Shengren – Chapter 4.14 – Jasper’s Great Man Theory

The Chinese do attempt to make their Men of Letters their Governors! […] All such things must be very unsuccessful; yet a small degree of success is precious; the very attempt how precious! […] Try them: they have not governed or administered as yet, perhaps they cannot; but there is no doubt they have some understanding, – without which no man can do![1]

– Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History

Karl Theodor Jaspers (1883-1969), the psychiatrist turned philosopher at Heidelberg University, came into contact with the Orientalist Max Weber (1864-1920), author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Both men had in common an unshakable belief in the superiority of certain men or groups of men over others. Weber thought in socio-economical and religious terms while Jaspers explored the psycho-historical and philosophical realm. In 1957, Jaspers took the audacity and published: Die großen Philosophen. The great philosophers, in his mind, were the usual suspects: Socrates, Buddha, Confucius and Jesus; from there Jaspers established a ‘genealogy of great men’ according to their philosophical achievements and historical significance: Jaspers thought himself a philosopher-explainer and consecutively compiled a three-volume Philosophy in 1932, followed by The Origin and Goal of History in 1942.

Karl Jaspers differentiated between (big) große Philosophen and (little) kleine Philosophen, and many more fuzzy categories in between. Jaspers, as a matter of cold objectivity, had no direct experience with China and could not read a single Chinese text, let alone the Chinese classics. But then, he probably never read the Arabic Koran, the Pali Tipitaka or the Hebrew Bible either. Also, Jaspers knew he wasn’t a first: Georg Hegel and Thomas Carlyle had outlined great men theories before him, and so had Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. And because they were all top philosophers with little knowledge of Asia, they at least tried to reach out to the underrepresented Asians and gave them a respectable platform: the Western philosophy press.

Jaspers, by now king of the philosophy press, went on to lecture on The Future of Mankind and Philosophy and the World. He still had no idea about foreign languages and cultures; yet as a German philosopher he didn’t need such experiences and exotic knowledge—none of the great men actually did: All they needed in those days of Karl Jaspers and Max Weber was a state university degree, the mass media (radio and regime press), and state propaganda.

Jaspers had in mind a systematic, Machiavellian approach and study of great persons modelled after Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle’s great men theory On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History: ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men.’ Those great men apparently were so great Jaspers hesitated at first to call them philosophers: ‘One may hesitate to call them philosophers at all.’[2] Once that initial hesitation passed, Jaspers sure called his great men of history just that: philosophers.

Had Jaspers wanted to include Chinese or Indian thinkers, he could have called them shengren, bodhisattvas or rishis. But as a rule, Western historians preferred to eliminate Eastern names. The Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt, a former mistress of Martin Heidegger, once labeled all great men ‘philosophers’ or even ‘paradigmatic individuals.’[3] As a general rule, philosophers call philosophers the world’s greatest persons; not leaders, not engineers, not scientists… but philosophers. Says Jaspers: ‘The human condition cannot improve unless the philosophers become kings or the kings become philosophers.’[4]

Philosophy was a Western ponzi scheme for the Orientals, and they had better acknowledge it as universal; after all—what were the Eastern alternatives? In Jaspers’s own words, Buddhism was ‘Meditation unter Vernachlässigung des Denkens’[5] (meditation by neglecting of thought) and Confucianism was ‘die Stimme des Altertums’[6] (the voice of antiquity). When Karl Jaspers analyzed the Confucian Menschentypen (human archetypes), he, like most populists, thought of Chinese thinkers as saints and concluded: ‘At the highest level there were the saints, they possessed Wisdom.’[7] Confucius was now a useful dissident fighting the enemies of the West:

The enemies that Confucius fights are the sophists who think that the world is a rotten place and who skillfully manipulate right and wrong, true and false, in order to justify their means.[8]

Thanks to Karl Jaspers, German psychologists were informed, too, that Confucius was a true saint and philosopher who, side-by-side with Plato and Jaspers, fought the snake-oil-selling sophists. Jaspers had contempt for the sages seeing the ‘world as a bad place’ and  ‘a rotten world.’ The sages were ‘the enemies of philosophy.” After so much negativity, here a very different, beautiful piece of prose on Confucian sages by the Neo-Confucian Tu Weiming of Harvard University:

溥博淵泉,而時出之. 溥博如天,淵泉如淵. All-embracing is he and vast, deep and active as a fountain, sending forth in their due season his virtues. All-embracing and vast, he is like Heaven. Deep and active as a fountain, he is like the abyss.[9]

The Germans still distrusted the sages: In Jaspers Great Man Theory, all Great Men were philosophers, while the sages were swindlers. As the Christian philosopher Josef Pieper explained:

Plato has the legend, Pythagoras had said that a man can not be called wise, at most he can be called wisdom-loving seeker (not a sophos, but at most a philosopher) – {…} the nature of the philosophical question, to desire wisdom that we in principle can never ‘have’ in our possession, never.[10]

In reality, China and many other Asian cultures had sages and sagehood for at least 2500 years. Sage culture was alive and kicking. Perhaps it was time for the Germans to change their attitude and embrace the new names, listening closely to what Immanuel Kant[11] and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe[12] had said about highest wisdom. Maybe one day, Germany will call the best of its philosophers ‘die Weisen,’ too.

Having discussed Karl Jasper’s take on the Great Man, we might want to consider another psychologist and historian, Richard Nisbett, on his view on independent and interdependent cultures. Although Nisbett does not mention philosophers and sages, it makes sense to infer from his studies that independent cultures tend to foster philosophers, and interdependent cultures tend to foster sages:

‘The difference is cognitive […]. Interdependent people tend to be holistic in their perception of the world and other people. […] By holistic I mean holistically thinking people tend to cast a very broad network across the environment, across the entire situation. They attend to more cues; they see relationships in the environment better than people who are analytic. People who are more analytic focused more on the object they care about. Affectingly, they model that object: what are its attributes, what categories does it belong to, what are the rules about those categories that will allow me to manipulate it? Of course, this is not just physical objects but human beings as well. And there is a connection, the people who are more interdependent think more holistic, they are paying more attention to people, and consequently to the environment as a whole.’[13]

In conclusion, there is enough evidence to demonstrate that the great men, the great thinkers, differ in East and West. Germany and China display different strategies toward life precisely because they are different cultures: the former is a culture for philosophers, and the latter is culture for sages. Or, to use the vocabulary of Richard Nisbett: German thinkers think more independent while Chinese thinkers think more interdependent. This leads to different ideals in East and West as to what makes men the greatest.

[1] Carlyle, 1888, pp. 199-200

[2] Jaspers, 1957, p. 26

[3] Arendt, 1957

[4] Jaspers, 1957, p. 144

[5] Ibid., p. 111

[6] Ibid., p. 135

[7] Ibid., p. 147

[8] Ibid., p. 157: ‘Die Gegner, die Konfuzius bekämpfe, sind die Leute, die die Welt für ohnehin verdorben halten und geschickt darin mitmachen, die Sophisten, die für und gegen die Sache ihre Gründe finden, die die Maβstäbe von Recht und Unrecht, von Wahr und Falsch in Verwirrung bringen.”

[9] Tu, 1997, p. 67

[10] Pieper, 2008: ‘Platon jedenfalls hat die Legende, Pythagoras habe gesagt, ein Mensch könne nicht weise genannt werden, sondern höchstens ein die Weisheit Liebendsuchender (nicht ein sophos, sondern höchstens ein philosophos) – […] das Wesen der philosophischen Frage, auf eine Weisheit aus zu sein, die wir dennoch nicht ‘haben’ können wie ein Besitztum, prinzipiell nicht, niemals […]”

[11] Kant in Trawny, 2008

[12] Goethe, 1981, p. 605

[13] Nisbett, 2010

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