The Two Sources of Morality and Religion

by Henri Bergson
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442

In no sense was Henri Bergson’s philosophy a mere compilation of the scientific findings of his time. Nevertheless, his kind of empiricism required him to investigate on his own principles the subject matter of various sciences. His early works may be viewed as studies in psychology. In L’Évolution créatrice (1907; Creative Evolution, 1911), he turned to biology. His last great work, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, took him into the fields of sociology and cultural anthropology. Here he made the élan vital (vital impulse) the key to understanding morality, religion, and history. The work is admittedly more speculative than its predecessors. Whereas in Creative Evolution, he had tried to “keep as close as possible to facts,” in this later work, he permitted himself to argue from “probabilities” on the grounds that “philosophical certainty admits of degrees.” Whenever possible, philosophic intuition should be “backed up by science”; however, where science falls short, Bergson maintained, it is legitimate to appeal to the testimony of great prophetic and mystical teachers. The author regarded this work as a valuable confirmation of the thesis presented in Creative Evolution. Others have found it rewarding for the fresh perspectives it has brought to social studies.

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As the title indicates, the author’s approach was a genetic one. Understanding of the phenomena under investigation meant seeing how they were necessitated by the evolutionary impulse. Bergson’s contribution was to suggest that morality and religion cannot be understood in terms of one kind of explanation only. Followers of Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and Karl Marx had tried to explain all morality and religion as arising out of the needs of society. Bergson went a long way with them; but he insisted that because some morality and religion are, in the usual sense, antisocial, they must be traced to another source; namely, the spiritual vision of exceptional people. In fact, according to Bergson, all historical systems of morality and religion are blends, combining idealistic with pragmatic elements. This amalgamation takes place because people’s lives are so largely dominated by intelligence, which moderates the seemingly extravagant claims of mystical insight even as it relaxes the hold of tradition and habit. Bergson denied that it is possible to explain either moral obligation or religious belief on intellectual grounds: Reason is emphatically not one of the two sources from which morality and religion arise. Nonetheless, its presence is felt.

To make his thesis plain, Bergson discussed morality and religion under separate chapters. His argument is that there are two kinds of morality and two kinds of religion. Corresponding to these, there are two kinds of souls and two kinds of societies.


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The first kind of morality is a common, compulsive morality demanded by society for its protection. Bergson regarded social life as a device of the life impulse for increasing its mastery over matter and enhancing its freedom. Social life is an evolutionary advance because the true individual is found only in society. However, there are grades of social life. Insects have purchased their efficient organization only at the expense of adaptability. It was the gift of intelligence that enabled humans to break out of the hard and fast regulations imposed by instinct. The problem for humans is that of preserving the social organism. Bergson imagines, as an example, that an ant momentarily endowed with sufficient intelligence asks itself whether it is in its interests to perform the onerous tasks imposed upon it by the group. He concludes that were it to consider long enough, it might at last arrive at the conclusion reached in the history of human thought by John Stuart Mill and resume its labors, happy in the belief that its interests are identical with those of the group. Meanwhile, however, it will perish unless instinct draws it back with the imperative, “You must because you must.” Such, according to Bergson, is the sense of obligation that lies at the basis of common morality. Closely connected with habit, it is a weakened form of instinct. Intellect, far from providing a basis for moral obligation, is what obligation was designed to overcome. Moral obligation operates impersonally in a compulsive manner and has its analogies in somnambulistic behavior. However, moral compulsion is not natural in the sense that animal instincts are. Bergson denied that acquired characteristics—such as moral compulsions—are inherited. Moral patterns must be learned by each generation from its predecessor and may be modified in the process. Therefore, the moralities of civilized nations differ radically from those of primitive peoples. However, obligation as such is the same in all societies and everywhere exercises identical control.

Contrasted with morality of this compulsive kind is that which works under the attraction of an ideal. For example, ordinary people feel obliged to render what they think of as justice to their friends (such as returning a favor) and to their enemies (such as exacting vengeance). However, rare individuals have caught a glimpse of a higher kind of justice, what we call “social justice,” that makes no distinction between friends and enemies and treats all people as equals. It is impossible, according to Bergson, to explain the origins of the latter as a development or modification of the former. Customary morality speaks for an existing order that demands to be perpetuated; the higher morality speaks for a vision that inspires in sensitive people a demand that the existing order be changed. It does not ordinarily require great effort either to learn or to practice common morality; but an ideal morality requires constant propaganda even to keep it alive and is practiced only at the expense of personal discipline and self-denial. Accordingly, we have to look not to the masses for its origins but to exceptional persons who have had a vision of reality in its unity and striving. Prophets through their preaching and mystics through their example call on humankind to enter a truer way. Their teaching, not subject to the vicissitudes of history and tradition, is a perennial source of insight and motivation to lesser people.


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Analogous to the first kind of morality is popular religion, which Bergson calls static. Like conscience, by which nature secures the individual’s submission to the welfare of the group, religious belief is a protective device, invented by vital impulse to overcome the hazards that attend the use of intelligence in the “human experiment.” Instinctive acts are performed without thinking and without any doubt as to whether they will be effective, but intelligent acts are complex; and deliberations concerning means and ends would paralyze human activity altogether if nature did not come to the rescue and teach humans to invent necessities where none exist. This is what lies at the bottom of myth. A myth is a kindly hallucination that fills up the gaps left by our understanding, permitting humans to act with assurance and ease.

The hunter, facing a beast at bay, needs to believe that his arrow is directed after it leaves his hand; and the farmer is comforted by the belief that there are powers that preside over the seed that he has planted in the earth. Somewhat in the same way, humans need assurance in the face of death, which has never threatened the nonreflective animal as it does humans. The belief in an afterlife neutralizes doubt and fear and provides humans with the sense of self-mastery. In these ways, provident nature preserves its favorite, humans, making it possible for them to benefit by intelligence without being destroyed by it.

In Bergson’s view, myth and magic pass over into religion in the same proportion that humans accustom themselves to think of environing powers in personal terms. The mana, which anthropologists claim is the basis of the religious response, Bergson took to be an expression of purposive activity. In magical practices, humans suppose that they employ this mysterious power themselves; in religious acts, they seek the cooperation of unseen beings who, they believe, have even greater mana at their disposal. For Bergson, religion is not primarily a matter of knowledge, nor is it based on poetic imagination. It has its origins in practical needs, and it provides a scaffolding for human activity.

Opposed to this static religion, which has no cognitive worth, is the dynamic religion that has its source in mysticism. Bergson was sparing in his use of the ambiguous term “mysticism”; like American philosopher William James, he regarded mystical insight as a definite kind of experience that most of us never directly share. The visions of mystics bypass the constructions of myth and imagination as well as those of rational argument and yield immediate experience of reality in its character as a whole. Bergson held that the Greeks, because of their intellectualism, never attained a full-blown mysticism. In India, it developed further but frequently was blighted by a speculative tendency or perverted into hypnotic trance. The prophets of ancient Israel contributed the vision of a God as just as he was powerful: However, his transcendence above the world and the particularism of his purpose were residues of static belief. Only the Christ of the Gospels—to whom we owe the truth that God is love—was completely open to divine reality. The great mystics of the Church are “the imitators, and original but incomplete continuators, of what the Christ of the Gospels was completely.” Christ’s influence is also seen, according to Bergson, in the mystics of Islam and such modern Hindus as Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. (Bergson, as was noted, was a Jew, although in his latter years he showed sympathy for Roman Catholicism.)

According to Bergson, genuine mysticism is not pessimistic or antisocial or quietistic. The vision of God as love generates in its beholders charity toward all God’s creatures, stirring in them the desire to lead all people into the higher form of life that has been disclosed to them. Furthermore, it releases energies in them and opens their eyes to possibilities that are sealed off from ordinary people. God works through these beholders. They become the agent of the evolutionary impulse in its purpose to transcend the present stage of human life. However, as always, divine freedom must adjust its steps to material conditions. In order to draw people upward to higher freedom, mystics accommodate their teaching to the capacity of their hearers. To get a portion of the truth accepted, mystics have to compromise, for humanity understands the new only as it is incorporated into the old.

Dynamic religion is the result of this compromise. It does not come into being through a natural development of the static, but by the deliberate adaptation of old forms to new ends. Like the higher ethics, dynamic religion requires a constant effort to keep it from lapsing completely into familiar static forms. Indeed, a constant tension exists between the “civic” and “universal” functions that all of the higher religions seek to perform.

Societies and Souls

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The whole problem is illuminated by Bergson’s distinction between “closed” and “open” societies and the types of souls that correspond to them. Natural societies are closed societies: examples are families, clans, city-states, and sovereign nations. They exist to serve the interests of their own members and take no responsibility for the rest of humanity. “Self-centeredness, cohesion, hierarchy, absolute authority of the chief”—such are the features of the closed society. The open society, by contrast, is largely an ideal existing in the minds of chosen souls. In principle, it embraces all humanity, but in practice, the most that ever is achieved is an enlarging here and there of closed societies. Such enlargement, according to Bergson, never takes place of itself but only as a result of propaganda carried on by dedicated people, who may effect more or less far-reaching transformations of the existing order. “But after each occasion the circle that has momentarily opened closes again. Part of the new has flowed into the mould of the old; individual aspiration has become social pressure; and obligation covers the whole.” Bergson regarded modern democracy as in principle an “open society,” founded as it is on the ideals of liberty, equality, and brotherhood of all people. Thus, it rests on foundations quite different from those of Athenian democracy. Nevertheless, the tensions between the demands of nation-states and the service of humankind remain; in fact, our Western democracies, too, are “closed societies.”

Cultural Evolution

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In a final chapter entitled “Mechanism and Mysticism,” Bergson explains the bearing of these investigations on the thesis set forth in Creative Evolution: that in humans the divine impulse toward freedom is destined to realize itself. Does the history of the human race support this thesis? Bergson’s answer was affirmative. However, he had to depart from the simplicities that characterize most theories of cultural evolution. They assume that through intelligence, humans have progressed thus far toward liberty and justice. Bergson maintained that intelligence was not a sufficient explanation and that had it not been supplemented by a halo of “intuition,” it would have proved fatal to humans. What enables humans to rise above the static, ingrown patterns of natural societies is the capacity, never entirely lost to him, of recapturing in his own self, through the mystic vision, the original vital impetus, and moving forward with it toward higher unity and greater freedom.

Viewing the situation in modern times, Bergson lamented the fact that humans seem to have fallen slave to the machine. He was unwilling, however, to subscribe to any kind of economic determinism. Industry, which came into existence to satisfy real needs, has taken a different direction and fostered artificial ones. This can be corrected, and by simplifying his way of life, humans can make machines a benefit. “The initiative can come from humanity alone, for it is humanity and not the alleged force of circumstances, still less a fatality inherent to the machine, which has started the spirit of invention along a certain track.” Bergson thought that a new mysticism, with an attendant ascetic discipline, might well be in the offing, which would renew in humans a sense of their high calling. In view of the breakdown of popular religion, psychical research seemed to him also to bear some promise, by restoring to the masses belief that life is more than meat and the body more than raiment. He concludes:Mankind lies groaning, half crushed beneath the weight of its own progress. Men do not sufficiently realize that their future is in their own hands. Theirs is the task of determining first of all whether they want to go on living or not. Theirs the responsibility, then, for deciding if they want merely to live, or intend to make just the extra effort required for fulfilling, even on their refractory planet, the essential function of the universe, which is a machine for the making of gods.


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Additional Reading

Alexander, Ian W. Bergson: Philosopher of Reflection. New York: Hillary House, 1957. This book provides an introspective look into Henri Bergson’s theories of knowledge and consciousness. It is lucid and direct in presenting the salient parts of Bergson’s philosophy and theology, noting the effects of his thinking on creative artists.

Gunter, Pete A. Y., ed. Bergson and the Evolution of Physics. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1969. Gunter and his contributors try to show that Bergson was not antiscientific and that his emphasis on the élan vital and on intuition is positive for science rather than negative as it has often been portrayed.

Hanna, Thomas, ed. The Bergsonian Heritage. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. The eleven essays in this collection, drawn from a convention held at Hollins College to commemorate the centennial of Bergson’s birth, present assessments of Bergson’s impact on theological thought and on literature. The book also contains reminiscences by people who knew him at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France.

Kolakowski, Leszek. Bergson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. A concise overview of Bergson’s major ideas, written as an elementary introduction to his work for the general student.

Lacey, Alan R. Bergson. New York: Routledge, 1989. Surveys most of Bergson’s major writings with a focus on Bergson as a philosopher of process and change. Bibliography, index.

Moore, Francis C. T. Bergson: Thinking Backwards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Brief and accessible exposition of the content and significance of Bergson’s most influential ideas.

Mullen, Mary D. Essence and Operation in the Teaching of St. Thomas in Some Modern Philosophies. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1941. Mullen shows the effect that Bergson had on the developing Thomism of Jacques Maritain, a debt that Maritain acknowledged. The portions of this book that deal with Bergson are chronicles of a spiritual journey that caused Bergson to see the Church as a creative force.

Pilkington, Anthony Edward. Bergson and His Influence: A Reassessment. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1976. This five-chapter book presents an initial overview of Bergsonism, then devotes one chapter each to Bergson’s influence on Charles Péguy, Valéry, Proust, and Julien Benda. The chapter on Benda contains interesting insights into Bergson’s theory of mobility.

Russell, Bertrand. The Philosophy of Bergson. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1914. Russell, more devoted to an undeviating scientific method than Bergson, looks with considerable skepticism on Bergson’s theories of knowledge and dependence on intuition in shaping arguments. He particularly questions Bergson’s Creative Evolution, in which the theory of the élan vital is fully expounded.

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