Shengren – Chapter 3.9 – Der Alte (Old Man)

Do we still have the audience and the fatherland of our forefathers?[1]

– Johann G. Herder, Staat, Nation, Humanität

Old age is not strictly speaking a requirement nor is it part of the definitions we have seen so long for Weise, sage, or shengren. Regardless, old age seems to be closely allied to wisdom: Human beings expect that becoming old amounts to having lived; and that having lived amounts to having collected many experiences; and, finally, that having collected many of valuable life experiences amounts to authority. The general view on die Weisen in Germany is, correctly because intuitive, that of the elderly who are distinguished by wisdom and from life experiences, but not any life experience in particular, and certainly not that experience of sagehood. Being wise but old, this existential parallelism, as opposed to being ignorant but young, is a negative one. It has often been said that Western culture worshipped youth and anything that comes with it: strength, force, adventure, novelty, creativity, progress, potency and, if unchecked, violence more than anything. This all the more so, since the French and British Empires and all European wars were fueled by an oversupply of young European men, Gunnar Heinsohn called it the ‘youth bulges’,[2] with nothing else to do at home but creating trouble, yet always ready to expand their territory and conquer foreign lands. Heinsohn reminded his readers that ‘If the Germans after 1945 had reproduced as they did between 1900 and 1914, then we would have had a German nation of almost 500 million citizens, and we would have now about 80 million German men between 15 and 29 instead of the current 7 million.’ Whether it was the Portuguese, the Spanish conquistadors, the Dutch, the French, the British or the Germans; they all spent their oversupply of young men abroad: ‘Until World War I Europe continuously produced youth bulges. 30 to 45 out of 100 male residents will be subject to the recruiting authorities. Four centuries, birth rates in Europe were enforced as high as we have today in Gaza Strip or in Uganda. Like a never-ending Mongol invasion, until 1918, the Old World had conquered nine-tenths of the earth.’[3] The West was not only young demographically—its nation-states were relatively young too, or else they had re-invented themselves continuously. Prussia was a new rising power, unified Germany was a young nation, and the United States of America today—compared to most Asian cultures—is still a teenager: playful, positive, fearless, narcissistic and ready to take on the world. The East was seen as the exact opposite, the ancient world, the static people, the arrested society, the immovable culture, living fossil,[4] a fetish from the past,[5] the mummy in silk (Herder),[6] the place where the sages dwell.[7]

The wise old sages were the sorry old fools of the moral tales and legends, the fools and loners who had not kept pace with the flow of things, with modernity and reality. Old people in Germany were seen as a burdensome social group, and many were abandoned by their families and spent the rest of their lives in nursing homes or retirement centres. According to annual United Nations special report on cultural rights abuses in Germany,[8] there were two major groups in Germany no one should ever wished to belong to, the first were immigrants and their children, the second were the elderly: ‘diskriminierte Ausländer und vernachlässigte Alte.’ Over 13% of the elderly in Germany lived in total poverty.[9] The German government was accused as recently as in 2011 of not doing enough for the old. The government, mind you, not the people are made responsible for the miserable lives of the grandparents—the state runs the family. Few commentators dare to mention that German culture was never really known for being warm and reserved in first place. The group of elderly, as well as the group of aliens to the country, just couldn’t rely on the German state that wants to burn the young and bury the elderly prematurely. The German angry government’s immediately respond was a telling tale: ‘No scientific evidence for the UN’s findings exists.’[10] The Merkel regime never specified though, whether it meant the scientific evidence for the accusation was lacking, or that the scientific evidence as to why Germany initially should do more non-existed. Filial piety was never a cardinal virtue in Germany; that’s why the scholars were so flabbergasted by Chinese 孝xiao-culture,[11] but that on a side note: Germany is a culture that has difficulties to relate. That is why the European Union looks like a stone-cold bureaucracy and not like a family or band of brothers.

From a sage culture’s point of view, German culture may appear cold, intolerant and calculating; the Holy Empire, the Kaisers, the Nation-State, the Chancellors, the Führers: the Germans have always placed responsibilities for life outside humanity: to God, to artificial laws and regulations, to supernatural philosophical systems – anything but meeting the eyes of victims they have ruined. All human squabble of existence—existentialism—is just opinion, and the common German will always assume his superior standing on all issues rising from some outwardly fact or law or artifact that will grant him right eventually, no matter his conduct and attitude toward others.

That’s why Schadenfreude is now a German loanword. He will never surrender to some Eastern notions that right has everything to do with tact. Consequently, his strong sense of righteousness will always put German culture in jeopardy in world politics and cultural dialogue, as in many Asian cultures where a more thorough understanding of one’s own importance, tolerance, and respect for others, and relation to others and in the greater order of things is indefinitely more considerate. Scientism was all but a pretext for youth cult: I don’t have to care because I am so young: statistical, laboratory, methodology, experimental, perception, analytical. The universities may be staffed with seasoned professors, yet the truly outstanding, remarkable ones had to have their work of genius articulated before the age of 30 [or will never].

Youth cult was not a new finding; historians have made this observation about the German people before: ‘which makes the German diplomats, the German officials and the German people so inconsiderate and tactless in their behavior towards other people…[….] the tactlessness of the German diplomacy, the tactlessness of the German nation in their international dealings with other nations.’[12] And one might want to add that the tactlessness of the German people is further reinforced by its historical lack of respect for sages; sages as a source of guidance, gentleness and true human intelligence, ‘which comes,’ in the words of Gu Hongming: ‘not from reasoning nor from instinct, but from sympathy and from the power of sympathy.’[13]

Since wisdom was delegated to God, or otherwise made redundant in a world ruled by quick knowledge, to call the German elderly ‘weise’ or even ‘die Weisen’ seemed absurd, almost cynical. In Germany, the old were just that, old—and needy perhaps. Not so in story-telling, where the folkloric old, grey-bearded fellow was also wise, and it was no coincidence that some readers about the Orient found the German description of China as an ancient place with its ‘fundaments of modern thinking based in prehistory’ the natural breeding bed or modern dinosaur park for misfortunate, frail, and toothless old men sitting in caves of ‘holy mountains,’ reading ‘the holy books,’ and if they could never be ‘wise’ technically, then at least they deluded themselves ‘being holy men’ all the time. The sages of the East, in German language, erroneous the ‘saints of the East,’ looked exceedingly like a fiction – a fiction of the past.

The historian Heinz-Albert Heindrichs’ Alter und Weisheit im Märchen (2000), a collection of academic papers mainly on the German world of fairy tales and myths, on a side-note mentioned the Oriental sages and reminded his German readers that ‘old age’ was more respected and a virtue in itself in Asian tradition:

Confucius equates age with the possession of wisdom, and Taoism regards old age as the virtue par excellence, indeed age was living in its highest form.[14]

In stark contrast to the virtues of old age in Asia, the concept of old wise men (never women) in Europe was quite different. A look at the special vocabulary that Heinz-Albert Heindrichs used in his book to describe the German notion of ‘old’ is as intriguing as it is sobering – they are almost all negative:

Vocabulary of ‘old’[15]
·           Altsein

·           Greis

·           Unglück

·           Hinfälligkeit des Alters

·           Bestürzung über die eigene Zukunft als Greis

·           Das Alter ist das schlimmste Unglück, das einem Menschen widerfahren kann

·           blind

·           Traditionen

·           Weisheit ist reine Innenschau

·           Todesschicksal

·           Mittler zwischen dieser Welt und der übernatürlichen

·           Wahrer der Traditionen

·           Jungbrunnen wünschen

·           deprimierend, zahnlos und kraftlos

·           being old

·           old man (senile)

·           misfortune

·           frailty of old age

·           confusion about their own future as an old man

·           the old man’s age is the worst misfortune that can befall a man

·           blind

·           traditions

·           wisdom is pure introspection

·           fate of death

·           intermediary between this world and the supernatural

·           guardians of the traditions

·           wishing for the fountain of youth

·           depressing, toothless and powerless

With so much depressing negativity attached to ‘being old’ with the power to drag all of us down into the realm of melancholy, burial, and decay, it seemed that old age, since it could not be avoided physically, at least could be evaded by not thinking about it. Not thinking about old age makes one feel less depressed. Old creeps molesting young people morally evoked repulsion. And how can depression and repulsion ever lead to greatness? Heindrichs asked the litmus question:

Do we have to submit to the will of the elderly, to respect them?[16]

None of us could avoid the question of oldness and our slavery to time. But creative minds could try to beat the negativity of old age—for instance through pretending the ‘appreciation of beauty’ (in a Kafkaesque way) or by ‘keeping in good humor’ (in a Gadamer’ian way). The beauty and humor of nursing homes, where the Germans place their elderly in, lied beneath Western noble ideas about freedom, individuality, and independence. Since the old people were often sent away and left alone by their own children, filial piety was not a German virtue—nationalism was: Pension schemes, retirement funds, state insurances and taxation on inheritances. Old people were not wise, old people were just over.

The state was expected to support the aged, not their families who were in pursuit of their own individualistic dreams and abstract ideas about happiness. Getting the elderly out of the way was considered a relief: the freeing of the burden of the dying folks holding the youthful generation back. Old people were senile, slow and miserable, never to catch up with the latest invention and human progress ever again; and so where old nations: we recall the international headlines when US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003 made the important distinction between ‘old Europe’ and ‘new Europe’—old Europe being France and Germany who refused to go to war on Iraq and bomb the Middle East into pieces.

The trick that physical decay and mental weakness could be creatively remedied in science-fiction and fantasy by ‘magic’ prowess we have all come across: greybeards with tall pointing hats—as for example the wizard Merlin in the Arthurian legend (Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1135), or the mage Gandalf the Grey in J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings (1955). As a rule, one could tell the archetype of the ‘Old man’ in Western writing by asking whether or not that person was actually described as having developed into what they had become. Merlin and Gandalf were always suspicious for not having a convincing past; they were created by their author as Old wise men from the start. And that’s how the orientalists started China studies: with Old wise men.

Old wise men belonged to old stories. And old stories relied largely on un-scientific tell-tale. If modernity was said to have overcome old traditions, then modernity also overcame old wise men. The modern world was different, it did not appreciate wisdom because it neither helped to earn a degree in philosophy nor did it matter to work-forces slaving away their precious time in the fabrics of greedy capitalists. Western society did not value wisdom. In China or India if an individual was in need he would fall back first on his family, then on relatives and friends, and last on the community for support. In Germany things were different: The state was the one who was turned to for help and guidance, and only then people fell back on their family, relatives, friends or the community—not receiving human sympathy but pity and repulsion. State loans, pensions, nursing homes, and the graveyards were administrated by the Stadtverwaltungen (city councils).

If a person got old and weak, he or she got her tiny pension and was pushed off to the Alters- und Seniorenheime; hierarchy existed only the social rank and material possessions accumulated during that person’s life-time, not on the wisdom possessed after a life-time of experiences. The worth of a person lied in his material value, hardly ever in his spiritual one. Few exceptions existed: Names like ‘Ältestenrat’—Council of the Elders—of the German Bundestag and the Länder Parlamenten betrayed its spiritual allusion: The Ältestenrat just had administrative functions and did not support moral or spiritual guidance.

The educational writer Heinrich Dickerhoff in his Alte Weise, dumme Greise und die Uralten, die alles wissen (2000) argued that old age and wisdom do not necessarily bound together: While an old man may not be necessary very wise, but still rich in life experiences, such biological situation would require its own technical terms: Altersweisheit. German is a compound language – in this case the two nouns ‘age’ and ‘wisdom’ were pulled together and formed a new word that is more in meaning than the meanings of its parts. Altersweisheit was really unrelated to wisdom and the person, and did not signify helpful content at all; it was simply the actual knowing of age by having that age. Since everybody south of late adulthood had it, nobody was special—like grey hair. Altersweisheit couldn’t be learned or mastered because it was a property of biology in time and thus developed with time. In an ideal world, we feel old people should be valued for what they are, for the experience that came with old age [because they survived that long], but a materialist and object Western world would always ask not about who they were but what material possessions they had left for us before they perished. So what is Altersweisheit, obviously a very abstract German notion of wisdom of age, for, then, in society? In German society, Altersweisheit was used as a ‘currency’ by people to trade with advantages in a system that valued seniority, where successful or loyal people may claim social and material benefits based upon the length of their life or the time spent in that organization. Again, the actual content of that wisdom was irrelevant. If the content of that wisdom was really asked for, actual experience of something (an event such as illness, war, tragedy, a learning, and so forth) could be accessed instead, and the concrete age of a person would not matter at all. Thus ‘Altersweisheit’ was not the sum of its parts ‘Alter’ and ‘Weisheit,’ but a new abstraction: the awareness of an aging body as the survivor in time.

Although in the West old age gave benefits to its agents in form of social currency such as status, promotion, and responsibility in conservative functions, yet the real content and value of that wisdom always remained suspicious and ambivalent, especially in the Modern age: That paradox of was again brought to attention by the social scientist Lutz Röhrich’s article: Jeder will’s werden, keiner will’s sein[17] (2000)—Everyone wants to be it, nobody wants to become it. The ‘it’ here is the ‘old’ in wisdom. Thus, as human beings, we all share the desire to command respect and attain autonomy that usually arrives—again: after a successful adulthood—in early late adulthood and subsequent old age, yet nobody wants to be old without the social benefits that come from trading the currency of Altersweisheit for power, pension and position. Germany, China… probably no difference here. So, we discover in the Lunyu: ‘If a man has not shown any distinguished accomplishment by age forty or fifty, not much could be said about him.’[18] All the same, old age in a society that adulates youth is a liability.

A common usage of Die Alten goes along the lines of ‘The elderly say….’ What they say is irrelevant as long as the elderly said it. It is about authority: the seniors who said it have been around for a long time and accumulated great power and social rank. To translate sages or shengren as die Alten would be incorrect because die Alten would not convey any sense of highest human wisdom or self-cultivation, but strictly speaking would only mark the authority of seniority. [Another application for die Alten would be anonymous elder or outer gods in fiction, which shall not be discussed here.]

The psychologist Carl Gustav Jung understood the ‘old man’ or senex as one of his ‘universal archetypes’ found in all cultures: ‘the old man is associated with attitudes that come with advancing age: Negativity, cynicism, rigidity, conservatism; responsibility, order, and self-discipline. The elder pole of the spirit archetype: A healthy personality balances senex with puer.’[19]

Jung (which is also the German word for ‘young’), founder of analytical psychology, proposed an underlying, unitary reality that supposedly gave rise to all universal (human) archetypes. Jung’s writings, like the works of other psychologist such as Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, were considered depth psychology [so deep you needed a self-declared expert to find it], and bordered on exploring the realms of dreams, psychosis, and money-making scams. All those psychological states—so the depth psychologists believed—arosed from mystical and religious experiences; and if you didn’t believe in this that was because it was subconscious. Although universal archetypes could develop in all human societies, they would not necessary developed synchronous and certainly would not be given the same degrees of considerations by all the cultures in the world. Initially, such ideas confirm cultural relativism: German over-reliance on philosophers and its total absence of sages, say. And although Jung did not know about the shengren, and had little knowledge about Asia, he nevertheless supposed that it was quite possible that although archetypes of wisdom belonged to all humanity, the relative occurrences of those archetypes may vary significantly from one civilization to another. After all, it was Switzerland, not Botswana, where the famous depth psychologists emerged—and all at once.

The phenomenon that the same archetype actually did develop more or less synchronously, in two cultures at the same time, Jung called the ‘theory of synchronicity’ or ‘meaningful coincidences.’ He described the rise of his archetypes as ‘a coincidence in time of two or more causally unrelated events which have the same or similar meaning.’ Jung’s research also suggests the possibility that the original archetype of ‘Wise Old Man’ and its characteristics like integrity, harmony, peace, and family values had gradually lost support in Western civilization, as other – often contradicting – characteristics like domination, egoism, and materialism became more prominent. In short, the West had lost its admiration for that wise uncle who told stories about life that he deemed important—they, and he, were not.

[1] Herder, 1765: ‘Haben wir noch jetzt das Publikum und Vaterland der Alten?”

[2] Heinsohn, 2005

[3] Heinsohn, 2007: ‘Bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg erzeugt Europa ununterbrochen Youth Bulges. 30 bis 45 von 100 männlichen Einwohnern unterstehen dann den Rekrutierungsbehörden. Vier Jahrhunderte lang werden Geburtenraten wie heute im Gaza-Streifen oder in Uganda erzwungen. Wie ein nicht endender Mongolensturm holt sich die Alte Welt mit diesem Überschusspotenzial bis 1918 neun Zehntel der Erde.”

[4] Conrady, 1910, p. 477

[5] Hesse, 1921

[6] Herder, 1764, p. 12

[7] Yeats, 1928

[8] United Nations Economic and Social Council, 20th May 2011

[9] Berliner Tageszeitung; Spiegel; Sueddeutsche, 6th July, 2011

[10] Sueddeutsche, 6th July, 2011

[11] see Wilhelm, 1922, remarks on children and education in China, for example; or Conrady, 1910, pp. 476, on family values

[12] Ku, 1915, pp. 14-15

[13] Ibid., foreword

[14] Heindrichs, 2000, p. 7: ‘Konfuzius setzt das Alter mit dem Besitz der Weisheit gleich, und im Taoismus galt hohes Alter als die Tugend schlechthin, ja, das Alter war leben in höchster Form.”

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 2000, pp. 7-9: ‘Müssen wir uns ihnen (den Alten) beugen, sie anerkennen?”

[17] Röhrich, 2000

[18] Kong, 2009 (transl. Lunyu 9.23) p. 59

[19] Jung, 2010

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

Have a Look at the Latest Posts: