On Hegelian Dialectics

by Bertolt Brecht

On humor, I always think of the philosopher Hegel, by whom I got a few books out of the library, in order to get to your philosophical level.

Tell me about it. I'm not educated enough to read him myself.

He has the makings of one of the greatest humorists among the philosophers, like only Socrates otherwise, who had a similar method. But he apparently had hard luck and had to get a job in Prussia, so he sold himself to the state. But a twinkle in the eye, as far as I can see, was inborn in him, like a congenital defect, and he had it until his death without becoming conscious of it, he was always winking with his eyes, as another has an irrepressible St. Vitus' dance. He had such a sense of humor that he couldn't think, for example, of order without disorder. It was clear to him that directly in the vicinity of the greatest order the greatest disorder resides, he went so far that he even said: at one and the same place! Under the state he understood something that comes into being where the sharpest antitheses between the classes appear, so that, so to say, the greatest harmony in the state lives off of the greatest disharmony of the classes. He disputed whether one equals one, not only in that everything that exists passes irresistibly and tirelessly over into into something else, specifically its opposite, but because nothing at all is identical with itself. As with every humorist, he was particularly interested in what happens to things. You know the Berlin exclamation: "But you've changed, Emil!" The cowardice of the brave and the bravery of the cowards occupied him, altogether that everything contradicts itself and especially volatility, you understand, that everything goes along peaceably and calmly and suddenly the explosion comes. His concepts have always been rocking on a chair, which at first makes a particularly comfortable impression, until it falls over.

I once read his book The Great Logic when I had rheumatism and I couldn't move. It is one of the greatest humoristic works of world literature. It is about the customs of the concepts, these slippery, unstable, irresponsible existences; how they insult and fight each other with knives and then sit down together to supper as if nothing had happened. They enter so to say in pairs, each is married to its opposite, and they take care of their business as pairs, i.e. they sign contracts as a pair, sue as a pair, attack and break in as a pair, write books and make depositions as a pair, specifically as a totally quarrelsome, disunited pair! Whatever has asserted order, quarrels, in the same breath if possible, with disorder, its inseparable partner. They can live neither with nor without each other.

Is the book only about such concepts?

The concepts that one talks about are very important. They are the handles with which one can move things. The book is about how one can intervene among the causes of the occurring processes. He called the wit of a matter dialectic. Like all great humorists, he adduced this with a deadly serious expression. By the way, where did you hear of him?

In politics.

That too is one of his jokes. The greatest agitators characterize themselves as the pupils of the greatest champion of the state. By the way, it speaks for them that they too have a sense of humor. I've yet to meet anybody without a sense of humor who understood Hegel.

We were very interested in him. We got excerpts from him. We had to hold ourselves to the excerpt like a crab. He interested us because we've seen so much that was a joke, as you call it. That for example among those of us who were of the people and got into government, that such comical changes occurred, so that in government they were no longer of the people, but were in the government. I saw that for the first time in 1918. Ludendorf's power was greater then than ever before, he could have stuck his nose into anything, there was iron discipline, everything looked like it would be so for a thousand years, and just then in only a few days he put on the blue-blood's glasses and crossed the border, instead of raising a new army, as he had planned. Or take one of the farmers during the movement for land reform, that we led. He was against us, because he said we wanted to take everything away from him, but then the banks and property owners actually took everything. Somebody said to me: those are the worst communists. If that isn't a joke!

The best school of dialectics is emigration. The most acute dialecticians are refugees. They are refugees as a result of changes, and they study nothing but changes. Out of the tiniest signs they conclude the greatest events. When their opponent wins, they calculate how much the victory cost, and for contradictions they have a refined eye. Dialectics, here's to you!

If they had not feared that a ceremonious rising to the feet for a toast would have attracted attention in the bar, Ziffel and Kalle would under no conditions have remained seated. Under these conditions they celebrated their toast only in spirit. Soon, however, they took leave of each other and departed, each to his place.

© 2004 Charles Senger. All rights reserved. Published by The Autodidact Project with permission of the translator.

Brecht, Bertolt. Flüchtlingsgespräche [Refugee Conversations], end of Chapter 11, Denmark or Humor / On Hegelian Dialectics, pp. 1459-1463. Probably written 1940-41. Translated by Charles Senger.

The two characters of the discussion are German refugees. Ziffel is a physicist, Kalle a worker.

The motto of the book, already in English, is:

He knew that he was still alive.
More he could not say.

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