Shengren – Chapter 2.1 – Sage Cultures

“China is not only a sage culture, but a living sage culture

China has always been a living sage culture. A culture without sages was a culture that lacked a profound respect for relationships – the relationships among people, and the relationships between the people and all things. Without respect for relationships, there was no tolerance for others, inhibited consideration, and no commitment to oneness and interconnectedness. A culture without sages was a sad place. Zhuangzi once said: “說聖邪,是相於藝也;說知邪,是相於疵也” [Delight in sageness is helpful to ingenious contrivances; delight in knowledge contributes to fault-finding.][1] The Chinese sages were stressing the priority of wisdom from experience over blind faith in quick knowledge. Any piece of knowledge feels sharp when cut out of context and can be used as a weapon, yet once it was placed back, it was just blunt surface again. A sage would always consider the whole and not fighting over the particular. A sage understood harmoniousness first – through self-cultivation – in his heart and mind; and then he understood the harmoniousness that binds his heart and mind together with the hearts and minds of all human beings. The sage was wise because he experienced the interconnectedness of all people. The sagacious approach to thinking – this particular expression of human intelligence – had caused the rise of sage cultures in Asia and was a necessary requirement for the formation and flourishing of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Shinto. The sagacious approach to thinking had been discontinued in Europe by the Greeks. Once the sages (or sophists) were suppressed, no more sage culture could be sustained, thus nothing similar to Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Shinto could ever arise in Europe. Jesus Christ was a sage, too, because he experienced the interconnectedness of all human beings. However, the European philosophical culture demanded a first cause (the premise) that lied outside human experience. All Western thinking has been linear, from a beginning to an end, from the past to the present, the cause causes the effect. That first cause ideally should be looked at and treated like another piece of knowledge, the object of the philosophical enquiry. That first cause and piece of knowledge was called God, and God the cause was necessarily separated from the effect, the creation of the world. God was not the world, but created it, and the world was thus separated from God. In short, human beings were no longer one with the creator. Inevitably, Jesus Christ was the last sage of Europe because he called himself the Son of the First Cause – God. No one after Christ could become like him. If He was wise, no one else could be. If no one can be like Him, he is no longer one of us. He placed himself above humanity. Confucius would never have done that. Since highest wisdom and morality were now delegated to God, the sages became dispensable and had to denounce their human-based humanity. Those who taught humanity now taught the divine. They became the priests. Those who absolutely submitted to God’s will, however, the servants of God, became saints – Holy men by divine grace. Not a single European spiritual personality was ever called a sage again, certainly not Moses, Jesus, not Augustine of Hippo, not Meister Eckhart. Sage culture was gone and prevented from returning.

Despite the influence of Oriental studies in Germany,[2] a “German Buddhism” or “German Confucianism” could never arise. The great German thinkers were Philosophen; but in a sage culture Philosophen could not replace the sages. Some German thinkers like Goethe or Hesse had noticed that before. The studied the Orient, tried to understand, and were constantly reminded that Europe had indeed lost something that – apart from retreating into a deep nostalgia – could only be re-discovered in China and India. The same longing for Eastern wisdom was expressed by very prominent American thinkers. In his A Journey around the World (1897), the essayist Mark Twain praised India as the “Land of religions”, the “cradle of the human race”, the “birthplace of human speech”, the “grandmother of legend”, and the “great grandmother of tradition”. Only that, it seems, Twain did not really know what to expect from India other than “religion” (a biblical term), “cradle” (another biblical term), and “legend” (something fantastic like Walhalla). Westerners who describe Indian or Chinese culture in Western terminology were just pretending. The words Twain used to describe India are the same that are used all over America every day probably a million times, does that make America India or American culture Indian? With the modern technology we have today, we could have examined Twain’s brain neuron functions the moment he uttered those familiar English words “religion” and “cradle” on two different occasions, first when talking about India and second when Church-talking let’s say to his barber in Hartford, Connecticut: we would not find the slightest neurological discrimination. Had Mark Twain said: “India is the land Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Shaivism and thousand other traditions”, and has “gurus and rishis”, “Samkhya, Nyaya, and Yoga”, and “is heavily influenced by Vedanta and Shramana”, then his barber would have turned his head. The last thing India had been was “religion and cradles”. On a side note, Ancient India had no philosophers either, and why should it? What is so great about philosophy anyway?

Will Durant, another American writer (and philosopher), in his The Case for India (1930) wrote this: “Perhaps in return for conquest, arrogance and spoliation, India will teach us the tolerance and gentleness of the mature mind, the quiet content of the unacquisitive soul, the calm of the understanding spirit, and a unifying, a pacifying love for all living things”. So, what exactly does Durant mean? That Christianity does not teach [enough] tolerance and gentleness, or love? That cannot be true. That punching on India does reflect badly on our spirit and souls? But that is hardly empowering India, only patronizing her. Despite all his good intentions, Durant is shallow. His most famous book, The Story of Philosophy (1926), is a case in point: a collection of essays on the usual “philosophers”, from Plato to Nietzsche. So, the story of philosophy clearly is, in Durant’s mind, a story of the Western philosophers. But what, then, is there in the East, if its not any philosophers? Durant has not the slightest idea, Eastern philosophers, maybe? That was his guess, as we shall see now. Just like Hegel, Durant did a great service to Western total supremacy; as far as true scholarship is concerned, however, he produced one of the greatest scandals in known history. His masterpiece (a series) The Story of Civilization (1935 to 1975) was – once again, for Durant saw it as his personal mandate – explaining “Civilization” – the Western one, of course, which by extension (and limitation of his learning) was the only one. All others, India, Japan, the Middle and Far East were skillfully incorporated in that story, as chapters in Western history. Suddenly, there were “philosophers” all over the East; all thought looked quite familiar (as translations usually have that effect). Durant’s book on foreign cultures he had never seen nor experienced nor had actually learning about, looks all English language, all Western conviction and confidence, as if an American had written it. The only consolidation to critical assessment being that, had it been a German who wrote it, he would never have written “the Chinese or Japanese sages”, but would in all probability have called them: “die Heiligen Chinas und Japans”. For if it had been the case that all orientalists pulled on the same rope all the time, scholarship would have never become suspicious of their dubious methods, bias, and pure self-interest. A close analysis of The Story of Civilization: Part 1, Our Oriental Heritage, Book Three, The Far East, A. China, pp. 636-825 (yes, that is the path), reveals Durant’s obsession with “philosophers”: Mo Ti, Yang Chu, Mencius, Chuang-tze, Hsun-tze, Chu His, etc. are listed as “philosophers”.[3] Durant does not know any Chinese, and has never heard about the shengren, since his source is the translations of James Legge, who withheld the shengren. Legge translated “sages” instead, so Durant uses “sages” and “philosophers” interchangeably. The Chapter XXIII reads: “The Age of the Philosophers”, and starts with a quote from Diderot: the Chinese “are superior to all other Asiatics in antiquity, art, intellect, wisdom, policy, and in their taste for philosophy”.[4] Not only is “philosophy” a Western term that does not exist in China well until the modern era, but “Diderot” is not a Chinese. Indeed, Durant’s cited ‘authorities’ on Chinese culture are not the Chinese themselves but Western philosophers: He describes China in Western terminology and relentlessly makes references to Plato (p. 647), Socrates (p. 650), Zeno (p. 677), Spinoza and Hegel (p. 655), Nietzsche (p. 669) Rousseau (p. 650), Voltaire (p. 657), Goethe (p. 669), even Jesus Christ (p. 656, 669), and has a Western answer on everything Chinese: “Lao-tze talks almost with the accents of Christ” (p. 656); “He [Confucius] did not immediately agree with Nietzsche about a certain incompatibility between philosophy and marriage” (p. 659). Or was it Nietzsche not agreeing with Confucius? Or was it that both of them lived in different places during different times? And this one: “Confucius agreed with Goethe” (p. 669). Or was it that Goethe agreed with Confucius? Who knows – and, if this was so-called true scholarship, than who cares. At no point did Durant mentioned Confucius the shengren, but instead called him either “Confucius, the old sage” (p. 643, 658) (what Legge said in his translation of the The Analects), but – although saying at some point that it was “no system of philosophy” – all else talks about “Confucius philosophy” (pp. 668 ff.). The overuse of the world “philosophy” is almost silly: “one of the golden texts of philosophy” (p. 669); “the philosophy of Confucius triumphed” (p. 675); “the home of humanistic, or non-theological, philosophy” (p. 650); “a brilliant outburst of philosophical and literary genius” (p. 651); “the pre-Confucian philosophers” (pp. 650, 652); “Taoist philosophy” (p. 653); “The characteristic production of the epoch is philosophy” (p. 650); “their taste for philosophy” (p. 640); “with the help of his philosophy, China developed a harmonious community life” (p. 676); “having discovered the pleasures of philosophy” (p. 677); “China formed philosophy” (p. 648); “Quiescence, a kind of philosophical inaction” (p. 656), etc. Will Durant was badly informed about China, and oblivious of all Chinese concepts, letting alone the shengren. In fact, the only Chinese terminology he uses is personal and place names, like Mo Ti and Lo-yang. (p. 677). And sentences like this are the result:

The Superman of Confucius is composed of three virtues severally selected as supreme by Socrates, Nietzsche and Christ: intelligence, courage, and good will.[5]

That quote above makes perfect sense to a Western reader, but not to any Chinese. That is because it has nothing to do with China, but is all about the West: Superman, Socrates, Nietzsche, Christ, and about how the West wants to see itself with regards to Confucius. Will Durant gives an instruction to his fellow Western academics on what to make of Confucius and how to incorporate him into Western history. Again, here is where we find Confucius now: The Story of Civilization: Part 1, Our Oriental Heritage, Book Three, The Far East, A. China, Chapter XXIII, The Age of the Philosophers, pp. 636-825.

On a final note, Will Durant said a few things about Chinese “sages” or “the ideal men”. We recall the observation that the West, as biased as it can be, is all about Greek philosophy and Christianity. Now, what else can we suspect from Durant than exactly such phrasing: In his view, the Chinese “ideal man” is produced by “a union of philosopher and saint”. [6] It is a great gesture and compliment to the Chinese people, but the matter of fact is that Confucius was neither a philosopher nor a saint but a shengren, and the reality is that the West had none.

But now leaving America of the 20th century and going back to Europe of the earlier centuries. The Western euphoria about China and India was a great irritation for Germany. Competition from the East – we are talking about tens of thousands of foreign concepts and ideas – could not be tolerated. Most German thinkers had seen themselves as culturally superior – even among Western countries; even when the British ruled their Empire. Next they wanted to reflect their country’s great power status to the outside world.[7] For that, Germany had to destroy the “myth” of a capable and sovereign Orient:

The crux of the whole question affecting the Powers of the Western nations in the Far East lies in the appreciation of the true inwardness of the Oriental mind.[8]

We know that the Europeans largely succeeded. But what exactly happened and how?


[1] Legge, 1891, The Writings of Chuang Tzu: Outer Chapters – Letting Be, and Exercising Forbearance

[2] Said, 1978; Zizek, 1997, 2001

[3] Durant (1975), p. 636

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.,p. 669 (in the footnotes)

[6] Ibid., p. 669

[7] McClelland, 2008; Marchand, 2007, 2009; Wokoeck, 2009

[8] Krausse, 1900