Franz Rosenzweig and the banality of sagehood

The early twentieth-century German-Jewish religious philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) was an explicit opponent of Hegel’s philosophy, with which he was deeply familiar having written his dissertation on Hegel and the State (published in 1920), while on the topic of non-Western philosophy fundamentally reproducing it. Rosenzweig would, in the spirit and style of Hegel, dismissively assess Chinese, Indian, and Islamic thought in his prioritization of the role of Judaism in the history of the West and his reversal of German Idealism in his major work The Star of Redemption (1921). Rosenzweig countered the antiSemitism of the German philosophers by bringing attention to the significance of Jewish ethical traditions and prophetic voices. This significant reinterpretation of philosophy did not extend to non-Western discourses.

Rosenzweig is particularly dismissive toward the Confucianism he depicted as “characteristic” of the Chinese. He interpreted Confucius in this key work as a teacher of an unphilosophical practically oriented and this-worldly morality deprived of spirit understood as the height of the divine.25 Based on reasons related to those offered in Hegel and Weber, Rosenzweig classifies Asian philosophies below Western philosophy while placing Judaism in a different position to it. Confucianism is essentially incomplete in comparison to Western spiritual history. He described Confucius as a mediocre exemplar and banal representation of the ethical, since—according to his account—Confucius lacked the religious sublimity and height of the monotheistic prophetic tradition. Rosenzweig problematically applies his questionable portrayal of Confucianism in a racially charged way to the Chinese people as a whole:

It must be said to the honor of mankind that really nowhere else except in China could such a boring man as was Confucius have become the classical model of the human. Something quite other than character is the mark of the Chinese man.26

Rosenzweig caricaturized the Chinese as devoid of individual life, and lacking ethical and spiritual depth; their qualities of life are deemed to be only those of mass humanity engaged in practical pursuits. The Chinese “idea of the sage, whose classical embodiment is once again Confucius, strays from all possible particularity of character; this is really the man without character, that is to say the ordinary man"27 This portrayal of the Chinese shares features with the antiSemitic interpretation of the Jewish people who were denied in the anti-Semitic imagination the higher pursuits of humanity as a supposedly practical people devoid of noble ethical and religious qualities.

Rosenzweig’s caricature is not solely directed against the Chinese as such; it is a critique of the contemporary European situation. As it did for Nietzsche a few decades previously, as examined further in Chapter 3, the caricature of the Chinese served as a warning against the “Sinification” of European life through the development of anti-spiritual, anti-individualist, egalitarian socialist, and social democratic politics.28 Europeans were being conditioned and trained into a “Chinese” like feminine passivity and a superficial pursuit of mere “happiness” under an abject equality of the masses directed by arbitrary despotic powers. The forces of modernity threatened to create a “Chinese” condition of servitude instead of achieving genuine human emancipation.29

The European anxiety about a Chinese mechanization of life and egalitarian “leveling” of social classes and distinctions continued into the twentieth- century. Max Weber would identify contemporary China and the United States as examples of “levelled” mass societies in which people sought to differentiate and distinguish themselves in various ways such as participating in exclusive associations and clubs.30 Weber’s depiction of Confucian and modern China allows for different paths of character formation and individuation in the Chinese world, which is lacking in other accounts. The dimension of individuality in Chinese life is more carefully and fully articulated in the works of Georg Misch examined later in this chapter and in Chapter 5.

It is specifically the altruistic ethos of the Chinese that is to blame for its condition for Nietzsche, which he associated with Confucian and Buddhist ethics.31 Rosenzweig shared similar fears about the fate of spirit in the West, which is symbolically represented by the Chinese condition of life. Rosenzweig diverges, however, from Nietzsche’s assessment of the negative origins and effects of altruism, identifying the ethics of the other with the ethical height of monotheism in contrast with what he considered to be the ethical poverty and selfishness of paganism.

It has been maintained that Rosenzweig’s thinking of the dialogue between Christianity and Judaism, and the ongoing dialectic between Athens and Jerusalem that defines the West in his narrative in the Star, could be a significant source for intercultural hermeneutics. This discourse, as well as its later variations in Levinas, no doubt has suggestive moments. It is insufficient, particularly in comparison to the opening toward other lives and discourses evident in the writings of Buber and Misch, in limiting intercultural hermeneutics to a dyadic relationship between two moments (e.g., the discourse of Athens and Jerusalem) while neglecting and actively denigrating non-Western forms of life and reflection in the Chinese, Indian, and Islamic worlds. Rosenzweig’s portrayal of Confucius and “Confucian China” in The Star of Redemption shares many of the worst features of the anti-Confucian lineage in European philosophy that proceeds from Montesquieu and Malebranche through German Idealism and Nietzsche to twentieth-century German philosophy.

Rosenzweig’s dismissive view of the Chinese had an ironic fate given how aesthetic modernists in the 1920s transformed the supposed vices of the Chinese into virtues. The Orientalist enthusiasm of the literary avant-garde of the early twentieth-century modernists, most notably articulated in the interpretations of Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa, reversed Rosenzweig’s negative essentialist assessment of the characterless lack of personality and individuality of the Chinese. One significant element of the interpretation articulated by Pound and Fenollosa was the construal of ideographic Chinese written characters as expressions of movement and elemental feelings in relation to nature.32 Chinese characterlessness and naturalism would be reinterpreted as aesthetic and ethical virtues, indicating avenues for experimental modernism.

The case of Walter Benjamin is noteworthy in this regard. He explicitly quotes Rosenzweig’s statement about characterlessness and reverses its direction by noting how “Chinese characterlessness” is not a deficiency or lack; it indicates instead “a very elemental purity of feeling.”33 Chinese “naturalness” and natural relation to the emotions, in contrast to the alienation and artificiality of modern Western feeling, is revealed for Benjamin through the gestural language characteristic of Chinese theater that his contemporary European writers were rediscovering, in particular Franz Kafka and Bertolt Brecht who had their own fascination with China. The “levelled” and “cold” naturalness and objectivity of the person without character and qualities linked the traditional Chinese aesthetic with the modern Western aesthetic avant-garde.

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