Shengren – Chapter 3.4 – Der Weise (The Wise Man)

The Indo-European root for wise and wisdom is weid- (to look after, guard, ascribe to, reproach). In Germanic it became wīssaz or wīssōn (appearance, form, manner, wise), in Old-English wīs (manner, wise); hence: Old-English wīsdōm (learning, wisdom).[1]

More directly, the Old-English and Germanic derivations ‘wise, Wissen, Weisheit, wisdom, and vision’ all derived from Latin vid, strictly speaking meaning seeing or sensing, that is, a sensual process through which wisdom was attained. Note that the Indo European root for knowledge and intelligence is wit-, not weid-. Knowledge and wisdom were always two distinct concepts. In his Natural Theology (1829) the British philosopher William Paley described it this way: ‘There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom; wisdom always supposing action, and action directed by it.’[2]

Although ‘der Weise’ is today’s most accurate translation of ‘the sage;’ the two terms actually derived from different roots. The Indo European root for sage is sep- (to taste, perceive), which became Latin sapere (to taste, have taste, be wise), which led to words like sapientia, sapid, sapient, sapor, savant, savor, and sage.[3] As said before, Latin sapientia and all its derivatives flourished in the Romantic languages, and, thanks to the Roman and Norman conquests of England, heavily affected the mother tongue of the Anglo-Saxons. The other Germanic tribes linguistically recruited their wise men from old Germanic wīssāz.[4]

The following German definition of der Weise (the sage) is taken from the authoritative Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s (1785-1863) Deutsches Wörterbuch (ed. 1965):

WEISE, m. Substantivierung des adjektivs weise: der weise, sw. m., ein weiser, plural die weisen, weise; ‘einer der weise ist’, den bedeutungen von weise, adj. entsprechend; die gewichtsverteilung entspricht im großen und ganzen der des adjektivs, d. h. der weise ist vor allem der ‘einsichtige’ (3 a), und ‘der sittlich handelnde’ (3 c). das substantiv lebt in enger berührung mit dem adjektiv, so dass man den weisen fast mehr als verkürzung von der weise mensch, oder ähnlich, empfindet denn als selbständigen begriff. unabhängiger und zu einem geläufigen begriff geworden sind der weise als philosoph’, bes. in den sieben weisen Griechenlands (3 b), die weisen aus dem morgenland und der stein der weisen (1 b).[5]

The German dictionary entry is written staccato, and can be summarized in plain English roughly this way: The sage is…

  1.  the ‘insightful’ (3 a)
  2.  the ‘morally acting’ (3 c);
  3.  short for ‘the wise man’, independently developed: the wise as philosopher, especially in ‘the Seven Sages [Weisen] of Greece’ (3 b);
  4.  the ‘Sages of the Orient’ (Weisen aus dem Morgenland) and ‘the Sorcerer’s Stone’ (Stein der Weisen) (1 b)

Next, the following English definition of the sage was taken from the authoritative Encyclopedia Britannica (2010):

Main Entry: 1sage Pronunciation: ‘sAj Function: adjective Inflected Form(s): sag·er; sag·est
Etymology: Middle English, from Old French, from (assumed) Vulgar Latin sapius, from Latin sapere to taste, have good taste, be wise; akin to Oscan sipus knowing, Old Saxon ansebbian to perceive
1a: wise through reflection and experience b archaic : GRAVE, SOLEMN
2: proceeding from or characterized by wisdom, prudence, and good judgment <sage advice>
Main Entry: 2sage Function: noun

1: one (as a profound philosopher) distinguished for wisdom
2: a mature or venerable man of sound judgment[6]

Finally, the following Chinese definition of shengren was taken from the authoritative查字典 Cha Zidian (2010):

shèng rén [sage]: 德高望重、有大智、已达到人类最高最完美境界的人,有时也专指孔子;古之圣人,其出人也远矣.[7] [sage: of highest virtue and respected, of great wisdom, has reached the highest and most perfect state of the human person, it sometimes specifically refers to Confucius; the ancient sage, the most accomplished.

We go on and compare the German, English, and Chinese definitions side by side in the following table:

Definitions of the der Weise, the sage, and the shengren
 German der Weise

(Grimm’s Wörterbuch)

‚ English sage

(Encyclopedia Britannica)

ƒ Chinese shengren

(Cha Zidian)

·           the wise is especially the ‘insightful’

·           the ‘morally acting’

·           short for ‘the wise man’, independently developed: the wise as philosopher, especially in the Seven Sages [Weisen] of Greece

·           Sages of the Orient, Weisen a. d. Morgenland; Sorcerer’s Stone (Stein der Weisen)

·           wise through reflection and experience

·           archaic: grave, solemn

·           proceeding from or characterized by wisdom, prudence, and good judgment

·           one (as a profound philosopher) distinguished for wisdom

·           a mature or venerable man of sound judgment

·           of highest virtue and respected

·           of great wisdom

·           has reached the highest and most perfect state of the human person

·           Confucius; ancient sage, the most accomplished

·           no fixed standard for all time but examines the things of his age

The German Weise and English sage definitions did not match the Chinese definition for shengren. The Chinese definition for shengren had ‘the highest virtue,’ ‘reached the highest and most perfect state,’ and ‘no fixed standard for all time but examines the things of his age’ – none of which was covered by the German definition for der Weise and the English definition for sage: It is evident that German der Weise and English the sage are no true synonyms for Chinese shengren; yet few nouns, if we consider them names, were: ‘A name cannot be dissected any further by means of a definition: it is a primitive sign’ [Wittgenstein]. Complete overlap or superimposition of definition, meanwhile, is also near impossible, especially with a millennial gap of cultural diversification: Comparing the German definition with the English definition, they seemed quite sympathetic except one very important difference; the English suggests sagehood ‘through reflection and experience’ while the German suggests only ‘insightful… morally acting.’ Experience through self-cultivation is conspicuously absent in the German entry.

If dictionaries were competitors and each of the three competing cultures wanted to bequeath its own vocabularies to posterity and survive the others, in an ideal world knowing about cultural diversity and infinite combination, the Chinese shengren had better not been translated at all but made a proper Chinese loanword. When translation was called for or forced upon the translator as test of his loyalty and allegiance, however, der Weise and the sage both came handy: those words cover the archaic aspects of wisdom closely enough in meaning to convey a sagacious person—only that the German translators across-the-board did not do so: They wanted holy men in China, not wise men. Etymology speaking, ‘heilig’ or ‘holy’ are not derived from weid- (wīssaz, wīs, wisdom), but from the Indo European root kailo- (whole, uninjured, of good omen), probably originally meaning wholeness or undivided. Christianity hijacked the kailo- branch for describing divinity and holiness. Here are some derivations[8] that might sound familiar to the reader:

1. Germanic hailaz
Old English hāl, hale




2. Germanic hailithō
Old English hǣlth health
3. Germanic

Old English




to heal

4. Germanic

Old English




holy, sacred

5. Germanic

Old English




to consecrate, bless, hallow

A final remark: it is not difficult to think of kailo- [Germanic: hailaz] as the wholeness, the undivided whole, or the oneness of un-religious quality. The deceit is that religions will adopt such abstractions: the Hebrew God created man; man was thus separated from God. No more undivided wholeness, then. The East, however, was different: To the Oriental sages, as a general rule there was no separation; everything was inter-related: There was Japanese Zen (ぜん, 禅) and śūnyata (emptiness, 空), Hindu seva-nagri (the universe and I are one and the same), tat tvam asi (thou art that), or Chinese tian ren he yi (Oneness of heaven and men, 天人合一). Is it a coincidence that the weid- and the kailo- roots and branches, of all, were abused by Christianity to mean the holiness and wisdom that is exclusive and separate of us? If there was a way for non-Christians to understand wholeness and wisdom other than after its symbiosis with the outer holiness and wisdom preached in the West—that meant Christianity was never universal holiness and wisdom to begin with and end.

[1] Watkins, 1985, p. 74

[2] Paley, 1829, chapter 24

[3] Watkins, 1985, p. 58

[4] Ibid., p. 74

[5] Grimm, 1965

[6] Encyclopedia Britannica, 2010

[7] Cha Zidian, 2010

[8] Watkins, 1985, p. 26

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

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