Shengren – Chapter 3.7 – Der Weissager und der Prophet (Seer and Prophet)

Great is K’ungtzu, philosopher, The primal Seer, the primal Sage![1]

– William E. Soothill, The Analects

A Weissager (lit.: a person who speaks wise) was a German synonym for a Prophet (prophet). A prophet was someone who made predictions of events and what will happen to things in the future. In his book Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie, the poet Heinrich Heine once called Luther, the Great Reformer and father of the German language (he translated The Bible from Latin) “ein gottberauschter Prophet”.[2] In German, both Weissager and Prophet were interchangeable. And just like most English speakers, the German speakers too thought about biblical prophets like Moses, Jesaias or Jeremia when thinking about prophets. In case the prophet was non-religious, the term seer was also common; in German, although less common: der Seher. The Frenchman Michel de Nostradamus, otherwise known as Nostradamus, was a seer who in his book Les Propheties (1555) allegedly predicted the rise of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century and the holocaust in the 20th century, among others. The word Seher is a derivative of Old High German wīssago (a seer, prophet), which is linked to Old German wīssaz (wise) that lead to modern Weisheit (wisdom).[3] A Weissagung (prophecy), however, was a prediction connected to a certain person, or place, or event that may or not may come with conditions (if, than).[4] A thorough analysis of prophets and seers was given by Hanns Bachtold-Staubli in his Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens (1987) [Almanac on German Superstitions]. Luckily, the German thinkers had never used the names Weissager, Prophet, or Seher for Confucius and the shengren; possibly for the same reason of uneasiness and worry that Christian Wolff refused to compare Confucius to Jesus the Messiah. It was one thing to call Confucius a saint, but another to call him a prophet, simply because: if his two-and-a-half-millennia old “prophecy” of civil code and moral conduct worked, as it seemed to be the case in China, then Confucius successfully predicted civil society around the time Moses talked to a burning bush who said: Hey, it’s me, God! The German missionaries wanted to subordinate the Confucians to Christianity, not to promote them beyond that; the same way the German scholars wanted to subordinate the Chinese to philosophy, not to promote them above it. Both plots would have dramatically failed if the Germans had called Confucius a Propheten and Weisen. Being a Prophet would have made Confucius a central, if not a competing figure in Christianity, and being a Weiser – according to Goethe’s definition – would have set Confucius above the German philosophers. In the latter case, if die Weisen were to have returned to the world since Greek antiquity, of all things in mighty China, Germany would have to re-assess its hubris and maybe even promote some philosophers to sages. As to the case of die Propheten, that would be an entirely different problem. Christianity usually goes to war against people who have other prophets.

[1] Southill, 1937

[2] Craig, 1982, p. 96

[3] Watkins, 1985, p. 74

[4] Bachtold-Staubli, 1987, pp. 358-439