before he became acquainted with the Marxist classics
in the mid–twenties, Brecht was familiar with some
ancient philosophical Chinese texts. Already in 1920,
he recorded his discovery of Taoism through Lao Tzu's Tao-te
Ching which was given to him by Frank Warschauer
(TB, p. 66). Confucianism and Moism he seems to have
studied in the later twenties without such external
prompting. The preoccupation with major trends of
Chinese philosophy was fashionable at the time, as
works by Hesse, Döblin and Klabund clearly attest.
Brecht, however, is believed to have acquired a much
more thorough and systematic knowledge in this area
than most of his fellow authors.
impact of his early encounter with the Chinese tradition
is reflected in several didactic plays (Lehrstücke),
in some poems and in the earliest Keuner–stories.
But the most extensive application of Eastern thought
in Brecht's work can be found in two major prose
fragments composed in the years of his Danish and
Swedish exile (1933-1940), namely the so-called Tui–Roman and Me–ti:
Buch der Wendungen. Both texts present
contemporary concerns in a vaguely Chinese disguise.
former is a powerful satirical polemic against the
intellectuals of Brecht's times. "Tui" is
a typical mock-Chinese term for "intellectuals".
The fragment deals almost exclusively with their
situation in the Weimar Republic
and their basically unchanged attitude in exile after
the establishment of the Third Reich. Authors like
the brothers Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger
and members of the Frankfurt
school of sociology like Adorno, Marcuse and Horckheimer
are obvious examples of Brecht's targets.
The Me–ti deals
to a large extent with European political and ideological
struggles in the thirties. Lenin or Mi-en-leh (32
times), Karl Marx or Ka-meh (19 times), Brecht himself
or Kin-jeh (19 times), Hitler or Hi-jeh or Hu-ih
(15 times), and Stalin or Ni-en figure most prominently
in the text, as do references to Su (the Soviet Union)
and Ga (Germany).
published until 1965, and then considered an untidy
heap of Chinese anecdotes. [i] It is presently regarded as a work of central importance,
and has received considerable critical attention
over the last twenty years. In the Suhrkamp edition
of Brecht's works the Me–ti consists
of 300 unnumbered didactic sentences, conversations,
aphorisms and parables which range from a single
sentence to roughly three pages and cover together
166 pages (12, p. 419-585).
Mittenzwei in his 1975 edition of the Me–ti adopted
a much debated thematic arrangement of the archival
material. He believed that Brecht intended to regroup
the complex into five books: one on the "great
method", or dialectics; another on experience;
a third on the "great disorder" dealing
with Western capitalist or fascist systems; a fourth
on changes, or more precisely, on revolutions; and
a fifth on the "great order" or communism
as exemplified by the Soviet
Union. While such a regrouping goes against
the open form of the short and self-contained units
in the Me–ti, it helps reveal the internal
structure of major themes recurring in the text.
The fragmentary state of the collection in a way
underscores the author's intention to provide a deliberately
unsystematic model for action in difficult times,
or, as he says, "in finsteren Zeiten".
For this purpose, the illustration of materialistic,
or more specifically Marxist dialectic methods of
thinking, speaking and acting appears to be the major
unifying element. Dialectics are based on the principle
of opposite forces, and in the Western tradition
they go back to Heraclitus. Schickel (p.265) sees
in Nicholas of Cusanus' coincidentia oppositorum an
early represention of "idealistic" dialectics,
and in Engels an advocate of "materialistic" dialectics.
In Eastern thought dialectics are represented by
the Yin and Yang principle prominent in the I–Ching and
also in Taoist sources.
strange combination of the title which is taken directly
from Forke's German edition of Mo Tzu (Mê Ti,
1922) with the subtitle "Buch der Wendungen" which
is reminiscent of R. Wilhelm's translation of the I–Ching (I–Ging
: Buch der Wandlungen, 1924) has often raised
the question how Brecht could have linked two conflicting
traditions of Chinese philosophy. Brecht certainly
was aware that Mo Tzu was a harsh critic of Confucius
and his disciples, although he probably had been
at one time a follower of this school himself. And
Brecht also knew that the I–Ching was one
of the five canonic texts of Confucianism, attributed
by some to Confucius himself. The antithetical
combination of title and subtitle is likely to be
deliberate, and seems to unite in truly dialectical
fashion the conflicting elements of Mo Tzu's thought,
which was considered by some to be socialistic in
the modern sense, with the ultra-conservative tendency
advocated in Confucianism.
contradictory elements in the title of Brecht's Me–ti:
Buch der Wendungen point to two central themes
of the content, namely socialism and dialectics as
a practical method for change. They also indicate
Brecht's eclectic method in appropriating any kind
of tradition for the concerns he means to address
in his writings. The change from Wilhelm's Buch
der Wandlungen to Brecht's Buch der Wendungen reflects
a subtle but interesting shift in emphasis. While "Wandlungen" means "changes" in
a fairly neutral sense, "Wendungen" suggests
twists and turns and implies an active attitude.
It also refers to formalized figures of speech ("Redewendungen"). Because
of the multi-layered connotations, Müller (p.
231) rightly considers it a key concept related to
the dialectical processes frequently addressed in
Brecht's Me–ti. Knopf (1984, p.458) confirms
the revolutionary implication of "Wendungen" for
Brecht who might have chosen it from an article by
Lenin. Under the name of Mi-en-leh, Lenin appears
thirty-two times in the Me-ti and must be
considered the single most important figure of the
technique of combining historical examples with concrete
contemporary settings and his cutting irony similar
to Voltaire's and Swift's place him according to
Hans Mayer (p. 105) in the context of a satirical
world-tradition. The consistent Chinese preoccupation
with the translation of knowledge into action as
well as the assumption that such a translation can
be taught and learnt - the element "Tse" in
Kung Fu Tse (Confucius), Mo Tse and Lao Tse (supposed
author of the Tao Te Ching) means "teacher" – had
a particular appeal for Brecht. He believed that
in the Western tradition there was too much idealistic
concern with pure thought divorced from practical
realities. Brecht sees his conviction of a
proper attitude in the face of social injustice and
related political disorder confirmed by the pragmatic
Chinese outlook. Although Mittenzwei (p. 118) believes
that even the sharpest of social criticism in Chinese
philosophy cannot be compared to Brecht's Marxist
outlook, Brecht chose a Chinese disguise for his Me–ti and
his Tui–Roman because he saw similar basic
beliefs in his Eastern sources.
(p.353) points out that Brecht's interest in Chinese
philosophers is focused on the fact that they are
all "practical humanists concerned with social
order". In that perspective they are used very
much in the same way as philosophers of the classical
or the enlightenment traditions whom Brecht also
eclectically exploits as "witnesses of a revolutionary
pre-history" (Brüggemann, p.231; transl.
Brecht's knowledge of Chinese philosophy is considered
excellent, only few direct correspondences with the
original texts have been identified. There are however
certain affinities not only with the Moist school
of thought, but also with some Taoist and Confucian
principles. Most important are doubtlessly certain
formal characteristics such as the frequent stereotyped
introduction to most of the short texts "Me–ti
sagte..." and the parabolic treatment of many
following will describe some thematic traces of Moism,
Confucianism and Taoism in Brecht's Me–ti. It
then attempts to reveal the typical Brechtian blending
of these elements with three major concerns, namely
the need for active thought and action ("eingreifendes
Denken"), the "great method" appropriate
for this attitude, or dialectics, and finally the
examples for "great disorder" and "great
Tzu (479-381 B.C.) was ignored even in China and Japan as an opponent of the more influential
Confucianism until the end of the eighteenth century.
He was rediscovered in the West during the nineteenth
century as a social critic bearing resemblance to
certain trends of modern Western thought. Brecht's
fictitious preface to the Me–ti accurately
reflects this history of reception (12, 419). Forke's
translation into German in 1922 represents the first,
and to this day the only complete edition of Mo Tzu
in the West (Tatlow, p. 413).
Eisler remembers that Brecht lent him a copy of this
text around 1930. [ii] Although some critics believe that Brecht was
familiar with this edition as early as 1927 [iii] at the time of the composition of the Three-Penny-Opera,
most agree that Brecht did not start exploiting it
prior his exile in1933. Tatlow (p.352) and Yim (p.
67) assume that the copy extant in the Brecht-Archives
was acquired in 1934, and
that an earlier copy has been lost. It is however
quite likely that the one he had bound in leather
in 1935 [iv] is the copy he took with him when he left Germany. He lists it among only four bibliographic
treasures he chose to accompany him everywhere he
went (AJ, p.73). [v] Some fifty passages are marked by him or known collaborators,
in particular Ruth Berlau and Karl Korsch who seems
to have contributed some material for the Me-ti (Müller,
edition divides the fifteen books of the text into
four parts: systematics (ch.1-39), dialectics (ch. 40-45), conversations (ch.
46-50), and warfare (ch.51-71). Only the last
part shows no signs of Brecht's annotations (Tatlow,
p. 416). Mo Tzu (480-397) was exactly contemporary
to Socrates (469-399), and there is some similarity
in the Moist and Socratic method of argumentation.
In his commentary to Mo tzu's dialectics,
Forke emphasizes the rhetorical scope of this method
and its practical application in debating. (Forke,
p. 81 and 84; in Yim, p. 236). Yim (p. 236) remarks
that many of the aphorisms in this texts are really
elaborate word-definitions and sophisms, but that
some interesting epistemological observations concerning
the relation of language and reality which attracted
Brecht's attention. This theme is reflected in the Me–ti in
numerous passages discussing contemporary language
criticism with strong ideological overtones (idealistic
or materialistic). Mo Tzu's sayings that words which
cannot be applied usefully ought to be abandoned
are compared by Knopf (1984, p. 453) to Wittgenstein's
famous dictum that what cannot be expressed should
be kept in silence (Tractatus, no. 7). Brecht's
Me-ti text Bad habits (Schlechte Gewohnheiten, 12,
p.514) seems to echo this advice: one should give
up on going to places one cannot reach, on talking
about matters which cannot be decided by talking,
and on thinking about problems one cannot change
by thought. However, Brecht's position is the exact
opposite of Wittgenstein's and that of the related
analytical philosophy which attempts to correct reality
by rendering language terms less ambiguous. For Brecht,
the advice to keep silent or to waste time on thinking
means the beginning of more fruitful action. If Mo
Tzu is really closer to Wittgenstein than to Brecht,
as Knopf alleges, is debatable. His aphorism "My
words can be applied" (Forke, p. 561) seems
to point to a fairly close agreement with Brecht's
tzu's principle of universal love and the basic equality
of all men has been compared to Christian ethics
by Legge (1895, p. 122) and others. The will of Heaven
it is related to, however, is not to be found in
transcendental speculation, but in the norms for
a just government and society which he sees in decay
during his life time. The forceful social criticism
of Mo Tzu concerns the employment of incompetent
state-officials, the destructive effects of wars,
and the fatalistic justification for unjust government
practices. He attacks the waste involved in funeral
pomp and other rituals, and opts for moderation in
the fulfillment of all basic human needs. Ethics
are the practical considerations necessary for good
government and social order, and it can be taught.
Virtue is what is useful for the community and requires
the subordination of egoistical urges under the goal
of overall well-being.
of the passages marked were used by Brecht for his
own purposes. For instance, Mo Tzu sees the ideal
of just government and society realized during the
reign of the four good kings in a distant Chinese
past, while Brecht sees it in future socialistic
a factious controversy between Mo Tzu and Confucius
about the role of the family in society (12, p. 453)
Brecht illustrates the social conditions in the age
of industrialism. Mo Tzu's statement that one can
love the parents of one's neighbour as much as one's
own (Forke, p. 262 f.) which Forke (p.526) considers
typically Moist, is used by Brecht to show how modern
family life is dissolved by the need to work outside
the house, so that only the common consumption of
bought goods keeps it together. He furthermore proposes
that a useful social unit ("kleinste Einheit")
should be established through solidarity at the working
applications of underlined texts seem close enough
to Mo Tzu's thought, but are so general that they
could be related to many sources and traditions.
The Me–ti text entitled "The fate of
man" (12, p.432) consists of the following sentence: "Me-ti
said: the fate of man is man." It is believed
to have been inspired by Brecht's reading of Mo Tzu
(Tatlow, p.437; Müller, p. 201), but it is sufficiently
close to the general materialistic tenet that man's
happiness depends on the conditions of his social
surroundings. Already in classical philosophy the
Peripatetics and Epicureans defended the importance
of material goods against the Stoics who declared
them indifferent. In 1939, Brecht notes in his Arbeitsjournal (p.39)
the discussions he had with the exiled German actor
Hermann Greid about a projected work on Marxist ethics.
He observes a "petty–bourgeois streak à la
Engels" in Greid because he accepts the primary
effect of material conditions on ethics but ignores
the dialectic reverse relation. Brecht ends his entry
with the remark: "Good material for The book
of changes." Already in the Three–Penny–Opera (1928)
Brecht stated emphatically: "Erst kommt das
Fressen, dann kommt die Moral" (First we eat,
then we think about ethics; 2, p. 457). In the only
scene (called the Ingwertopf) of a projected
play on Confucius, a similar lesson is taught to
those who are too mindful of their good manners;
they go empty-handed while the less scrupulous can
take advantage of the full ginger pot (7, p. 2991).
activist Mo Tzu sentence "knowledge is linking" (Forke,
p. 414) is reminiscent of Bacon's famous dictum that
knowledge is power which Brecht exploits on several
occasions in cynical reference to Bacon's corrupt
practices. Mo Tzu's criticism of Confucius' opportunism
in the section on warfare could well be one of Brecht's
biting remarks on Bacon. In the Me–ti, there
is no direct application of this sentence, but it
blends doubtlessly with numerous passages dealing
with the general principle of the dialectical relation
between theory and praxis and Brecht's central conviction
that knowledge is meant to bring about changes ("eingreifendes
Denken"). The same blending applies to Mo Tzu's
sayings revealing an inductive kind of reasoning:
that the explanation of an unclear idea may be found
in its application (Forke, p. 432; also underlined
by Brecht), or that the sources of our knowledge
must be questioned (Forke, p. 299). Mo tzu's attacks
on fatalism which allows rulers to explain lost wars
with fate (Forke, p. 389; in Yim, p. 56), or enables "the
learned and noblemen" to avoid the questioning
the efficiency or injustice of existing practices
(Forke, p. 375; in Yim, p. 226) are very similar
to Brecht's polemics against fate as a reason for
certain correspondence can be found in Mo Tzu's plea
for the choice of the most capable rather than the
choice of incompetent relatives for state office
(Forke, p. 127; in Yim, p. 227) and Brecht's "Törichte
Verwendung kluger Köpfe" (12, p. 436; "Stupid
uses of smart heads"). Mo Tzu argues that rulers
seek the help of experienced butchers and tailors
to provide them with meat and clothes, but let their
favorites make important state decisions without
testing their competence. Brecht lets Me–ti explain
to Fe–hu–Wang, who stands for Lion Feuchtwanger,
why the head–workers are critical of the socialist
cause: the smartest heads are rented by those in
power to justify the most absurd assumptions and
institutions; they are not concerned with truth,
but with their own advantage. In the adjoining text
called "Gegnerschaft der Kopfarbeiter" ("Opposition
of the head–workers"), he repeats that intellectuals
choose to consider obvious injustice as part of a
natural system, and that they judge the possibility
of change or revolution not with their excellent
heads, but with the interests of their bellies.
(p. 438-439) considers Brecht's Me-ti text "Schutz
und Brandschatzung" (12, p. 423-434) "the
only passage in the Buch der Wendungen which
obviously completes an exclusively Moist argument." He
refers to a Moist text against offensive wars (Forke,
p. 544). There is little to compare if not that Brecht's
text mentions the landlords of Wei which happens
to be the province where Mo Tzu was an ambassador.
Mo Tzu points out that the farmers of a country under
attack cannot work their fields, and that those who
attack tend to be farmers in the same position. Brecht
lets his farmers undergo a raising of awareness:
the fighting on either side is exclusively in the
interest of the feuding landlords and harmful for
those who actually battle. This leads them to unite
against all landlords in obvious analogy to the Comintern
Tzu is considered an excellent stylist, especially
when outraged by social injustice. Forke remarks
(p. 36) on his wit and his preference for antithetical
examples chosen from everyday life. Here lies perhaps
one of the closest affinities with Brecht.
one of Brecht's notebooks (18,75-76), Confucius is
presented along with Goethe in a very unflattering
way, suggesting that both gathered their personal
culture in a brutal and asocial way at the expense
of others. Brecht knew Confucius mainly through the Analects,
Crow's biography and the critical references in Mo
Tzu. He notes in his Journal (AJ, 14.1.1941) that
his collaborator Margarete Steffin considers Confucius "reactionary",
and he himself is quite critical of the philosopher's
conservative, elitist and formalistic tendencies.
Tatlow (p. 391-392) quotes an interesting passage
in the Brecht Archives. It refers to the fragmentary Life
of Confucius and plans to satirize against his
reasoning that the decay of ethics is related to
the confusion of terms, and against the proposed
solution which consists of the refinement of manners.
Brecht then says that this comedy could demonstrate
how the "all refinements, humanizations (Humanisierungen)
and embellishments of social life fail when the material
basis of barbarism remains unchanged" (transl.
G.D.). He later considered combining this satirical
biography with one of Rosa Luxemburg (AJ, 10.9.1944).
in the preface to his edition of the Analects (Gespräche,
p. xx f.) mentions in relation Confucian ethics that "the
noble man endures with dignity to be in misfortune" (transl.
G.D.). Yim (p. 95) believes that this represents
exactly "the ideal of the passive individual
Brecht finds in the depiction of the human condition
by the classics" (transl. G.D.). The basic attitude
of endurance in the presence of external hardships
resembles a central Stoic idea, and the "classics" Brecht
refers to are famous dramatists mentioned in his Shakespeare-Studien (15,
p.332-334). Yim does not make it clear how bitingly
Brecht criticizes this attitude. Brecht states that
acceptance is linked to a fatalistic premise, and
that because of it "man makes himself fitting
to the blanket rather than making the blanket fit
him" (transl. G.D.). Many similar attacks on
fatalism in both idealistic and materialistic manifestations
can be found in the Me-ti.
The I-Ching is
of importance to the Me-ti mainly because
of its affinities with materialistic dialectics.
Wilhelm describes it as a "Handbuch of wisdom
for official and private use" (P. 9; transl.
G.D.) initially used for divination.. It consists
of sixty-four hexagrams which are all the possible
combinations of two basic lines, one a continuum,
the other broken. Each hexagram is accompanied by
an examination and an illustrative commentary. The
continuous line stands for Yang or the active male
principle, while the divided line stands for Yin
or the passive female principle. In constant dialectical
interaction, they represent the changes everything
in nature is subjected to.
passages in the Me-ti dealing with the
flux of things are in Yim's opinion (p. 267) similar
to the I-Ching. They are however always related
to the "Grosse Methode", and refer to "Meister
Hegel "(12, p. 526), or "Meister Hü-jeh" (12,p.
469, 493) who also stands for Hegel. Knopf (1984,
p. 458) demonstrates convincingly, that Brecht's
source is mainly Hegel's Wissenschaft der Logik and
Lenin's Studies on Hegel (1932). Hegel's emphasis
on process rather than being, and his acceptance
of contradictory forces are seen as necessary conditions
for the development of Marxism.
Brecht's Me-ti passages
on dialectics are always connected with the relation
of theory and praxis, and reflect Brecht's understanding
of dialectics. Opposed to the Marxist-Leninist theory
of the Soviet Union which reduces
thought to a passive reflection of reality and contains
therefore a strong deterministic element, Brecht
attributes with Karl Korsch a more important, corrective
role to thought. His "eingreifendes Denken" is
defined in one of the texts on the "Grosse Methode" as "something
which follows difficulties and precedes action" (12,
p.443; transl. G. D.). Lenin's applications of dialectics
during the Russian revolution are considered exemplary,
as are unfortunately also Stalin's political machinations.
(1984, p.454; 291) mentions Brecht's plan to design
a system of ideograms for a section of his Me-ti (AJ,1.2.1942).
Some of this plan has been realized as "Ziffel-
und Kalleschrift" in the Flüchtlingsgespräche (14,
p. 1510-1515). The sketches of simple signs with
complex designations are according to Knopf modeled
on the I-Ching (they look quite different
than the strictly linear hexagrams, however).
from the basic principle of natural dialectics already
mentioned in relation to the I-Ching which
is considered a main source of inspiration for major
Taoist texts, there are some eclectic applications
of Brecht's knowledge of this philosophical trend
in the Me-ti. Lao Tzu's Tao te Ching and
Chuang Tzu in Wilhelm's translation are no longer
extant in the Brecht Archives, but Yang Chu, also
translated by Wilhelm (in Liä Dsi), can
still be found there (Tatlow, p. 352). Common to
Taoist philosophers is the tenet to follow the course
of nature which means to accept the good and the
bad, the high and the low equally well. Keeping a
balance between these elements means to go along
with the flow of all things natural, and often calls
for the almost Christian ethical requirements of
humility, gentleness, and dissociation from social
ambitions. The contemplative attitude often implied
is however not mystical in a transcendent sense,
but is directed toward the observation of nature,
both general and human (Wilhelm, 1925, p. 47 f.).
Lao Tzu, certain elements of social criticism can
be related to Brecht. Yim (p. 216) mentions the 75th
chapter of the Tao te Ching as an example
how the polar oppositions found in nature are applied
to social conditions: the people go hungry because
of heavy taxations which benefit the upper
class. Brecht did not have to draw on Lao Tzu to
find similar situations to criticize. His Marxist
background and first-hand observation of the living
conditions among German workers provided him with
enough material. Certainly, he noted parallels of
this sort as a historical confirmation of his own
position. Tatlow (p.359) compares Lao Tzu's dislike
of cultural achievements to Rousseau's "back
to nature" trend. Brecht, of course, was more
interested in changing existing power structures
to improve social matters.
Tzu's quietism and in particular his image of the
soul being a mirror of existence is attacked along
the same lines as Confucian and other forms of fatalism.
In the second text of the Me-ti. Brecht says:
to be in balance, to be adaptable can be a purpose
of philosophy. To be like still water reflecting
faithfully clouds and trees and birds can be a goal
of certain philosophies. That ships and towns do
not enter into outlooks of this kind only shows how
easily these trends of thought are divorced from
reality (12, p.421-422).
Tzu is considered a "master of style" (Wilhelm, 1911,
p. 7) who just like Brecht acknowledges readily that
ninety-five percent of his material is taken
from other sources. Brecht who has been accused of
plagiarizing Villon in the Three-Penny-Opera,
ironically identifies with him in a section entitled "Originality" in
the Keuner stories (12, p. 379-380). He compares
the work of those who are anxious not to use anything
previously known to huts built by only one person,
when larger and more important buildings could be
brought about in collaboration.
Chu's hedonistic and egoistic principles are addressed
in the Me–ti on several occasions (12,
p.469-470, 441, 456, 518, 520) to the effect that where
individual interests are pursued to the detriment
of the common good, the conditions of the state are
to be questioned rather than the morality of the
individual. Or that a state in which extraordinary
virtues are required must be deficient in some way
(this corresponds to chapter 49 of the Tao te
principle of passive resistance in times of political
adversity is believed to find some correspondence
in the Taoist image of soft water eroding the hardest
rocks in the long run (Lao Tzu, ch. 43). A practical
application of this may be seen in the example of
the farmers of Wei who survive an invasion in hiding
(12, 544); some Keuner stories and an early
version of the Galileo demonstrate similar
by no means comprehensive and more often than not
bearing only little resemblance to Moist, Confucian
and Taoist sources, the above correspondences have
shown to what extent and how freely Brecht uses philosophical
and literary traditions to foster action through
his writings. In this, his intentions are in total
agreement with Marx who states in his eleventh thesis
on Feuerbach that philosophers have tried to explain
the world whereas it is important to change it (MEW,
Bd. 3, p. 7).
Gaby Divay, Archives & Special
Collections, University of Manitoba
[i] J. Kaiser in an article of the Süddeutsche
Zeitung (5.2.1966) referred to it as a "chinesischer
Steinbruch"; in Knopf, 1978, p.49.
[v] Caesar, Lucretius and "a complete Neue Zeit" are
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presented at the 1988 East-West Conference, University
of Hawaii, Honolulu
How to cite
Divay, Gaby. "Brecht's Use of Moism, Confucianism and Taoism in his Me-Ti Fragment." e-Edition, ©August
[ex: 18aug2007]. [browser preview: 11 p.]