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

In Classical Studies, if scholars wrote about sages, what they really meant were Stoic sages. Although not a single German orientalist called Confucius and the shengren a ‘Stoa’ or ‘Stoische Weise’ (Stoic sage), one should nevertheless consider this particular Hellenic type of sage for comparison’s sake: Stoas or die Stoischen Weisen were members of a school of thought founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium around 300 BC, and their teachings became known as Stoicism. Stoics believed that the absence or suppression of emotions led to happiness. Hence the expression ‘calm as a stoic.’ That such a position could be seen as heartless and callous seems self-evident; the fate of the stoikers was thus very similar to that of the sophists: their Weisheitslehren or wisdom teachings declined in popularity. Stoic sages taught about virtue, happiness through unaffection, moral conduct and the cosmic 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 ‘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…’[1]

In today’s language, ‘stoic’ is perhaps synonymous to phlegmatic—the indifference to emotions, and as such it evokes negative connotations. The German orientalists could have used the expression ‘stoische Weise’ to describe the despotic sages of the Orient, or groups of them, 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 loaded with a lot of Hellenic cultural baggage. Stoicism was a particular school of thought in European antiquity, and not a universal concept that could be applied carelessly to movements in the Far East. It had become coinage to confer to wise men first as just ‘sages,’ and next add an adjective of origin or location, for instance: ‘Stoic [sages]’ or ‘Oriental [sages]’ or ‘Greek [sages]’ or ‘Chinese [sages].’ But to translate shengren as ‘Chinese Stoic Sage’ or even ‘Chinese Greek Sage,’ silence Stoic/Sage, really would have brought mockery to this little Greek propaganda game. The German orientalists were Greek propagandists—what else comparing ruxue with than philosophy; but even for them to convey the meaning of ‘a stoic sage’ in their translations of the Chinese shengren were to affix stoisch and chinesisch—der stoische chinesische Weise: a monstrum.

The German missionaries Wilhelm, Schott, and Grube did not translate shengren as der Weise, let alone der stoische Weise, probably because of those underlying negative connotations of the unaffected, unemotional stoic sage of antiquity.

[1] Schopenhauer, 1819, p. 215: ‘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 […]”

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