I left out a crucial detail in the story of Wolff being fired due to his supposedatheism – the accusation was not made in a vacuum, but it had an incentive. Wolff had promised to lecture on Chinese philosophy. Apparently Wolff thought that Chinese moral philosophy was commendable, and even more remarkable was that Chinese managed to live morally without any explicit devotion of God – this opinion was the primary reason for suspecting Wolff of atheism.
Interest in oriental thought began already with Leibniz, who was especially intrigued by I Ching, a book on divination. What interested Leibniz was not so much the supposed window into future events, but the manner in which complex concepts were represented as combinations of two signs, a broken and an unbroken line. In this I Ching resembles binary arithmetic, which expresses all numbers as combinations of zero and one.
Wolff's lecture, on the other hand, concentrated on Confucian philosophy, which we have already seen mentioned by Bilfinger in his dissertation. It appears reasonable to suppose that Bilfinger actually introduced Wolff to Chinese philosophy, because he published soon after Wolff's lecture a book on the topic, Specimen doctrinae veterum Sinarum moralis et politicae; tanquam exemplum philosophiae gentius ad rempublicam applicatae; exceptum libellis Sinicae genti classicis, Confucii,sive dicta, sive facta complexis.
What I am interested here is not so much Confucian philosophy or whether Bilfinger interpreted it faithfully, but the question what intrigued Wolffians in it. We may begin from what he clearly was not interested of. There is very little mention of any metaphysical theories of Confucians, and indeed, Bilfinger explicitly suggests that it is ethics and politics in which Confucius excelled. This lack of metaphysics had actually grave consequences.
As Wolff's fate shows, Confucianism was supposed to be an atheist philosophy. Indeed, it is rather unclear what Confucius and his followers actually thought of gods. The closest they come to religious issues are references to Heavens, which in a sense take the place of God. Yet, because Confucians are very quiet of such metaphysical questions, it remains unclear whether Heavens is meant to be a conscious person or an impersonal force. Thus, even if Confucianism were not atheistic in the usual sense of the word, it still managed to create morals without any relation to God.
A more important difference in Bilfinger's eyes concerned the styles of Confucianism and western philosophy. Teachings of Confucius are full of rich illustrations and parables whereby the moral teachers can make the basic ideas instantly concrete and easy to grasp. This liveliness in preaching is amplified by attempts to truly live the life by the tenets of Confucianism and thus exemplify its principles in one's own life. Indeed, even the emperor of China was meant to be a moral inspiration for all his subjects.
Compared with Confucianism, western and especially Wolffian philosophy seems rather dry and academic, and one might suspect that Bilfinger wanted to uphold the idea of philosophizing in concrete life through morally educational tales. Still, Bilfinger is not completely against the peculiar dryness of Wolffian philosophy. Indeed, he notes that Confucianism cannot surpass western philosophy when it comes to precision and care for arguments.
Next time, we shall see once again how Wolff fares against a ferocious attack.