The Two Sources of Morality and Religion Analysis

Henri Bergson


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.

As the title indicates, the author’s approach was a genetic one. Understanding of the phenomena under...

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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...

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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...

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Societies and Souls

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

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...

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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...

(The entire section is 430 words.)