Shengren – Chapter 4.14 – Jasper’s Great Man Theory

“Independent cultures tend to foster philosophers, and interdependent cultures tend to foster sages”

They (the Chinese) do attempt to make their Men of Letters their Governors! It would be rash to say, one understood how this was done, or with what degree of success it was done. All such things must be very unsuccessful; yet a small degree of success is precious; the very attempt how precious! There does seem to be, all over China, a more or less active search everywhere to discover the men of talent that grow up in the young generation. Schools there are for every one: a foolish sort of training, yet still a sort. The youths who distinguish themselves in the lower school are promoted into favorable stations in the higher, that they may still more distinguish themselves, – forward and forward. […] These are they whom they try first, whether they can govern or not. And surely with the best hope: for they are the men that have already shown intellect. Try them: they have not governed or administered as yet, perhaps they cannot; but there is no doubt they have some Understanding, – without which no man can do![1]

– Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History

Karl Theodor Jaspers (1883-1969) has worked as a psychiatrist in Heidelberg and taught psychology at Heidelberg University. He came into contact with the Orientalist Max Weber (1864-1920), author of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, who already was a professor at Heidelberg University at that time. Max Weber and Karl Jaspers had in common a belief in the superiority of certain men or group of men over others. Weber thought in more economical, sociological, and religious terms; Jaspers in more historical, psychological, and philosophical ones. In 1957, Jaspers published his Die großen Philosophen. The “Great Philosophers” in this book were Socrates, Buddha, Confucius and Jesus, and he established a genealogy of “Great Men”, their degrees of influence and power over their fellow human beings. He differentiated between (big) große Philosophen and (little) kleine Philosophen, and many more categories in between. Jaspers, as a matter of course, had no experience of China and could not read a single Chinese sentence, letting alone Classical Chinese. But then, he probably never read the Pali Tipitaka, or the Hebrew Bible either. And Jaspers knew that Georg Hegel and Thomas Carlyle had written about “Great men” before him, and Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. They did not know those languages nor had those experiences either. As a German philosopher, one did not need experience or special knowledge in a subject matter. All one needed in those days of Karl Jaspers and Max Weber was a proper university degree and appointment. All Jaspers did was philosophizing about those “Great Men” in history, and offering a systematic, Machiavellian approach and instruction on “greatness”. The Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle wrote in his On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1888): “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”, thereby establishing the Great Man theory in the English speaking world. The European late obsession with greatness, that culminated in Nietzsche’s Űbermensch, got finally out of control with the master race (Aryan blue-eyed, tall ideal of Nazi Germany), and theories like Social Darwinism and Eugenics. At first, Jaspers hesitated to call the Great Men “philosophers” at all: “Man kann zögern, sie überhaupt Philosophen zu nennen”,[2] [one may hesitate to ever call them philosophers] but then called them “Philosophen” throughout his study. If Jaspers had wanted to include Chinese or Indian traditions, he could have called them shengren, bodhisattvas or rishis. But as a rule, Western historians like to override Eastern trifle. The historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt, for example, called all great men “philosophers” or “paradigmatic individuals”.[3] Jaspers and Arendt chose “philosophers” for a cultural reason: Since Plato and his philosophers, a “philosopher” was not only a real person but also the highest ideal: “Die menschlichen Zustände werde nicht besser, ehe nicht die Philosophen Könige oder die Könige Philosophen warden”.[4] Philosopher was a Western gift for the Orientals, and they had better acknowledge it as universal. The alternatives were of no greater importance: In Jaspers’s own words, Buddhism was “Meditation unter Vernachlässigung des Denkens”[5] (meditation by neglecting of thought) and Confucianism was “die Stimme des Altertums”[6] (the voice of antiquity). When Karl Jaspers analyzed the Confucian Menschentypen (human archetypes), he, like most Germans, thought of Chinese thinkers as saints and concluded: “Die höchste umfasst die Heiligen, die von Geburt an im Besitz des Wissens sind”[7] (the highest were the saints, who possessed wisdom from birth). Again, saint was a Western concept; it was assumed that Western concept a priori include the known and unknown universe – Jaspers by calling shengren “Philosophen” or “Heilige” revealed his ignorance of the sages. Accusing a philosopher of ignorance, however, was like accusing the archer on focusing too much and too long on the target. Ignorance is part of the process: It is the philosophers way to focus on the object he tries to manipulate, and not consider the various distracting cues all around him. Besides, now that the psychiatrist Jaspers had safely brought Confucius the philosopher on the Western boat, he – just like Plato – attacked the remaining sages:

Die Gegner, die Konfuzius bekämpfe, sind die Leute, die die Welt für ohnehin verdorben halten und geschickt darin mitmachen, die Sophisten, die für und gegen die Sache ihre Gründe finden, die die Maβstäbe von Recht und Unrecht, von Wahr und Falsch in Verwirrung bringen”[8] [The enemies that Confucius fight are the people, the sophists, who think that the world is a rotten place and who skillfully manipulate right and wrong, true and false, in order to justify their means.]

Inadvertently, Karl Jaspers had given the final diagnosis about German orientalism: sages, sophists, Weise, all people who claimed to possess wisdom, were simply not welcomed. The general attitude was this: if a Chinese sage, say Confucius or Laozi, was likable, he was immediately christened philosopher or saint. For the others, grey mass of charlatans, the flood. Thanks to Jaspers, now German psychology was informed, too, that Confucius was a true philosopher who, side-by-side with Plato and Jaspers, fought the sages. Jaspers had words for sagehood, too: seeing the “world as a bad place”, a “rotten world”, and “enemies” to philosophy. After so much negativity, here a very different, beautiful piece of prose on Confucian sages by the Neo-Confucian Tu Weiming of Harvard University:

溥博淵泉,而時出之. 溥博如天,淵泉如淵. All-embracing is he and vast, deep and active as a fountain, sending forth in their due season his virtues. All-embracing and vast, he is like Heaven. Deep and active as a fountain, he is like the abyss.[9]

The Germans still distrusted the sages: In Jaspers Great Man Theory, all Great Men were philosophers, while the sages were swindlers. As the Christian philosopher Josef Pieper explained:

Platon jedenfalls hat die Legende, Pythagoras habe gesagt, ein Mensch könne nicht weise genannt werden, sondern höchstens ein die Weisheit Liebendsuchender (nicht ein sophos, sondern höchstens ein philosophos) – […] das Wesen der philosophischen Frage, auf eine Weisheit aus zu sein, die wir dennoch nicht “haben” können wie ein Besitztum, prinzipiell nicht, niemals […][10] [Plato has the legend, Pythagoras had said that a man can not be called wise, at most he can be called wisdom-loving seeker (not a sophos, but at most a philosopher) – {…} the nature of the philosophical question, to desire wisdom that we in principle can never “have” in our possession, never…]

In reality, China and many other Asian cultures had sages and sagehood for at least 2500 years. Sage culture was alive and kicking. Perhaps it was time for the Germans to change their attitude and embrace the new names, listening closely to what Immanuel Kant[11] and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe[12] had said about highest wisdom. Maybe one day, Germany will call the best of its philosophers “die Weisen”, too.

Having discussed Karl Jasper’s take on the Great Man, we might want to consider another psychologist and historian, Richard Nisbett, on his view on independent and interdependent cultures. Although Nisbett does not mention philosophers and sages, it makes sense to infer from his studies that independent cultures tend to foster philosophers, and interdependent cultures tend to foster sages:

“The difference is cognitive […]. Interdependent people tend to be holistic in their perception of the world and other people. […] By holistic I mean holistically thinking people tend to cast a very broad network across the environment, across the entire situation. They attend to more cues; they see relationships in the environment better than people who are analytic. People who are more analytic focused more on the object they care about. Affectingly, they model that object: what are its attributes, what categories does it belong to, what are the rules about those categories that will allow me to manipulate it? Of course, this is not just physical objects but human beings as well. And there is a connection, the people who are more interdependent think more holistic, they are paying more attention to people, and consequently to the environment as a whole.”[13]

In conclusion, there is enough evidence to demonstrate that the great men, the great thinkers, differ in East and West. Germany and China display different strategies toward life precisely because they are different cultures: the former is a culture of philosophers, and the latter is a sage culture. Or, to use the vocabulary of Richard Nisbett, German culture is more independent, and Chinese culture is more interdependent. This inescapably leads to different demands for their great thinkers.

[1] Carlyle, 1888, pp. 199-200

[2] Jaspers, 1957, p. 26

[3] Arendt, 1957

[4] Jaspers, 1957, p. 144

[5] Ibid., p. 111

[6] Ibid., p. 135

[7] Ibid., p. 147

[8] Ibid., p. 157

[9] Tu, 1997, p. 67

[10] Pieper, 2008

[11] Kant in Trawny, 2008

[12] Goethe, 1981, p. 605

[13] Nisbett, 2010