There is something to be said for iterations on themes. It makes it hard to miss the point, and even those who do not pay close attention get a chance to catch up. Those who heard it the first time now know it even more, and those who now hear it for the first time are now up to speed. As a method of getting everyone on the same page, iteration is hard to surpass.
If it were sufficient to say something once, a whole host of problems would have been solved right after the Sermon on the Mount. Clearly, there is still work to be done.
Brecht iterates on the same theme four times, using four examples to drive home his point. Three of these are of historical character, and anyone familiar with the Ancients will know both their virtues and their fate. The last example is you as a reader, supposing that you are a virtuous person and see yourself as such. The implication being that you share the same situation as these great persons of the past.
In each case, he ends with the titular phrase “how fortunate the man with none”, emphasizing the distance between then and now. It is a striking phrase, at once both acknowledging and rejecting virtue as a thing to strive for; virtue is what brings ruin to the invoked Ancients, even in their own times. Solomon’s wisdom didn’t help much in the end; Caesar’s courage brought him to an abrupt end; and Socrates’ honesty didn’t match his fate. How much better would it have been had they been just a tad less of themselves, and thus able to save themselves from themselves?
A direct reader might leap to the interpretation that this is the right and proper thing to do – renounce outdated virtues and morals in favor of pragmatic efficiency. To be sure, modern society confronts its citizens with many situations where the “right” thing to do is to not care too much or apply too much empathy. Whether it be the beggar in the street, the loud noises and screams from the couple living upstairs or the ever present temptation to be less than honest in an attempt to get a bureaucratic edge – the act of doing the right thing will more often than not turn out to be counterproductive to whatever it is you are doing, or get you into trouble you could have easily avoided. There is the right and moral thing to do, and there is the right and efficient thing to do, and every time you hastily pass by a beggar or ignore yet another upstairs ruckus, you have made a choice between the two.
Brecht is not in the business of making you feel bad about this choice. Feeling bad is not the proper revolutionary spirit. Rather, the proper stance towards this dilemma is to acknowledge it as the endemic and eternal moral condition of modernity: you will always face this choice, even if you do the right thing. Even if you work yourself to exhaustion to make the (or your) world a better place, the same standoff between virtue and pragmatism will inevitably play itself out. The only difference being that you are now tired and in a position to think: how fortunate are those who do not have to do what you do. How fortunate are those who can not care.
This brings into play the distinction between alienation and unease. Being made uneasy when confronted with these choices is only natural – seeing others suffer should never not make one uneasy. Alienation, on the other hand, means that you do not recognize yourself in the situation that you are actually in. Neither is a particularly comfortable state of mind, but the difference lies in the directness with which one confronts matters. Unease is here and now; alienation is not.
A person has to be alienated in order to function in a modern society. Confronting the reality of the situation without filters lead to madness. Do not investigate too closely where your food, clothes or wealth come from, and always be prepared to build thick walls against the suffering at the source of these should you ever find out. The unease will eat you alive otherwise, and possibly others with you.
The proper stance towards this is to acknowledge that the world came into being before we did, and that we are not responsible for putting it in place. But we are also not helpless automatons bound by the forces of determinism, unable to make moral choices for ourselves. We have to alienate ourselves from our alienation, as it were, and reaffirm some semblance of right and virtue in the midst of all this modern pragmatic efficiency. We cannot save the world all by ourselves, but this is not a reason to not do anything at all. We are still human.
When Brecht says “how fortunate the man with none”, he says it to invoke a subject who has given up on their humanity, who just plays along in order to get by. He says it four times, three times to invoke history, one time to invoke you. The hope being that you haven’t given up your humanity just yet, and that you choose to not turn into an efficient clerk organizing train timetables without thinking too much about either cargo or destinations. That you can resist the path of least resistance, the one which simply follows orders.
It is a hope that bears further iterations. Despite the unease.