Shengren – Chapter 3.9 – Der Alte (Old Man)
Haben wir noch jetzt das Publikum und Vaterland der Alten? [Do we still have the audience and the fatherland of our forefathers?]
– Johann G. Herder, Staat, Nation, Humanität
‘Old age’ is not strictly speaking a requirement nor it is part of the definitions we have seen before for Weise, sage, or shengren. Regardless, ‘old age” seems to be closely linked to wisdom: Human beings expect that becoming old amounts to having lived, and having lived means having collected experience on the way; and, finally, having collected plenty of valuable life experience made one potentially wise. The general view on die Weisen in Germany is, correctly because intuitive, that of elderly who are distinguished by wisdom and from life experience, but no live experience in particular, and certainly not that of sagehood. Being wise, but old, that very existence, as opposed to the vital and bold youth, 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 calls it ‘youth bulges’, 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: “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” [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.] 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 teenage culture: playful, positive, fearless, egoistic, 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, a fetish from the past, the mummy in silk (Herder), the place where the sages dwell.
The wise old sages are the sorry old men of 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 are seen as a burdensome social group, and many are abandoned by their families and spend the rest of their lives in nursing or retirement homes. According to annual United Nations special report on cultural rights abuses in Germany, there are two major groups in Germany no one should ever wish to belong to, the first are immigrants and their children, the second are the elderly: “diskriminierte Ausländer und vernachlässigte Alte”. Over 13% of the elderly in Germany live in poverty. The German government is accused of not doing enough for them. The government, mind you, not the people are made responsible for the miserable lives of their grandparents. Few commentators dare to mention that German culture is not really known for being warm and reserved in first place. The elderly, as well as the foreigners, just cannot rely on the Germans. The German angry government’s immediately respond was a telling tale: “No scientific evidence for the UN’s findings exists.” The Merkel government 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, 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 appears 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 never to look into the eyes of the humans they are opposing. All human squabbles is just opinion, and the common German will always assume his superior standing on all issues rising from some outwardly fact or law 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, for example, where a thorough understanding of one’s own importance, tolerance, respect for others, and relation to others and in the greater order of things is indefinitely more considerate. This is not a new finding, many 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.” And one might want to add that the tactlessness of the German people is further reinforced by its historical lack of sages; sages as a source of 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”.
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:
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. [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.]
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'
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 somehow evaded by not thinking about it. Thinking about old age makes one feel depressive. And how can depression ever lead to happiness? Heindrichs asked the litmus question:
Müssen wir uns ihnen (den Alten) beugen, sie anerkennen? [Do we have to submit to the old’s will?]
None of us could avoid the question of age and our slavery to time. But creative minds could try to beat the negative of old age, for instance through 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. The state was expected to support the elderly, not their families who were in pursuit of their own individualistic dreams and abstract ideas about happiness. Getting the old people out of the way was considered a relief: the freeing of the burden of the dying folks holding the youthful generation back. In Germany, the great usefulness of old people and their wisdom was legend and myth, because the reality was that old people were senile, slow and depressing, and that unscientific construct called wisdom could only be reserved for folklore and fairy tale books, where the old people’s physical weaknesses could be creatively addressed by science-fiction or fantasy authors by ascribing spiritual and magical powers to the greybeards – 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 novel 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 – they never had a convincing past; they were created by the author as Old wise men from the start.
Old wise people belonged to old traditions. And old traditions relied largely on un-scientific wisdom. If modernity was said to have overcome old traditions, then modernity also overcame old wise people. 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 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 do not function as moral instance 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 belonged together – linguistically speaking. While an old man may not be necessary very wise, but still rich in life experiences, such situation would need its own technical word: 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 just the meaning of its two parts. Altersweisheit is really unrelated to wisdom and the person, and has no content at all; it is simply the actual knowing of age by having that age. It cannot be read and learned because it is a property of time and thus will come with time. Sure, in an ideal world, we feel old people should be valued for what they are, for the experience that comes with old age, but a materialist and object Western world will always ask not for who they are but for what possessions they heave left (for us) when they are gone. So what is Altersweisheit, obviously a very abstract German notion of wisdom of age, for, then? In German society, Altersweisheit is used as a ‘currency’ by people to trade with advantages in a system that values 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 is irrelevant. If the content of that wisdom was really asked for, actual experience of something (an event, a learning etc.) could be accessed instead, and the concrete age of a person would not matter at all. Thus “Altersweisheit” is not the sum of its parts “Alter” and “Weisheit”, but a new concept that is more than the meanings of its parts: something like the awareness of one’s age.
Although in the West old age gave benefits to its agents in form of social currency, like 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 world. That paradox was again brought to attention by the social scientist Lutz Röhrich’s article: Jeder will’s werden, keiner will’s sein (2000) [Everyone wants to be it, nobody wants to become it]. The “it” here should be replaced by “old”. Thus, everyone wants to be old, nobody wants to become old refers to the social benefits that come from trading the currency of Altersweisheit for power, pension and position, while old age in itself in a culture that adores youth is perfectly undesirable.
A common usage of Die Alten goes along the lines of “The elderly say that….”. What they say is irrelevant, but who said it. It is not about content but about authority: the people 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, however, because die Alten would not convey any sense of highest wisdom and self-cultivation, but strictly speaking only the authority of seniority.
The psychologist Carl Gustav Jung understood the “old man” or senex as one of some 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.”
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, and bordered to exploring the worlds of dreams, mythology, and spirituality. All those worlds, so the depth psychologists believed, arose from mystical and religious thought. Although universal archetypes could develop in all human societies, they would not necessary developed synchronically and certainly would not be given the same degrees of considerations by all the cultures of the world. Initially, such ideas confirm cultural reality: German over-reliance on philosophers and its total absence of sages. 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 belong to all humanity, the relative occurrence of those archetypes may vary significantly from one civilization to another.
The phenomenon that the same archetype actually did develop more or less synchronically, in two cultures at the same time, Jung called the ‘theory of synchronicity’ or “meaningful coincidences”. He described the rise of 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 contradictive – characteristics like domination, egoism, and materialism became more prominent. In short, the West has lost its admiration for wise old men.
 Herder, 1765
 Heinsohn, 2005
 Heinsohn, 2007
 Conrady, 1910, p. 477
 Herder, 1764, p. 12
 Yeats, 1928
 United Nations Economic and Social Council, 20th May 2011
 Berliner Tageszeitung; Spiegel; Sueddeutsche, 6th July, 2011
 Sueddeutsche, 6th July, 2011
 see Wilhelm, 1922, remarks on children and education inChina, for example; or Conrady, 1910, pp. 476, on family values
 Ku, 1915, pp. 14-15
 Ibid., foreword
 Heindrichs, 2000, p. 7
 Ibid., 2000, pp. 7-9
 Röhrich, 2000
 Jung, 2010