Shengren – Chapter 1.1 – Philosophers and Sages

“Any sage can do philosophy, but not every philosopher is a sage”

Frage: Wie ist – in unserer westlichen Zivilisation, die vom Griechentum wie vom Christentum geprägt ist -, wie ist eine nicht-christliche Philosophie möglich? Diese Frage ist unbeantwortbar; oder vielmehr: die Antwort muß lauten: Nein, eine nicht-christliche Philosophie ist nicht möglich, es gibt keine.[1] [Question: How is – in our Western civilization which is dominated by the Greek tradition (Hellenism) and Christianity –, how is a non-Christian philosophy possible? This question is unanswerable; or rather, the answer must be: No, a non-Christian philosophy is not possible, there is none.]

– Josef Pieper, Alle Philosophie ist christlich


Philosophy is concerned with fundamental problems regarding existence, values, mind, language, etc., by a critical, systematic approach that relies on logical argument and reason. There are, of course, other approaches to thinking that rely more on persuasion, intuition, compromise, memorization, story-telling, religion, or mythology. There are even approaches to thinking that rely on logical argument and reason that are not considered philosophy, for example scientific thinking. Other approaches to thinking are less systematic and more spontaneous or creative, like poetry, music, and the fine arts. Learning is thinking, too. Learning is not philosophy. Some forms of thinking are systematic but do not require an argument, for example strategic thinking. Other forms of thinking are irrational or untruthful, yet they are just this: more thinking. Illogical or non-conclusive arguments are not considered philosophy, yet they are the products of thinking, too. And last, academic philosophy is distinguished from the activity philosophizing by a pre-set of technical terms and pre-existing concepts, curriculum, and methodology that take years of study to internalize.

The following community text (in a democracy, it is important what the public thinks) is a good definition of what is considered philosophy as far as some encyclopedianists are concerned:

Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing fundamental questions (such as mysticism or mythology) or the arts by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on reasoned argument.[2]

There we read it, again: The philosophical approach to thinking ideally leads to system building. Besides, only the creators of the most memorable philosophical systems – Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Georg W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, for example – are remembered as great philosophers. Yet, none of the great philosophers’ great philosophical systems – all purely intellectual inventions (we say: Vorstellungen or representations), no doubt – seemed to have passed the test of time.

New philosophical systems come and go, and – as a rule – the most easily impressionable students who take any of them too serious and as a matter-of-fact run into the dangers of growing up as pungent and intolerant followers of another man’s intellectual fantasies.

In his essay思想家与哲学家 (Thinkers and Philosophers), the linguistic sage Ji Xianlin compared philosophers to other great scholars, “thinkers”, and observed the following:[3]

一旦他们想把自己的理论捏成一个完整的体系的时候–一般哲学家都是有这种野心的–便显露出捉襟见肘,削足适履的窘态. [Once they (the philosophers) bring all their theories together and try to build them into a universal system – generally all philosophers have this ambition – cracks will appear and flaws will be revealed, and the project will literally end in an embarrassment.]

我心目中的思想家,却不是这个样子。他们对我在上面谈到的那些问题也可能会有自己的看法. 但是,他们决不硬搞什么体系,决不搞那一套烦琐的分析。记得有一副旧对联:”世事洞明皆学问,人情练达即文章. “我觉得,思想家就是洞明世事,练达人情的人。他们不发玄妙莫测的议论,不写恍兮惚兮的文章,更不幻想捏成什么哲学体系. 他们说的话都是中正平和的,人人能懂的。可是让人看了以后,眼睛立即明亮,心头涣然冰释,觉得确实是那么一回事. [Thinkers I have in mind are not like that. They may have their own views on the things I just mentioned. However, they would never engage in any system-building nor engage in its cumbersome analysis. I remember an old Chinese couplet [from the Dream of the Red Chamber, 红楼梦]: “A thorough insight into worldly matters arises from learning; a clear perception of human natures emanates from literary lore.” I believe that “thinkers” do just that, they cave for insights into worldly matters, they are sophisticated human beings. They do not talk about the mysterious and unpredictable. Nor do they write obscure texts, and much less do they dream up a philosophical system. What they write down is moderate and peaceful (unpretending), and everyone understands (their thought). After reading it, our eyes shine bright and blister, our minds are clear and free of confusion, and we realize: Yes, this is how things truly are.]

A sage does think, too. A sage can do philosophy, but not every philosopher is a sage. A sage practices sagehood, which is linked to self-cultivation and the striving for balance, harmoniousness, and human perfection. A sage’s thinking is concerned with the relationship of himself with other human beings, and the relationship of human beings with the greater order of all things. Here is a striking definition given by Robert C. Neville:

Sages understand memories and expectations, guilt and frustrations, joys and sorrows, suffering, pain, triumph, ecstasy, nobility, depravity, honor, degradation, sincerity, mendacity, stress and release. They understand the combinations and ambiguities of these in the lives of persons and in the affairs of peoples, and their understanding allow them so to follow the trail of what is important through the underbrush of triviality that they cleave to what is essential. Sages are those who understand people. What people? Anyone. […] Sages must live from long experience, not from intuitive encounters.[4]

Definitions can be elaborated or concise, yet the most fundamental difference between a philosopher and a sage, I believe, is the following:

A philosopheris a wise man distinguished for wisdom and sound judgment.A sage is a wise man distinguished for wisdom and from experience.[5]

According to the definition above, philosophers and sages both are wise man. Wisdom is a very broad term, and we shall later see that the sage’s wisdom is more based on sagacity, while the philosopher’s wisdom is more based on knowledge. But what is meant by “sound judgment” here? “Sound” means logical and coherent, the drawing of the right conclusions from the given premises. “Judgment”, according to Immanuel Kant, the father of German rationality, is subjective universality.[6] It means: “being indifferent to the existence of the object”. As a result of that indifference, the philosopher’s judgments will be (ideally) “free from interest and inclinations”.[7] A philosopher does not need to connect to anything or anyone, nor does he have to be good (that was for the saints) or prove himself a worthy member of the community, as sages do. Not the philosopher’s person or moral character is idolized; his merits rest solely on the novelty and challenge of the argument he presented.

The ancient Greeks thought of a philosopher as an eternal seeker of wisdom: someone who always searches the truth, comes close to it, but ultimately cannot attain perfect wisdom. That was reserved for the gods. As opposed to a philosopher, the sage (or “sophos”) in ancient Greece was considered the bearer of wisdom: someone who already possessed wisdom and only needed to self-actualize himself.

Plato was proud to be a philosopher. He argued that a sage or “sophos” by definition was impartial to the joys of truth seeking, because a sophos claimed he already possessed that wisdom. In Plato’s understanding, only a “philo-sophos”, a “lover-of-wisdom”, fully realizes that a) perfect wisdom was un-attainable yet b) that one nevertheless must always seek new knowledge that would lead ever closer to the light. Sages were light, and Plato could not take light. He preferred the law. Only the eternal condemnation to searching the truth was true love. Consequently, Greek philosophers developed an aversion to sages and their perceived hypocrisies, their sagacity. Neville, again, gives the following useful definition of sagacity:

Sagacity first requires that one understands people. At the heart of this is the understanding of how people perceive, think, and act. Most people are aware of what they perceive, think, and do, but usually not of the texture of their perceiving, thinking, and acting as such. These three activities constitute a person’s most basic orientation toward the world”.[8]

Plato and his disciples condemned the sage’s character and called into doubt his sagely motivations. In The Sophist (c. 360 BC) and The Republic (c. 380 BC), he described the sophos as having a false sense of divine inspiration and suffering from a delusion about their own mythical status. Plato further ascribed to the sage a highly manipulative character and an erroneous belief in human supernatural and esoteric powers. From the philosopher’s point of view, the sages did not seek nor did they really care much about the truth; all the sages thought and cared about was, allegedly, their status, power, and influence. Like a false prophet who seeks an elevated place from where he could air his false views and propagate his erroneous teachings. Unsurprisingly, Plato’s criticism of the sages was originally targeted at Athenian politicians as well as quack doctors, charlatans, and the competitors to his (philosophy’s) academy. Over the course of Western history, however, Ancient Greece’s dislike for spiritual beings has been universally acknowledged and continued in Western culture.

More than two thousand years have passed in Europe since Plato and the triumph of the philosophers over the sages. Not even Jesus Christ himself dared to call himself a sage; he could not! Highest wisdom was now with God. In the New Testament, The Book of James 3:17-18, we read: “Contrasting the false wisdom is true wisdom – Wisdom from God. God’s wisdom is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere.”[9] False wisdom, on the other hand, is that of the mere people, human wisdom. Finally, the Western Enlightenment and all rational academy schooled sagacity out of the European minds, and made the sages become obsolete and a relic of the past.

Today, philosophy in Germany has become a highly thought-after occupation and the single most important approach to thinking – besides the scientific one – in all academic disciplines. Academic philosophy is well paid and becoming a philosopher in terms of one’s writing is highly respected in Europe. Becoming a sage is not.

Graduate students in Germany study for the “PhD” degree, the Doctor of Philosophy. The country certainly has no degrees on offer in sagehood. In fact, the very English word “sagehood” has no meaningful German translation at all, and “sagacity” lacks any acceptable German rendering as well.

Talking about Eastern nations, China on the other hand always had reliable concepts for sages and sagehood; India, Japan, Korea all always had concepts for sages and sagehood too. As a matter of fact, those countries not only had sage cultures but were also living sage cultures, just as Germany today had a living culture of philosophers. Having said that Germany was a living culture for philosophers but no living sage culture, a couple of questions about the history that let to those shortcomings need to be addressed: What had happened since the Greeks and during the rise of Christianity in Europe that caused the exodus of sage culture in the west? The Germans do not call no thinker “einen Weisen” for no reason. That name has fallen into disgrace not by coincidence, as we shall see.

Next, why did Eastern societies cultivate sages by the hundreds and thousands, while Germany has yet to produce (officially) a single one? Moreover, what were the advantages and disadvantages of fully developed sage cultures over no-sage cultures? Surely, much has been reported about the advantages and disadvantages of the Western philosophical traditions and the lack thereof in the East. On the other hand, especially the advantages of sagacious traditions of the East were still under-reported or outright dismissed in Europe. Given the cultural survival and economical rise of so many Eastern nations, what will be the most obvious consequences (and benefits, depending) of not having developed a concept for sages and sagehood in Germany for the future?

Sages – or sophists, as they were called originally – did not have a good reputation in the ancient Greek tradition after the rise of the philosophers. The school of philosophers instead became the driving forces and ford-makers of Western history of thought and the development of European civilization. Sages were still present after Greece’s demographic and spiritual dominance in Europe had faded, but were few in numbers and not organized; this contrasted with the Far East where the Confucian sages founded Confucianism and the Taoist sages founded Taoism, for example. Over the time sages and sagehood in Europe irreversibly became more distant, more remote and unsound ideas, and by the time, say at the beginning of the European enlightenment, sagehood had already become extinct. If it wanted to be seen and felt again, it could only be re-discovered by studying Greek antiquity or – as a welcomed substitute – the ever-archaic, exotic and mythical Orient as it slowly unfolded before in the eyes of the mesmerized European orientalists.

In the Eastern hemisphere of the world the sages and all their teachings flourished. Oriental sages were known and are still known in (foreign) terms such as shengren, gurus, arhats, Brahmans, shi (masters), and many more. This is not to say that all of the above are the same – they are not. An Indian rishis or Buddhist bodhisattva is very different from a Chinese shengren; just as India is very different from China: calling Confucius a Buddha or bodhisattva is as wrong as calling the Hindu-god Krishna a shengren. A German rationalist and a French idealist or English empiricist is not the same either: calling a rationalist an idealist is as wrong as calling an idealist an empiricist. Yet one calls the latter ones collectively “the philosophers” because they bore out of the (Western) philosophical tradition, just as one called the former ones collectively “the sages” because they bore of the (Eastern) sagacious tradition.

The sages shared and personified the sage’s traits, practiced the sagacious approach to wisdom and tried to achieve “sagehood” through self-cultivation and personal experience. There were just as many forms of sagehood in the East, as there were philosophical schools in Europe; and today when we enlists some great sages of history, of the Eastern sages there are so many while of the Western sages there are only a few, ancient Greek ones: The Ancient sages of Greek: Solon of Athens, Chilon of Sparta, Thales of Miletus, Bias of Priene, Cleobulus of Lindos, Pittacus of Mitylene, and Periander of Corinth; the Wise Men of Egypt; the Ancient sages of China: the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (ch: 竹林七賢 [Zhúlín Qī Xián]: Ruan Ji, Xi Kang, Liu Ling, Shan Tao, Ruan Xian, Xiang Xiu, Wang Rong); the Vedic Seven Sages [Saptarshis] of India: Agastya, the Vedic Siddhar, etc.; the Sages of Talmudic (of the Jewish tradition); the Navaratnas (Hindu tradition): Śākyamuni; the Buddhist bodhisattvas and The Buddha; the Zen Patriarchs: Ananda, Nagarjuna, Asvaghosa, etc.; the Chinese sages: Confucius, Lao Zi, Mencius, Zhuang Zi, Hui Neng, Mo Zi, etc.: the Twelve Sages of Qilu (now Shandong); the Japanese sages: Honen, Shinran, etc.; the Ten Sikh Gurus: Guru Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh etc., the Hindu sages (in the West sometimes erroneous called the “Hindu saints”): the Raghavendra Swami, Jagadguru Mahaprabhu Shri Vallabhacharya, etc.; the modern sages like Paramahansa Yogananda, Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, Shirdi Sai Baba, Ji Xianlin, Ren Jiyu, Thích Nhất Hạnh, Swami Sivandanda Saraswati, Gandhi, Ikeda Daisaku, or the Dalai Lama, etc. The list goes long.

A common Western misconception about sages and sagehood is that they require a religion. Sagehood does not rely on religion at all. Confucianism is not a religion in any Western sense of the word. Buddhism is not a religion either, but a way of life. Sages first and foremost are great humanists. They share a compassion for their fellow human beings, and they always possess some of the following sagely traits:

Sages are spiritual beings, who pursue the course of the Mean and a high level of human perfection. They personify the ideal personality. Sages mostly share a love for learning and are respectful, gentile, and kind. The embrace the way (the One) or in any other way are aware of oneness, thus they prefer ordering and harmonizing the world. They are at peace with others, do not content nor boast, while never losing sight of the humanity that unites them with all other members of society. As spiritual teachers they are modest, conspicuous and never consider themselves right. They often practice propriety, self-cultivation, filial piety, ancestor worship and many other rituals (such as meditation, mind-body practices) and are thus a role model for society.[10]

Since Western societies were indoctrinated by Christianity and philosophy, Western missionaries in the 16th and 17th centuries to China did not know how to categorize non-Christian and un-philosophical Chinese traditions. Confucianism and Buddhism were thus “religions”, but of course inferior. Their commentators were “philosophers”, but substandard. Choosing familiar names for the unfamiliar does a lot of damage culture-wise, like calling Chinese 饺子jiaozi (dumplings) “Knödel” or Japanese 寿司sushi “Fisch”. In both cases, the food of Chinese and Japanese origin has been devalued. Germany originally had nothing like it; but now, worse, it looked like China and Japan had weird Knödel and Fisch. Naming food stuff may be trifling, christening Chinese and Japanese traditions it not.

The missionaries did not know any better than either calling Chinese sages (biblical) “saints” or (Greek) “philosophers”, albeit carefully reminding us that it was not really “religion” or “philosophy” in the Western sense of those words. Biblical vocabulary in particular was very convenient. It was used generously and as a result few Chinese terms survived. The Buddhist disciples – in Chinese: heshang – were called “monks”; the Chinese great masters – in Chinese: dashi – were called “priests”, etc. The various Chinese schools of thought – in Chinese: jiao – were called “philosophies”. Buddhists mystical texts or slokas – in Chinese: jing – were called (biblical) “holy texts”. And Confucius, the greatest shengren of all, was called just that: “a philosopher”. This practice, as said before, against all the textual evidence that not a single instance in the Chinese Classics or indeed Chinese scholarship in over two thousand years had ever mentioned a philosopher.

Cultural exchange always worked both ways, however imbalanced: Chinese and Japanese scholars, inexperienced with Western concepts and based on their sage tradition, understandably called Jesus Christ and Plato shengren. To this day in China and Japan, the allusive “Four Great Sages” (ch: sheng; jp: shisei 四聖) refers to Buddha, Jesus Christ, Confucius, and Socrates. A philosophical version of the Four Sages exists, too: In the Tetsugakudō-kōen, the ‘Philosopher Park’ in Tokyo, Inoue Enryō created his own “Four Wise Men” set of sculptures by replacing the image of Jesus Christ with a sculpture of Immanuel Kant. Calling the philosopher Kant a “sage” places him above other (mere) philosophers – an honor that he would have liked. In German culture, however, Immanuel Kant always stayed a philosopher. The Germans preferred their own terminologies just as much as they loathed foreign ones.

During the 19th and 20th centuries of intense Western preoccupation with Asia – after all it was the European age of imperialism, colonialism, and orientalism – the Anglo-Saxon world had learned and thoroughly understood that shengren were not (biblical) holy men in any Western sense of that word in the same way that Buddhist spiritual beings were not holy men but arhats, bodhisattvas, or buddhas. English-language scholarship had learned that China always had and still has a long and continuous tradition of sages (sheng) and sagehood, as rooted and manifested in the Chinese spirit and way of life just as Greek philosophy and Christianity were rooted and manifested in the European spirit and way of life. Unfortunately, English speakers did not domesticate the Chinese loanword “shengren” which would have been most appropriate and reasonable, but instead, because the English society was familiar to terms like “sages”, “sagacity” and “sagehood”, called Confucius, Mencius, Laozi and all the shengren just that: “sages”. “Sage”, that word, was Middle English, from Old French and Latin sapientia, meaning wise through reflection and experience or distinguished for wisdom. The term “sage” in the English language does not bear any religious connotation and it that was an acceptable synonym for shengren, if shengren was to mean a man of highest wisdom, but – of course – could not substitute the Chinese original loanword entirely because shengren in addition to a man of highest wisdom (智 zhi) meant so much more to Chinese culture: highest virtues (德 de), proper conduct (礼 li), the striving for human perfection, the middle way, etc. Still, wisdom or better sagacity and the personification of highest wisdom are rendered elegantly and truthfully by terms like “sageness” and “the sages”. And that was that for the Anglo-American way to deal with the concept of shengren.

Things were different and a lot more complicated, however, for the Germans. Germany had no concept of sages and sagehood, and Latin sapientia discontinued its original meaning, sagacity, in the German vocabulary. Instead the word “Sage” [with a capital S] in German now referred to a legend or folk tale. The only way to convey the English meaning of the sage in the German language is by translating it as “der Weise” (the wise man [note the gender: die Weise {feminine} meant “manner, mode, and fashion”].

That said, Wiseman (or “Weiser”) is so much less powerful a concept than “sages”. But for German standards, at least the word “Weisen” conveyed the idea of “Weisheit” or wisdom. Had it been used as standard translation for shengren, it would have corresponded neatly with the English sages. Besides, “Weiser” was the only proper translation of English “sage”. But the Germans – as a general rule – did not do that, they did not call the shengren “die Weisen” but instead continued to call sages “die Heiligen” (the saints or holy men), or else re-invented the Chinese sheng-tradition however it pleased them. Among the many illustrious German translations for shengren – if it was translated at all – were: Göttliche (god-like men, demigods), Berufene (appointees), Kulturheroen (cultural heroes), Genies (genius), Philosophen, and many more [see Chapter 4]. Some German missionaries such as Karl Gützlaff and Richard Wilhelm were evidently Christian fundamentalists and wanted to evangelize China and the Chinese people at all cost. Translating sheng as “heilig” and sheng(ren) as “Heilige” (and tian as Heaven or God, of course) was a superior strategy of the Church to convert the common Chinaman. Not all the German missionaries were incurable Christian fundamentalists like Karl Gützlaff, yet many other translators of Confucius’ The Analects, for example Wilhelm Grube, Wilhelm Schott, and Franz Xaver Biallas never correctly translate sheng(ren) either. Many German orientalists and philosophers had no religious agenda whatsoever; nevertheless they all felt irritated – if they felt anything at all since most of them never heard the original name – by the sheng and the concepts of sages and sagehood in general. German textbooks often read something along the lines of: A philosopher, but unlike philosophers; a holy man, but unlike holy men.[11] Describing Chinese Confucius as a Western “philosopher” or “saint” was to describe a paradox. But Confucius is not at all paradoxical, he is a shengren. German scholarship did not get it right for hundreds of years – that was the sad truth.

Not having any “Weisen” (sages) was one problem; not calling other countries’ sages “die Weisen” was another. Every culture has a range of names that have been robbed of their magic by the imperial forces of history. One striking example is the German world for a leader: Führer. Tragic history has made the term Führer unusable. In fact, the English word leader is now used in politics and business. “Der Weise” is not a taboo like “der Führer”, and there is no semantic connection between those words – nevertheless the idea of a pejorative arises: “Der Weise” (the sage) has lost much of its magic (if it had any) in terms of the integrity and reality of the person describes. The following is a list of the “Weise”-term used in German tradition (discussed in more detail in Chapter 3); all of these items are either pejorative in nature or archaic and reserved for mythology, legend, and fantastic literature:

1. Sophos, the wise man (Socrates) – archaic

2. The Stoic sage (The sophists of Greek antiquity) – archaic and pejorative

3. Three wise men (Oriental sage) – un-European

4. Nathan the Wise (Lessing) – un-European

5. Die weise alte Frau, der weise alte Mann (Fairy Tales) – folkloric

6. Referred to a melody “Weise” meant “elevated”, “archaic” – outdated

7. The Wise man as archetype (Grimm/Jung) – mythic, folkloric

8. Wise persons in fiction (Fantasy literature) – fantastic

German scholars found it irritating to (re-)use the archaic and folkloric term Weise – that had served well the tales of the Brothers Grimm. But now applying it to China’s greatest thinkers? Besides, “der Weise” was not a name for any dead or living German thinker, ever! All Germans had proper occupations and titles; a “Weiser” was not among them. Germans were called “Dichter”, “Philosophen” or, generously: “Denker”, as in the epigram “Dichter und Denker”, but never were they called “die Weisen” (the sages). “Der Weise” (plural: “die Weisen”) often evoked mythical or Oriental ideas. If applied to a modern thinker, “Weise” bore the negative connotations of being outdated and un-scientific, and, in the rare case of a pensioned and chain-smoking politician like Helmut Schmidt, the former German Chancellor, it could be a friendly yet caricatured gesture that was essentially that: patronizing. In this case, “der Weise” was more related to the rare instances of high morals and integrity – of a politician, alas – than of wisdom or sagacity. People want to be called by their professions, or by names like poets or writers or philosophers, not to be ridiculed with strange names. Moreover, Western culture had come to value youth over old age, knowledge over wisdom and judgment over experience. Germany society in particular was through and through rationalized, with academic philosophy and its proper titles. Sages and sagehood was schooled out of their minds. And with the belief that humankind was created by God the Almighty, no one wanted to step out of proportions and call himself a Wiseman. Gert Scobel in his book Weisheit(2008) thus asked the right question: “Warum fehlt uns Weisheit?” [Why do we lack wisdom?]. The answer was: Germany could do well without.


[1] Pieper, 2008

[2] Wikipedia, Philosophy, last access 02/2011

[3] Ji Xianlin, 2009

[4] Neville, 1978, p. 54

[5] Webster Dictionary, 2010

[6] Kant, 1987, p. 54

[7] Bruno, 2010, p. 70

[8] Neville, 1978, p. 55

[9] New Testament, Book of James, 3:17-18

[10] A summary of sagely attributes taken from quotes in this text by Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Mozi, Tu, Gu, Taylor, and Schwarz

[11] Wilhlem, 1925, p. 64