Walter Benjamin on Bertolt Brecht’s Lao Tzu

The poem offers an occasion to discuss the special role which the quality of friendliness plays in the author's imagination. Brecht allocates an important place to this quality. If we visualize the legend he is telling, we see, on one side, the wisdom of Lao Tzu (who, by the way, is not referred to by name)—a wisdom for which he is about to pay with exile—and, on the other side, the customs official's desire for knowledge, for which at the end we are grateful because it extracted the wise man's wisdom from him. But this would never have happened without a third factor, and this factor is friendliness. It might be untrue to say that friendliness is the actual content of the book, Tao Te Ching; but it would be entirely true to say that, according to the legend, without the spirit of friendliness the book would never have been handed down to us. About this friendliness the poem has much to tell us.

First of all: friendliness is not dispensed without due forethought.

Over his shoulder the old sage now
Glanced at the man. Patched coat. Never owned a shoe.

Let the request be as courteous as it may, Lao Tzu first assures himself that the man who makes it is entitled to do so.

Secondly, friendliness does not consist in doing small things casually, but in doing the very greatest things as though they were the smallest. Once Lao Tzu has ascertained the customs official's right to ask, he places the next few days—those world‑historic days during which, to please the other man, he interrupts his journey—under the motto:

'We'll stay then. Hold!'

Thirdly, we learn about friendliness that it does not abolish the distance between human beings but brings that distance to life. After the wise man has done such a great thing for the customs official, he has little more to do with him, and it is not he but the boy who hands over the eighty‑one maxims.

'The classics,' an old Chinese philosopher has said, 'lived in the darkest and bloodiest times and were the friendliest and most cheerful people that have ever been seen.' The Lao Tzu of this legend seems to spread cheerfulness wherever he goes. His ox, undeterred by the old man's weight on his back, is glad of all the green grass it can find. His boy is cheerful when, in order to explain Lao Tzu's poverty, he puts in dryly: 'A teacher, you see.' The customs official by his toll‑gate is in a cheerful mood, and it is this cheerfulness that inspires him with the happy idea of asking for the results of Lao Tzu's research. Finally, how could the sage not be cheerful himself? At the first turning of the road he put out of his mind the valley which only a moment before had made him glad. What would his wisdom be worth if he could not also forget his anxiety about the future almost as soon as he felt it?


SOURCE: Benjamin, Walter. "Commentaries on Poems by Brecht," in: Understanding Brecht, trans. Anna Bostock, introd. Stanley Mitchell (London: Verso, 1983), this one, pp. 72-73.


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