Shengren – Chapter 3.7 – Der Weissager und der Prophet (Seer and Prophet)

Great is K’ungtzu, philosopher, The primal Seer, the primal Sage![1]

– William E. Soothill, The Analects

A Weissager [lit.: a person who speaks wise] was a German synonym for ein Prophet (prophet). A prophet was someone who made predictions about events and what would happen to things in the future. In his book Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie, the poet Heinrich Heine once called Luther—the Great Reformer and father of the German language (he translated The Bible from Latin) —a ‘gottberauschter Prophet.’[2] In German both Weissager and Prophet were interchangeable. And just like most English speakers, the German speakers too thought about biblical prophets like Moses, Jesaias or Jeremia when thinking about Oriental seers and prophets; in case the prophet was non-religious or pagan, the term seer was preferred; in German, although less common: der Seher. The Frenchman Michel de Nostradamus was a seer who in his book Les Propheties (1555) allegedly predicted the rise of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century and the holocaust in the 20th century. The word Seher is a derivative of Old High German wīssago (a seer, prophet), which is linked to Old German wīssaz (wise) that lead to modern Weisheit (wisdom).[3] A Weissagung (prophecy), however, was a prediction connected to a certain person, or place, or event that may or not may come with a condition (if—than).[4] A thorough analysis of prophets and seers was given by Hanns Bachtold-Staubli in his Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens (1987) [Almanac on German Superstitions]. Luckily, the German philosophers and orientalists had never used the names Weissager, Prophet, or Seher for Confucius and the shengren; possibly for the same reasons of uneasiness and stress that Christian Wolff experienced when comparing—unsuccessfully—Confucius to Jesus the Messiah. It was one thing to call Confucius a saint, but another to call him a prophet simply because: if his two-and-a-half-millennia old ‘prophecy’ of civil code and moral conduct worked, as it seemed to be the case in China, then Confucius successfully predicted civil society around the time Moses talked to a burning bush who responded: ‘Hey, it’s me, God!’ Scholars don’t want to fabricate prophets [or martyrs] for the competing team—although they will happily fabricate doomsday apostles and political dissidents]. The German missionaries wanted to subordinate the Confucians to Christianity, not to promote them beyond that; the same way the German scholars wanted to subordinate the Chinese to philosophy, not to promote them above it. Both plots would have dramatically failed if the Germans had called Confucius a Propheten or Weisen. Being a Prophet would have made Confucius a central, if not a competing figure to Christianity, and being a Weiser, according to Goethe’s definition, would have set Confucius above the German philosophers.

In the latter case, if die Weisen were to have returned to the world since Greek antiquity, of all places in mighty China, Germany would have to re-assess itself and maybe even promote some philosophers to the rank of sages in order to compete. As to the case of die Propheten, that would be an entirely different problem: Christianity usually goes to war with people who follow foreign prophets.

[1] Southill, 1937

[2] Craig, 1982, p. 96

[3] Watkins, 1985, p. 74

[4] Bachtold-Staubli, 1987, pp. 358-439

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