Shengren – Chapter 3.5 – Der Stoische Weise (Stoic Sage)

Although not a single German writer called Confucius and the shengren a “Stoa” or “Stoische Weise” (Stoic sage), one should nevertheless consider this particular type of a sage for comparison’s sake. Stoas or die Stoischen Weisen were members of a school of thought founded in Athen by Zeno of Citium around 300 BC, and their teachings became later known as Stoicism. Their faith was very similar to that of the sophists (see in later section): their Weisheitslehren or wisdom teachings lost in popularity. Stoische Weise taught about virtue, happiness through unaffection, moral conduct, and the cosmic inter-connectiveness and oneness (non-dualism), but mostly they taught how to become indifferent to positive as well as negative emotions. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer expressed disdain for the “Stoische Weise” – a sad person who could not enjoy the beauty of neither truth, poetry, nor reality but instead remained “ein hölzerner, steifer Gliedermann, mit dem man nichts anfangen kann, der selbst nicht weiss wohin mit seiner Weisheit, dessen vollkommende Ruhe, Zufriedenheit, Glückseligkeit dem Wesen der Menschheit geradezu widerspricht […]”[1] [a wooden and stiff limb-man with whom you can do nothing; who does not even know where to put all his wisdom; and whose perfect peace, contentment and felicitousness contradicts the very essence of humanity…].

In today’s language, “stoic” means phlegmatic, the indifference to emotions. As such it evokes negative connotations. The German ortientalist could have used the expression “stoische Weise” to describe the (phlegmatic) sages of the Orient, but they wisely chose not to, because – although their were similarities between the moral and political teachings of the Stoic sages and the Chinese sages – such an identification would have caused a categorical confusion: Stoic was a proper name that brought a lot of cultural baggage into the equation. Stoicism was a particular school of thought in European antiquity, and not a universal concept that could be applied carelessly to concepts in the Far East. It had become common coinage to confer to wise men as simple “sages” and then add an adjective of origin and location, for instance: “Stoic” or “Oriental” or “Greek” or “Chinese”. For the German orientalists to convey the meaning of “a stoic sage” in their translations of the Chinese shengren could have swapped the Stoisch for Chinese, but still – all habit don’t die and the idea of an ancient (stoic) moral teachers would always stay with die Chinesischen Weisen. The German orientalists and missionaries Wilhelm, Schott, and Grube did not translate shengren as Weise probably because of those underlying negative connotations of the unaffected stoic sage of antiquity, and instead the Germans chose to translate die Heilige instead, which was of course a very positive, albeit an unmistakably Christian concept. Besides the ancient stoicer, or sophists, or sages (or whatever the wise men of Old were called) had all been defeated by time and human progress. By calling Confucius and the shengen in China (biblical) Heilige and not (stoische) Weise, at least the Germans had spared the Chinese sages the unfavorable comparison with their phlegmatic brothers in the West.


[1] Schopenhauer, 1819, p. 215