Shengren – Chapter 4.16 – The Return of the Sages in the 21st Century

The future looks sagacious. The shengren is an indisputable Chinese concept with now global appeal; it confers to a type of spiritual being that the West had neglected or forgotten, or anyway not sufficiently nurtured. China has been stripped off its names, but is well equipped to retrieve them. It is time to a) claim that name back from those Westerners who had translated and reduced the shengren to a European concept of philosopher, saint, or holy man, and b) to identify and look out for appropriate shengren in the West, starting in the Anglo-Saxon world of sages but also re-visiting Germany’s Goethe, for example. The future could be such that shengren became another un-European concept (like buddhas and bodhisattvas) in global scholarship; from there it was only a matter of time until the first shengren appeared in the Western hemisphere and in Western literature.

When the Ernst Schwarz, who happened to arrive in Shanghai in 1938 and taught himself Chinese and taught English to Chinese students, later in life published his Konfuzius – Gespräche des Meisters Kung (1985), and translated shengren as die Weisen, Weise von großer Heiligkeit, wahrlich Weise, or vollkommene Weisen,[1] and although he still connected Confucius with Heiligkeit in order to appeal to a German readership, he for the first time in 300 years seems to break totally free from German tradition to name – if paying attention to them at all – shengren “Philosophen”, “Götter”, or “Heilige”. In 2001, Gregor Paul, the Professor of Philosophy at Karlsruhe University and the president of the Deutschen China-Gesellschaft (DCG), although he spent only little time in Asia, wrote shengren, and also its correct translation: “die Weisen all over his little book Konfuzius (2001)[2] Paul reasoned that Confucius could not be a philosopher in the Greek/Hellenic/European sense of the word because his teachings could “einmal als Philosophie, einmal als schlichte Lebensweisheiten (Aphorismen), ein anderes Mal gar als Trivialität charakterisiert werden mögen”[3] [could be characterized one time as philosophy, next as aphorisms, then as trivialities]. By the time Schwarz (1985) and Paul (2001) dared to challenge German tradition and translated shengren via sages into Weisen (and there is no doubt, in my view, that they consulted Legge’s translation) – that time the English speaking world had sages for at least a century since Legge (1861-1872), Loomis (1867), and Watters (1879), and if the first Latin translation (1687) and its “Priscorum Sapientum”[4] gave the first clue to sageness, it took 300 years before the Germans finally embraced sages and sagehood, at least the names die Weisen superficially from English translations. Superficially, because Germany still had not formulated its concepts for sages and sagehood, and did not perceive China as a sage culture – from the evidence gathered:

Chinese culture emphasized kindness while Greek culture emphasized reason. Tong Chung-shu [Dong Songshu] said, “One loves humanity through kindness; one purges humanity of evil through reason.” When both kindness and reason are cultivated in harmony, there would be opened to world culture a new vista of opportunities.[5]

The insightfulness and understanding of sages and sagehood in the English-speaking world had come natural. Even the great play-writer Oscar Wilde called Chuang Tzŭ a “wonderful sage”.[6] The title “sage” was widely attributed to Oriental thinkers, as in Michael C. Kalton’s To Become a Sage (1988); Swami Brahmananda’s The Philosophy of Sage Yajnavalkya (1981); Guo Xuezhi’s The Ideal Chinese Political Leader (2002); Ronald Dimberg’s The Sage and Society (1974); Stephen C. Angle’s Sagehood (2009), Robert Ullman’s Mystics, Masters, Saints, and Sages: Stories of Enlightenment (2001), Robert C. Neville’s Soldier, Sage, Saint (1978); to name but a few. As to “the sage” applied to Western individuals Spinoza was known in Jon Wetlesen’s (1976), The Sage and the Way (1976); John Adams in Joseph J. Ellis’ Passionate Sage (1993) and George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in De Costa’s Soldier and Sage (1876). Outside Germany, Goethe was always considered as a sage of sorts, a poet-sage maybe. George Meredith distinguished between the mere “poet and hero” Schiller and the more “poet and sage” Goethe.[7] Thomas Carlyle called Goethe the “benignant spiritual revolutionist of modernity”. Many other great poets like William Wordsworth and Robert Southey, but also the Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot who gave a lecture entitled “Goethe as the Sage” in 1957, called Goethe a sage, too. Eliot explained that to him Goethe was neither the successful philosopher nor the successful poet: “true role was that of the man of the world and a sage” and “The true sage is rarer than the true poet”[8]:

What is the Wisdom of Goethe? […] Goethe’s sayings, in prose or in verse, are merely illustrations of his wisdom. The best evidence of the wisdom of a great writer is the testimony of those who can say, after a long acquaintance with his works, “I feel a wiser man because of the time that I have spent with him.” For wisdom is communicated on a deeper level than that that of logical propositions […][9]

Whoever said first that a prophet was honored everywhere except in his own hometown (it’s reported in Matthew 13:57) knew a thing or two about cultural studies. Goethe – more light! – was a Dichter in Germany, not a Weiser. Nietzsche, too, wanted to rise above the philosophers – in Germany culture he failed. Angrily, he projected on Goethe: “war für die Geschichte der Deutschen ein Zwischenfall ohne Folgen”[10] [Goethe was an occurrence with no consequence in the history of the Germans]. Hence, the historian Hart Crane concluded that Goethe was fundamentally “un-German”.[11] Did he also mean un-deserved, because Gothe could not be what he wanted to be – ein Weiser, above all philosophers?[12]

The culture that could well live with modern sages was the Anglo-Saxon one, and, by extension, the English-speaking world. Samuel Johnson wrote most favorably on the Chinese education system and the “Chinese love for learning” in an article in Gentlemen Magazine (Johnson intended the pun on Confucius’ junzi) in 1738.[13] In his Hero and Hero Worship (1841), Carlyle praised the civil service examination system of China, while Emerson praised the “statesman and educator Confucius”, even calling him “the George Washington of the world of thought”. The United States of America had a “National Senat” and “Senators”, from Latin senex: wise old men. Needless to say, it was understood by Johnston, Carlyle, and Emerson, that Confucius was not holy, but an exceptionally wise man: more than a philosopher, greater: The Master was a sage.

In Comparative Cultural Studies with Asia, a discipline where German-language scholarship had fallen behind, the English speaking world celebrated the concepts of sages and sagehood. Elsewhere, Odera H. Oruka had just introduced a new academic subject: Sage Philosophy (1990), although for now it was “Dedicated to my father and all the Sages of Africa”. Sages were good news for the publishing industry, too, like in Richard G. Hubler’s The Soldier and The Sage – A Novel about Akiba (1966) about a Jewish rabbi; or Osho’s The True Sage: Talks on Hasidism (2001) about a Hasid mystic; or Sarah Allan’s The Heir and the Sage: Dynastic Legend in Early China (1981). Not only through the vast literature in cultural studies and history, the Classics, and religious studies, but also from various biographies of Anglo-Saxon personalities like Vergilius Ferm’s Puritan Sage – Collected Writings of Jonathan Edwards(1953) have we rediscovered and came to appreciate sagacious personalities. The sages are still with us. But the age of saints and German holiness has now come to an end.

[1] Schwarz, 1985, pp. 60, 64, 65, 71, 113

[2] Paul, 2001, pp. 35 ff, 91 ff., 108, 109, 114, 119

[3] Ibid., p. 7

[4] Ludovico Magno, 1687, 3. book, p. 88

[5] Chang, 1957, p. 31

[6] Wilde, 1890, p. 4, 11, 17

[7] in Argyle, 2002, chapter 4.

[8] Puknat, 1969, p. 27

[9] Ibid., p. 27

[10] Nietzsche, 1878, Human, All Too Human

[11] Crane, 1948, pp. 401-402

[12] Goethe, 1981, p. 605

[13] Chang, 1957, p. 108