Shengren – Chapter 4.16 – The Return of the Sages in the 21st Century

The future looks sagacious. The shengren is a Chinese concept with now global appeal; it confers to a type of spiritual being the West had neglected and almost forgotten about. China had its properties rearranged, removed, suppressed—stripped off its names—yet she is will armed with billions of writers to retrieve her terminologies. It is time to a) claim the shengren back from those Westerners who had translated and reduced them to Greco-Hellenic philosophers or Roman-Catholic saints; and b) to identify and look out for appropriate shengren in the West, starting perhaps with Germany’s Goethe. The future could be of such that shengren becomes another un-European concept in global scholarship just like buddha and bodhisattva; from there it is but a matter of time until the first shengren appears in liberal Western literature.

There are fist signs of revolution. When Ernst Schwarz, a nonconformist who arrived in Shanghai in 1938 and taught himself Chinese, selfpublished his Konfuzius – Gespräche des Meisters Kung (1985), he translated shengren correctly as die Weisen, Weise von großer Heiligkeit, wahrlich Weise, and vollkommene Weisen.[1] And although he promoted Heiligkeit (holiness) in order to appeal to a wider German readership (which he never reached), he mostly avoided the Christian propaganda. In 2001, all over his little book Konfuzius (2001), Gregor Paul, Professor of Philosophy at Karlsruhe University and the president of the Deutschen China-Gesellschaft, included shengren in his work and correctly translated it ‘die Weisen.[2] At his point it is irrelevant whether Mr. Schwarz and Mr. Paul simply leaned on Anglo-American translations or had discovered the sages all by themselves; Mr. Paul reasoned that Confucius could not be a philosopher in any Greek/Hellenic/European firm sense of that type because the sage’s teachings were uncharacteristic: one time philosophy, next aphorisms, then trivialities.’[3] When Mr. Schwarz (1985) and Mr. Paul (2001) independently of each other dared to challenge German translation quo by translating shengren via sages into Weisen—and there is no doubt, in my view, that they consulted James Legge’s translation—by that time the English-speaking world had marketed sages for at least one century and a half since Legge (1861-1872), Loomis (1867), and Watters (1879) and others; and if the first Latin translation (1687)—’Priscorum Sapientum’[4]—is taken into account, we may conclude that the non-German-speaking world knew about the presence of sages and sagehood in China and elsewhere for at least 300 years.

Chinese culture emphasized kindness while Greek culture emphasized reason. Tong Chung-shu [Dong Songshu] said, ‘One loves humanity through kindness; one purges humanity of evil through reason.’ When both kindness and reason are cultivated in harmony, there would be opened to world culture a new vista of opportunities.[5]

The awareness of and knowledge about sages and sagehood in the English-speaking world is well reported. The Irish playwright Oscar Wilde called Chuang Tzŭ a ‘wonderful sage.’[6] The title sage had been bestowed upon many Oriental thinkers, for example in Michael C. Kalton’s To Become a Sage (1988); Swami Brahmananda’s The Philosophy of Sage Yajnavalkya (1981); Guo Xuezhi’s The Ideal Chinese Political Leader (2002); Ronald Dimberg’s The Sage and Society (1974); Stephen C. Angle’s Sagehood (2009), Robert Ullman’s Mystics, Masters, Saints, and Sages: Stories of Enlightenment (2001), and Robert C. Neville’s Soldier, Sage, Saint (1978); to forward a small selection. As to sage applied to Western individuals: Spinoza is called a sage in Jon Wetlesen’s (1976), The Sage and the Way (1976); John Adams is called a sage in Joseph J. Ellis’ Passionate Sage (1993) and George Washington and Benjamin Franklin both are called sages in De Costa’s Soldier and Sage (1876). Outside Germany, the great Goethe was always considered a poet-sage. George Meredith, the English poet and novelist of the Victorian era, distinguished between the mere ‘poet and hero’ Friedrich Schiller and the ‘poet and sage’ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.[7] Thomas Carlyle, perhaps the greatest Scottish novelist, called Goethe a sage and ‘benignant spiritual revolutionist of modernity.’ Many great figures in world literature such as the English poets William Wordsworth and Robert Southey or American poet T. S. Eliot called Goethe a German sage. Eliot, who in 1957 gave an explicit lecture entitled ‘Goethe as the Sage,’ explained to critics why Goethe to him was neither the successful philosopher nor the successful poet: ‘[Goethe’s] true role was that of the man of the world and a sage’ and ‘The true sage is rarer than the true poet’[8]:

What is the Wisdom of Goethe? […] Goethe’s sayings, in prose or in verse, are merely illustrations of his wisdom. The best evidence of the wisdom of a great writer is the testimony of those who can say, after a long acquaintance with his works, ‘I feel a wiser man because of the time that I have spent with him.’ For wisdom is communicated on a deeper level than that that of logical propositions […][9]

Whoever said first that a prophet was honored everywhere except in his own hometown (as reported in Matthew 13:57) knew a thing or two about linguistics too. Goethe—More light!—was a Dichter in Germany and a sage everywhere else. We recall that Friedrich Nietzsche, too, desperately wanted to rise above the philosophers and become a sage like Zarathustra—the Iranian uber-prophet. That plan failed and Nietzsche was dragged back into the philosophers’ cabinet. Angrily, the misunderstood prophet Nietzsche projected his disappointment onto Goethe whom he considered ‘an incident without consequences for the history of the Germans.’[10] And indeed, nobody could have been more middle-of-the-road and mainstream than Goethe (while the works of Nietzsche are banned in German schools). Outside Germany the situation is different. In China and Japan, Goethe is considered a shengren—a sage. The Anglo-Saxon world largely concurs. The historian Hart Crane even called Goethe quite ‘un-German.’[11] And had Goethe not mentioned himself that those sages—die Weisen—where above all philosophers?[12]

A sage culture brings benefits to society; diversity that never failed to fascinate Anglo-Saxon educators. Samuel Johnson wrote most favorably on the Chinese education system and the ‘Chinese love for learning’ in an article in Gentlemen Magazine in 1738.[13] In his Hero and Hero Worship (1841), Thomas Carlyle praised the civil service examination system of China, while Emerson praised the ‘statesman and educator Confucius,’ even calling him ‘the George Washington of the world of thought.’ The United States of America had a ‘National Senat’ and ‘Senators,’ from Latin senex: wise old men. Needless to say, it was understood by Johnston, Carlyle, and Emerson, that Confucius wasn’t a holy man but an exceptionally wise man: he was more than a philosopher, greater: The Master was a sage.

In Comparative Cultural Studies with Asia, a discipline where German-language scholarship had fallen behind, the English-speaking world celebrated the concepts of sages and sagehood. Elsewhere, Odera H. Oruka had just introduced a new academic subject: Sage Philosophy (1990), although for now it was ‘Dedicated to my father and all the Sages of Africa.’ Sages were good news for the publishing industry, too, like in Richard G. Hubler’s The Soldier and The Sage – A Novel about Akiba (1966) about a Jewish rabbi; or Osho’s The True Sage: Talks on Hasidism (2001); or Sarah Allan’s The Heir and the Sage: Dynastic Legend in Early China (1981). Not only through the vast literature in cultural studies and history, the Classics, and religious studies, but also from various biographies of Anglo-Saxon personalities like Vergilius Ferm’s Puritan Sage – Collected Writings of Jonathan Edwards (1953) have we rediscovered and came to appreciate sagacious personalities. The sages are still with us. But the age of saints and German holiness has now come to an end.

[1] Schwarz, 1985, pp. 60, 64, 65, 71, 113

[2] Paul, 2001, pp. 35 ff, 91 ff., 108, 109, 114, 119

[3] Ibid., p. 7: ‘einmal als Philosophie, einmal als schlichte Lebensweisheiten (Aphorismen), ein anderes Mal gar als Trivialität charakterisiert werden mögen.”

[4] Ludovico Magno, 1687, 3. book, p. 88

[5] Chang, 1957, p. 31

[6] Wilde, 1890, p. 4, 11, 17

[7] in Argyle, 2002, chapter 4.

[8] Puknat, 1969, p. 27

[9] Ibid., p. 27

[10] Nietzsche, 1878, Human, All Too Human

[11] Crane, 1948, pp. 401-402

[12] Goethe, 1981, p. 605

[13] Chang, 1957, p. 108

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