. A real life’s worth is measured by the amount of good done in that life. He who did much good in little time appears as if he had lived a thousand times longer. Those [people of the highest felicitousness] make it look as if thousands and thousands hands contributed, and they can – to their pleasure and for highest glory – achieve more good in a few years than otherwise could not have been done in many hundreds of years.[18]

Leibniz did not supply a name for ‘erleuchteter Personen’ [enlightened people]. He just was unable to tell the sage; Why, because they didn’t have one. Those were the limits of the German language of his time. In China they said shengren, in Japan sējin, in India rishi, and in the English-speaking world they had sages, but in Germany they had no fitting name for such creatures. The old German word and correct translation for sage was Weiser, which was—in the absence of folklore—a derogatory term. No one rose above conventions. Not a single German philosopher or thinker has been called a Weiser. If there biographers were wise enough, that is.

[1] Kant, 1939, p. 46: ‘Weisheit [das ist praktische Vernunft in der Angemessenheit ihrer dem Endzweck aller Dinge, dem höchsten Gut, völlig entsprechenden Maßregeln], wohnt allein bei Gott; und ihrer Idee nur nicht sichtbarlich entgegen zu handeln, ist das, was man etwa menschliche Weisheit nennen könnte.”

[2] Inwood, 1996, p. 220

[3] Hoffmeister, 1955: ‘Weisheit, wîsheit, wistuom (entspr. gr. Sophia, lat. sapięntia), […] heute allg. die aus der richtigen Einschätzung der Dinge und Menschen entspringende Lebenshaltung und Handlungsweise. […] Weisheit ist nicht gleichbedeutend mit Wissenschaft im Sinne exakter Forschung und organisatorischer Einheit des Wissens.’

[4] Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics: 1246b, 35

[5] Van Binsbergen, 2009, p. 5

[6] Ibid., p. 5

[7] Wilhelm, 1922, p. 33: ‘So ist denn auch der Typus der grossen Männer, die die europäische Geschichte zumeist bestimmt haben, eine ganz bestimmte Gestalt: halb Krieger, halb Staatsmann. […] Immer neue Schichten drängen sich ans Licht der Geschichte hervor mit ihren Ansprüchen, die zunächst von den herrschenden Schichten bestritten werden, bis sie schliesslich im Verlauf eines längeren oder kürzeren Kampfes anerkannt werden müssen.”

[8] Hoffmeister, 1955: ‘Wenn in volkstümlicher Auffassung auch jemand weise sein kann, ohne irgend etwas von Wissenschaft zu verstehen, so muss doch >>der Weg zur Weisheit<< […], wenn er nicht ungangbar oder irreleitend sein soll […] bei uns Menschen unvermeidlich durch die Wissenschaft gehen.”

[9] Schopenhauer, 1819, p. 726: ‘Die lebendige Erkenntniss der ewigen Gerechtigkeit, des Waagebalkens, der das malum culpae mit dem malum poenae unzertrennlich verbindet, erfordert gänzliche Erhebung über die Individualität und das Princip ihrer Möglichkeit: sie wird daher, wie auch die ihr verwandte und sogleich zu erörternde reine und deutliche Erkenntniss des Wesens aller Tugend, der Mehrzahl der Menschen stets unzugänglich bleiben. Daher haben die weisen Urväter des Indischen Volkes sie zwar in den, den drei wiedergeborenen Kasten allein erlaubten Veden, oder in der esoterischen Weisheitslehre, direkt, so weit nämlich Begriff und Sprache es fassen und ihre immer noch bildliche, auch rhapsodische Darstellungsweise es zulässt, ausgesprochen; aber in der Volksreligion, oder exoterischen Lehre, nur mythisch mitgetheilt. […] in den Veden, der Frucht der höchsten menschlichen Erkenntniss und Weisheit […]”

[10] Schopenhauer, 1819, p. 730: ‘Die Urweisheit des Menschengeschlechts wird nicht von den Begebenheiten in Galiläa verdrängt werden. Hingegen ströhmt Indische Weisheit nach Europa zurück und wird eine Grundveränderung in unserem Wissen und Denken hervorbringen.”

[11] Herder, 1841

[12] Leibniz, 1677, p. 649

[13] Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics: 1246b, 35

[14] Leibniz, 1677, p. 649

[15] Goethe, 1821, chapter 2

[16] Von Strauss, 1924, p. xii

[17] Ibid., pp. 10, 17, 28, 35, 53, 55, 133, 136, 163, 259, 314, 330, 343 ff.

[18] Leibniz, 1677, p. 491: ‘Erscheint also die hohe Glückseligkeit hoher und dabei erleuchteter Personen daraus, dass sie zu ihrer Glückseligkeit so viel thun können, als wenn sie tausend Hände und tausend Leben hätten, ja als wenn sie tausendmal so lange lebten, als sie thun. Denn so viel ist unser Leben für ein wahres Leben zu schätzen, als man darin wohltut. Der nun viel wohlthut in kurzer Zeit, der ist dem gleich, so tausendmal länger lebet; welches bei denen statt findet, so machen können, dass tausend und aber tausend Hände mit ihnen wirken; dadurch in wenig Jahren mehr Gutes geschehen kann zu ihrem höchsten Ruhm und Vergnügen, als sonst viel hundert Jahre nicht bringen könnten.”

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