Shengren – Chapter 3.13 – The Philosopher-Kings

Socrates: “…when the true philosopher kings are born in a State, one or more of them, despising the honors of this present world which they deem mean and worthless, esteeming above all things right and the honor that springs from right, and regarding justice as the greatest and most necessary of all things […] They will begin by sending out into the country all the inhabitants of the city who are more than ten years old, and will take possession of their children, who will be unaffected by the habits of their parents; these they will train in their own habits and laws, I mean in the laws which we have given them: and in this way the State and constitution of which we were speaking will soonest and most easily attain happiness, and the nation which has such a constitution will gain most.”[1]

– Plato, The Republic

Plato’s Politeia was one of the West’s most important texts written on statecraft and constitutional rule. It was also a key text in German classical philology, because it dealt singularly elegantly with Germany’s all favorite themes such as Vernuft (reason), Rechtschaffenheit (righteousness), and Gerechtigkeit (justice). Plato described the function and role of the philosophers in the city-state who must be trained in algebraic and logical sciences, and who should ideally fill into the highest ranks and take up the highest posts in society. The most outstanding ones among the philosophers may be called Philosophenkönige (Philosopher-Kings). This idea of a kingdom administrated by idealized intellectual men, philosophers, and thus theoretically ruled by the most outstanding thinkers, philosopher-kings, had come around in Germany’s history quite often. Philosophy had always been hailed gloriously and magnificently. The discipline celebrated its revival during the period known as European Enlightenment, when the Greek ideal of the philosopher’s rule had been rediscovered and turned into an obsession, especially among the academic and theological philosophers who saw their rightful place not over dusty books in some Spartan closet but closer to the power of the political class and decision makers: “De philosopho regnante et de rege philosophante“.[2]

The dream of a small group of thinkers from the “Academy” (School of Philosophy) that could and should lead “the City” (The city of Athens) seemed like a good idea – in theory; it never happened in the history of mankind, though. The reason for that was simple: Leaders lead; thinkers don’t – they think. That’s why so many disappointed academics wrote books on how much better off the world would be if not the charismatic, passionate, and emotional leaders had let humanity, but instead the sober, intellectual and rational scholars. Not a single philosopher in Western history was a political leader, while some leaders tried to become philosophers, but simply had not too much time for such a calling. Thus they wrote brief aphorism or published memories and said other clever things, but that could hardly amount to philosophy. No, the truth is, the world’s greatest intellectuals had been locked up in lofty yet lonely ivory towers: to dream or to invent the ideal and the vision that the capable emperors and kings could follow up on. Philosophers merely assisted the leaders. In secret, they aspired more. The greatest thinkers in every culture cultivated a similar national myth: Plato’s “Philosopher-Kings”, the Confucius’ “Shengren“, the “Sage-Rulers” in the Chronicles of Japan, the Sages of the Jewish Chazal, the members of the Buddhist Councils, etc..

Just like the philosophers in the West dreamt about the rulership of the Philosopher-Kings and not about the rulership of some Sage-Kings because the Greek philosophers hated the sages and sophists; so did the sages in the East dreamt about the stewardship of the Sage-Kings and not about the rulership of any Philosopher-Kings because they had not experienced Plato and the rise of the philosophers in the East. In the Chapter ‘Charge to Yue’ of the Instructions of Yi (The Book of Documents) we read such sagely advice to the king:

惟木從繩則正, 後從諫則聖. 後克聖, 臣不命其承, 疇敢不祗若王之休命? [And Yue said to the king, ‘Wood by the use of the line is made straight, and the sovereign who follows reproof is made sage. When the sovereign can (thus) make himself sage, his ministers, without being specially commanded, anticipate his orders – who would dare not to act in respectful compliance with this excellent charge of your Majesty?’][3]

The advice is flattering to both professions: His Majesty may dream of becoming a sage-king, and the sage, well, although he is never to become a king, but at least the lofty incitement was on him.

There were some historians like the German philosopher Karl Jaspers who described the time between the 8th – 2nd centuries BC as the ‘Axial Age’ when all the major world “religions” emerged at once. That is not quite correct. What happened during that time was that the West favored its philosophers and philosophy, while the East cultivated sages and sagehood. What the German Karl Jaspers called “the global emergence of profound thinkers who had great influences on religion and philosophy” is audacious, because “religion” and “philosophy” are both Western concepts.

The East had never developed religions or philosophies, but instead cultivated sages and sagehood that let to traditions like Confucianism and Buddhism. You will not find traditions like that in Europe. There are no such things as Eastern religions. Philosophy and sagehood will always lead to two different traditions. A philosopher sent to an island will always adhere to the philosophical tradition and think up a system with a first cause that he calls religion. A sage sent to an island will always adhere to sagehood and produce a tradition similar to Confucianism or Buddhism.

Back to the philosopher-kings in the Western world and the sage-kings in the Eastern world: Besides the Hindu traditions, the influence of Confucianism and Chinese thought on Asia cannot be overestimated. Asia is the cradle of sage cultures. Take the island of Japan. A closer look on the Nihon Shoki, also known as The Chronicles of Japan, for example, will reveal the sheng(ren) (jp: sējin) scattered all over the place:

《大化二年(六四六)八月癸酉(十四)》秋八月庚申朔癸酉. 詔曰. 原夫. 天地陰陽、不使四時相乱. 惟此天地、生乎万物. 万物之内. 人是最霊. 最霊之間. 聖為人主. 是以聖主天皇. 則天御寓. 思人獲所。暫不廃胸. Going back to the origin of things […] it is this Heaven and Earth which produces the ten thousand things. Amongst these ten thousand things Man is the most miraculously gifted. Among the most miraculously gifted beings, the sage takes the position of ruler. Therefore the Sage Rulers, viz., the Emperors, take Heaven as their exemplar in riding the World, and never for a moment dismiss from their breasts the thought of how men shall gain their fit place.[4]

Again we find the 聖主天皇 “sage-ruler” or “sage-kings”. The Nihon Shoki is not mentioning once the word “philosophy”, which in Japanese would be 哲学 “tetsugaku” and became a Western loanword in the late 18th or early 19th century. There were no philosophers in Asia in the past, but 圣人shengren.

The Sophist was Plato’s notorious dialogue in which he meticulously destroyed the sophist’s reputation and hailed the philosopher. Everything the sages did was wrong and everything they believed in was false believe. Against the wicked wise, Plato set the true wisdom-lover, the true statesman and philosopher like (himself, of course, and) Socrates: “He (Socrates) is not a god at all; but divine he certainly is, for this is a title I should give to all philosophers.[5] In the East, the opposite took place; the sages were the greatest thinkers of all. This is what Zi Gong had to say in The Analects about the sage Confucius: “固天縱之將聖,又多能也. Certainly Heaven has endowed him unlimitedly. He is about a sage. And, moreover, his ability is various.[6] Karl Jaspers never made the clear distinction between philosophers and sages – to him they were all “philosophers” – a scheme that suited the West best. Conquering Asia’s tradition felt like coming home.

Similarities in manner, of course, do exist: Both East and West naturally called their most productive thinkers “philosopher” or “sage” respectively, with each name being the highest title for an individual of that particular leading school of thought of that societies. Yet, that observation does not make a Western philosopher an Eastern sage: “Yet in acknowledging the wisdom of the sages, we must not make the mistake of elevating their teachings above Western science and philosophy – or vice versa. To do either is merely to perpetuate the chief problem the sages address: judgmentalism, partiality, alienation and division, argumentation, and ‘Doing Something’ all the time”.[7] There could be no doubt that sages are sages and philosophers are philosophers. At least, Plato of the West made the distinction very clear: there were philosophers and there were sophists. No Western thinker with the slightest idea about who Plato was would ever call Plato a sage, a) because Plato himself insisted he was a philosopher and b) because he had only contempt for the sages.

In a related field, no Western thinker would ever call Jesus Christ a sage because he was the Messiah and the Son of God, let him be a prophet or the king of saints, at most. Yet with the shengren in the East, the opposite happened: the sages lived and prospered. When the Europeans discovered that, they instinctively denied, disabled, manipulated or re-named the shengren; the sages’ existence was bent or broken at the will and mercy of the imperialists, and dealt with in a manner that seemed fit to Western stewardship in Asian matters: philosophers and saints shall rule, not sages, for we don’t have them and know few things about them.

Ever since the great fraud, “Confucius” has been re-decorated and paraded as China’s “Philosopher” a million times. Yu Dan’s Confucius (2006) – “Confucius, a philosopher and educator…”[8] – alone has sold millions of copies to Western readers. Other false names like Philosoph, Heiliger, Göttlicher have spread in Germany for hundreds of years now, in ever new editions of incorrect translations, text books, dissertations, best-sellers, history and school books. Bright kids who read Confucius, if only in translation, often wonder, why is all thought called philosophy; and if it’s not all philosophy, what else could it be called? In China, it’s the teachings of the sages – of the shengren.

Given that Greek philosophers had so much contempt for the moral teachers, the sophists, and given that Western civilization and Christianity continued this trend, would it be fair to say that the German thinkers wanted to clean-wash Confucius’ image by calling him a “Philosophen” or “Heiligen”, even if it wasn’t true? First impressions do count, in this case: the first impression made on the German public. Construing a fake yet bewildering likeness of the shengren to Greek “Philosophen” would cause infinite sympathy and affection; while calling the shengren “Shengren” or even just “Weisen” would indicate a competitive alien rival.

The German philosopher’s patronizing of the shengren was a real possibility; the German thinkers liked the Chinese sages but rather preferred to call them philosophers. Because “calling a sage a sage” would have thrown the Chinese sages under the crushing wheels of Plato and the entire prejudiced Western machinery of thought:

Now the tribe of Sophists which we are investigating is not easily caught or defined; and the world has long ago agreed, that if great subjects are to be adequately treated, they must be studied in the lesser and easier instances of them before we proceed to the greatest of all. And as I know that the tribe of Sophists is troublesome and hard to be caught, I should recommend that we practice beforehand the method which is to be applied to him on some simple and smaller thing, unless you can suggest a better way.[9]

Plato’s defamatory and belittling talk about the sophists was, of course, demagogy. Plato’s dislike for those who were supposedly against him was legendary, and so was his idealization of those who agreed with him. The effect of his hate speech against the sophists was well known: the sophists were subsequently suppressed, first in Athens, then in entire Greece, and later the sages vanished during the rise of Christianity. The political philosopher Karl Popper once accused Plato (and Georg Hegel and Adolf Hitler) of totalitarianism and deliberate “social engineering” of the masses: the skill-full mobilization of social forces to set out in the name of rational necessity to destroy the “base-less intellectual outcast, the intellectual minorities”, all those that do not confirm to the demagogue’s institutionalized way of thinking. Plato believed that history followed scientific laws, a belief that is called historicism, and that the sophists had to be removed from society as a matter of good for science and history.[10] If it wasn’t for Plato and his philosopher-clique, who couldn’t be so sure about two things: 1) that the West habitually destroys sage culture, and b) that Christianity necessarily happened. If human beings are bereft of their right to hold highest wisdom, then necessarily that responsibility for highest wisdom must be transferred to someone else, a supernatural being. If the sages go, religion comes. Saints come.

Philosopher-Kings and the annihilation of the sages in various forms and disguised under different names was a common theme in many Western writings: seek and destroy, divide and conquer, subvert and rule the passive people, the harmonious ones, those who claim to be one with nature (Naturvölker). The sages knew that there was no philosophical formula that explained all things in the world because they could not even understand or explain the mind of the person next to them. They only thing that mattered was that all people where here and now and that they were connected to all humankind and nature. One could say that the sages were a rather kind, friendly, and peaceful type of human being: “The sages’ focus on achieving harmony and virtue here and now is a response to the social conditions in which they lived”.[11] So, are sages a threat to Plato’s philosopher-kingdom? In his Sophist, he certainly likes to think so.

[1] The Republic, Book VII, transl. by Jowett, Benjamin

[2] Wolff, 1731

[3] Chinese Text Project, 2010

[4] Nihon Shoki, Chapter 25, c. 720, transl. in Ashton, 1896, Part III

[5] Plato, transl. by Jowett, Benjamin, 2000

[6] Legge, 1861, 9;6

[7] Soccio, 2007, p. 54

[8] Yu, 2006

[9] Plato, The Republic, Book VII, transl. by Jowett, 2000

[10] Popper, 1945

[11] Soccio, 2007, p. 24