Brecht and Montaigne have significantly different perspectives of the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, especially given the fact that they are authors living more than 350 years apart. Montaigne is indeed a contemporary of the end of the 16th century, which is probably the primary reason for which he can actually describe factually some of the historical facts going on during the respective period of time. He has, indeed, lived through much of the intolerance period in France and the rest of Europe and is thus able to philosophically contemplate these events out of his posture of someone living them.
Brecht, on the other hand, has a modern perspective to the things occurring at the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, including in his “Mother Courage.” Despite this modern perspective, he is also able to paint a very explicit portrait of a Europe devastated by war, a Europe where the individuals have to pass through incredible challenges just for the simple survival.
Brecht introduces the Mother Courage and her three children, of which Eilif is early in the play carried to war and recruited by the sergeant. Further on in the play, Brecht describes the meeting, two years on, between Mother Courage and Eilif, during which Eilif is praised by the General for his killing of peasants and for slaughtering cattle. At the same time, he is scolded by his mother for taking some unnecessary risks and is slapped across the face. These separate scenes show several beliefs that Brecht holds related to the act of war and to Europe during those times.
First of all, the Europe at the beginning of the 17th century (the play describes events during the Thirty Years War) is a Europe being devastated by the war between most of the nations and countries on the continent. The devastation occurs on two different levels. First, this is an individual devastation — a person such as Eilif is not necessarily a violent or absurd person, yet he finds himself in the posture of voluntarily (also out of duty) slaughtering peasants and killing their cattle. This type of act is obviously an absurd act and one that he would probably not be doing under normal circumstances and in a normal situation.
Second, this is a collective devastation, at a country and society level. The peasants are not involved in any way in the struggle between the different countries fighting in the Thirty Years War or in the religious debate that is secondary to the conflict. The fact that they lose their lives and riches over a conflict that they are not really part of or really interested in (either politically or religiously) is devastating and absurd.
The absurdity of the conflict through its religious motivation is continued in the subsequent scenes, most notably when Swiss Cheese is shot as the Catholic army arrives. Swiss Cheese, or any of the members of the family for that matter, is not a religious individual, either Catholic or Protestant. He loses his life because he is in the Protestant camp and does not have enough time to switch his insignia to the Catholic one, just as he would switch it back if the Protestants had returned. To add to the absurd, the mother cannot recognize the body because she would thus be killed and it is thrown in a common burial pit.
The play continues in a similarly tragic manner as all the children are shot without having any real guilt to defend themselves against. The play ends symbolically with Mother Courage pulling the cart in which there are now fewer supplies and no children, an overwhelming imagistic that the war practically takes away everything you have dear and leaves you empty.
While Brecht’s play is very direct and uses a lot of imagery in order to describe the tragedy of Europe during the war, Montaigne uses, in fact, a parallel analogy by describing, in fact, the cannibals and wars in that society. His description of the devastation of wars in Europe during his time (Montaigne dies at the end of the 16th century, so he is not able to live and describe the Thirty Years War) are in fact comparisons of wars in another society.
According to his work “Of Cannibals,” wars in the cannibal society are “noble and generous, and have as much excuse and beauty as this human infirmity may admit: they aim at nought so much, and have no other foundation amongst them, but the mere jealousy of virtue.”
With this comparative sentence, Montaigne follows on Brecht’s footsteps in showing that the wars in Europe are exactly different from this. They do not have virtue as their primary motivation: they are rather political or religious confrontations, fights about enrichment (note again the fact that the Thirty Year War is as much directed against peasants as against anything else) and about growing one state against the lands of another. Despite many of the confrontations during that time in Europe being religious confrontation, there is really no sign of virtue in these: both the Catholics and the Protestants (as Brecht is keen to point out) have the war develop in the same manner, targeting the civilians and stealing their food.
Perhaps the only similitude between the two societies is the way they treat the prisoners: in both cases, these are executed. Nevertheless, Montaigne is keen to underline that in the cannibals’ barbarian approach, the killing of a prisoner tends to take a ritualistic approach. This does not necessarily justify the killing, but it certainly look more justifiable than the killing that occurs in Brecht’s play. Here, all three children of Mother Courage are killed in absurd circumstances, without voluntarily participating to the conflict. Montaigne and Brecht are keen to emphasize that the conflict in Europe during these times is perhaps even more barbaric than that occurring in cannibalistic societies at any point.
In my opinion, both Montaigne and Brecht do an excellent job of painting European history at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century, although, in both cases, this is done in a subtle manner, with the focus on different things. With Montaigne, through his comparative perspective, his focus is more grand and an overall view is presented through his comparison of similar events in a different society, usually perceived as more barbaric. With Brecht, the focus is more on the individual suffering that the respective historical period brought in Europe and on the individual dramas that many of the citizens lived through.
1. Bertolt Brecht: Collected Plays, vol. 5. Vintage Books, 1972
2. de Montaigne, Michel. On Cannibals.1580. On the Internet at http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~wldciv/world_civ_reader/world_civ_reader_2/montaigne.html. Last retrieved on June 21, 2009
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