Shengren – Chapter 3.4 – Der Weise (The Wise Man)

The Indo European root for wise and wisdom is weid- (to look after, guard, ascribe to, reproach). In Germanic it became wīssaz or wīssōn (appearance, form, manner, wise), in Old-English wīs (manner, wise); hence: Old-English wīsdōm (learning, wisdom).[1]

More directly, the Old-English and Germanic derivations “wise, Wissen, Weisheit, wisdom, and vision” all derived from Latin vid, strictly speaking meaning seeing or sensing, that is, a sensual process through which wisdom was attained. Note that the Indo European root for knowledge and intelligence is wit-, and not weid-. Knowledge and wisdom were always two very distinctive concepts. In his Natural Theology (1829) the British philosopher William Paley described it this way: “There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom; wisdom always supposing action, and action directed by it”.[2]

Although “der Weise” is today’s accurate translation of “the sage”, both words actually derived from different roots. The Indo European root for sage is sep (to taste, perceive), which became Latin sapere (to taste, have taste, be wise), which lead to words like sapientia, sapid, sapient, sapor, savant, savor, and sage.[3] As said before, Latin sapientia and all its derivatives flourished in the Romantic languages, and, thanks to the Roman and Norman conquests of England, heavily affected the mother tongue of the Anglo-Saxons. The other Germanic languages, including German and the Scandinavian tongues, all linguistically recruited their wise men from Germanic wīssāz.[4] Henceforth, semantically, Weiser and sage became synonymous.

The following  German definition of der Weise (the sage) was taken form Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s (1785-1863) Deutsches Wörterbuch (ed. 1965):

WEISE, m. Substantivierung des adjektivs weise: der weise, sw. m., ein weiser, plural die weisen, weise; ‘einer der weise ist’, den bedeutungen von weise, adj. entsprechend; die gewichtsverteilung entspricht im großen und ganzen der des adjektivs, d. h. der weise ist vor allem der ‘einsichtige’ (3 a), und ‘der sittlich handelnde’ (3 c). das substantiv lebt in enger berührung mit dem adjektiv, so dasz man den weisen fast mehr als verkürzung von der weise mensch, oder ähnlich, empfindet denn als selbständigen begriff. unabhängiger und zu einem geläufigen begriff geworden sind der weise als philosoph’, bes. in den sieben weisen Griechenlands (3 b), die weisen aus dem morgenland und der stein der weisen (1 b).[5]

The English translation of the above definitions were:

A)       the wise is especially the ‘insightful’ (3 a)

B)       the ‘morally acting’ (3 c);

C)      short for ‘the wise man’, independently developed: the wise as philosopher, especially in the Seven Sages [Weisen] of Greece (3 b);

D)      the Sages of the Orient (Weisen aus dem Morgenland) and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Stein der Weisen) (1 b)

Next, the following ‚ English definition of the sage was taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica Online (2010):

Main Entry: 1sage Pronunciation: 'sAj Function: adjective Inflected Form(s): sag·er; sag·est
Etymology: Middle English, from Old French, from (assumed) Vulgar Latin sapius, from Latin sapere to taste, have good taste, be wise; akin to Oscan sipus knowing, Old Saxon ansebbian to perceive
1 a : wise through reflection and experience b archaic : GRAVE, SOLEMN
2 : proceeding from or characterized by wisdom, prudence, and good judgment <sage advice>
Main Entry: 2sage Function: noun

1 : one (as a profound philosopher) distinguished for wisdom
2 : a mature or venerable man of sound judgment[6]

Finally, the following was the ƒ Chinese definition of shengren taken from The Chinese Online Dictionary查字典 Cha Zidian (2010):

shèng rén [sage]: 德高望重、有大智、已达到人类最高最完美境界的人,有时也专指孔子;古之圣人,其出人也远矣。——唐· 韩愈《师说》 是以圣人不期修古,不法常可。——《韩非子·五蠹》”.[7] [sage: of highest virtue and respected, of great wisdom, has reached the highest and most perfect state of the human person, it sometimes specifically refers to Confucius; the ancient sage, the most accomplished. – Yong Han Yu: “The Master said: That is the reason why the sage neither seeks to follow the ways of the ancients nor establishes any fixed standard for all times but examines the things of his age.” – Han Feizi, The Five Vermin]

Definitions of the der Weise, the sage, and the shengren

 German der Weise(Grimm‘s Wörterbuch) ‚ English sage(Encyclopedia Britannica) ƒ Chinese shengren(Cha Zidian)
  • the wise is especially the ‘insightful’
  • the ‘morally acting’
  • short for ‘the wise man’, independently developed: the wise as philosopher, especially in the Seven Sages [Weisen] of Greece
  • the Sages of the Orient, Weisen aus dem Morgenland and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Stein der Weisen)
  • wise through reflection and experience
  • archaic: grave, solemn
  • proceeding from or characterized by wisdom, prudence, and good judgment
  • one (as a profound philosopher) distinguished for wisdom
  • a mature or venerable man of sound judgment
  • of highest virtue and respected
  • of great wisdom
  • has reached the highest and most perfect state of the human person
  • Confucius; ancient sage, the most accomplished
  • no fixed standard for all time but examines the things of his age

The German der Weise and the English sage definitions did not match the Chinese definition for shengren. The Chinese definition for shengren had “the highest virtue”, “reached the highest and most perfect state”, and “no fixed standard for all time but examines the things of his age” – none of which was covered by the German definition for der Weise and the English definition for sage. It was evident that German der Weise and English sage were no true synonyms for Chinese shengren. That was expected because China was a sage culture with a long tradition of sages and sagehood. Germany and England did not have a sage culture for at least 200-2500 years (it vanished between the Greek antiquity and Roman Christianity). However, when comparing the German definition and the English definition, they were similar except one very important item: the English stressed “through reflection and experience”, while the German stressed only “insightful” and “morally acting”, which covered reflection but did not amount to experience – sagehood. The concept of sagehood (self-cultivation) was absent in the German definition of der Weise. Conclusively, Chinese shengren was better not translated at all by the Europeans but instead could be adopted, just like Indian bodhisattva. However, if translation was called for, both der Weise (from Indo European root weid-) and the sage (from Indo European root sep-) – because they covered the archaic aspects of wisdom – were semantically close enough in meaning to convey a person of great wisdom or sagacity, while in particular the English “the sage” was more correct than the German “der Weise” precisely because “the sage” stressed the aspect of wisdom from experience. Unfortunately, the Germans as a general rule did not translate shengren as “die Weisen” but chose biblical and other terminology instead. It should be mentioned that etymologically speaking, everything “heilig” or “holy” is not derived from weid- (wīssaz, wīs, wīsdōm etc.), but from the Indo European root kailo- (whole, uninjured, of good omen). Originally probably meaning wholeness or undivided, Christianity hijacked the kailo- branch for describing divinity and holiness. Here are some derivations[8] that might sound familiar:

1. Germanic *hailaz  
  Old English hāl, halehālsum wholewholesome
2. Germanic *hailithō  
  Old English hǣlth health
3. GermanicOld English *hailjanhǣlan  to heal
4. GermanicOld English *hailagazhālig  holy, sacred
5. GermanicOld English hailagōnhālgian  to consecrate, bless, hallow

(The * marks the Germanic root, the oldest Germanic form known)

A final remark, it is not difficult to think of kailo- wholeness, the undivided whole, or oneness was the first and purest state of affairs. Somehow, it got compromised with the arrival of the Hebrew God: Since God created man; man was thus separated from God. No more undivided whole, then. The East, however, was different: To the Oriental sages, as a general rule there was no separation; everything was inter-related: There was Japanese Zen (ぜん, 禅) and śūnyata (emptiness, 空), Hindu seva-nagri (the universe and I are one and the same), tat tvam asi (thou art that), Chinese tian ren he yi (Oneness of heaven and men, 天人合一), etc. Is it a coincidence that the kailo- root and branch, of all, was hijacked and abused by Christianity? Technically, if there was a way beforeto understand wholeness other than after its symbiosis with holiness in the West that means Christianity was never universal to begin with.

[1] Watkins, 1985, p. 74

[2] Paley, 1829, chapter 24

[3] Watkins, 1985, p. 58

[4] Ibid., p. 74

[5] Grimm, 1965

[6] Encyclopedia Britannica, 2010

[7] Cha Zidian, 2010

[8] Watkins, 1985, p. 26