Friday, 11 September 2015




(From Our Own Correspondent.)

LONDON, November 3.

Readers of "The Mercury" are not unfamiliar with the personality and message of Henri Bergson. Writing in the summer of 1909, I pointed out the profound influence which the writer of "L'Evolution Creatrice" was exercising upon the thought of his generation. Since' then "L'Evolution Creatrice" has been translated into English. The leading features of the Bergsonian creed have been discussed and rediscussed in English philosophical societies and Journals, notably "The Hibbert." During the past fortnight the French thinker has added to his converts by delivering four lectures to crowded audiences at University College, London. It may well be that Henri Bergson will be regarded as the Kant or the Hegel of our age. If so, his first London lectures mark an epoch in the history of English thought which must not escape record. Even if the influence of the writer of "Creative Evolution" should prove less enduring, it is still true that Bergson's coming has given a stimulus to philosophical controversy which has been absent for many years. It recalls the furore aroused by the first volume of Buckle's "History of Civilisation." Bergson, like Buckle, appeals to the average man. His four lectures at the University of London during the past fortnight have made the average man think.

No man could be less like the philosopher of fiction than Henri Bergson, when he faced his audience in the theatre at University College on Saturday last, to deliver his final lecture, his thin, clear out features and tense expression recalled a famous bust of Julius Caesar. A Caesar in a tight-fitting frock coat and a high collar. But the deep-set eyes and the big forehead told that Bergson had been endowed with the first requisite of a philosopher brain power. Bergson is an excellent English scholar. At the University, however, he chose to speak in French. Throughout he used no notes.


Yet M. Bergson's theme was as full of difficulty as any in the realm of thought. Its title, was 'The Nature of the Soul." In opening up the subject, he dwelt upon the necessity for philosophy, however subtle, however profound, expressing itself in language which everyone could understand. Philosophy takes its origin in life, and if it passes through the schools it has to enter again into life. Hence his choice of a subject which had a vital interest for humanity as a whole. M. Bergson went on to show how the problem of mind was closely connected with the problem of matter. It was true that we should not find many physiologists or philosophers who would adopt the saying of the French physician, Gabonais, that "the brain is determined to thought as the stomach to digestion, or the liver to the secretion of bile." But there was still a generally accepted belief that if we could observe what takes place in the brain by means of an enormously powerful microscope, we might see what takes place in the mind as the telegraph operator reads a message by means of the oscillation of the needle. 

The fallacy underlying this belief might be expressed thus:—The church bells ring half an hour before service; but the ringing of the bells is not the cause of the service. Just in the same way he may be wrong in affirming that the sermon is produced by the vibrations in the brain cells of the preacher. There is a connection between the preacher's brain and the sermon, but it is not necessarily that of cause and effect.     

The notion of a parallelism between conscious activity and cerebral activity, continued M. Bergson, was commonly accepted by modern physiology. But the experimental basis of the theory was extremely slight. Really, it was a metaphysical contention based upon the belief that the universe was an immense machine, and the hope that the world mystery might, accordingly, be solved by calculation. This conception of the world as a machine, M. Bergson refused to adopt. Instead he developed his own conception of the universe—that of fluidity itself, perpetual change. Instead of intellectual knowledge being the more profound, he suggested that it is the more superficial. It cannot reveal the nature of things. For real knowledge a man must drive back into the flux. 


This idea of the flux of existence lies at the root of all Bergson's teaching—as it lay at the root of the philosophy of the old Hellene, Heraclitus. It is not enough, says Bergson, to say that everything moves and changes. We must believe it. Change and movement, contrary to the general impression, are really simple. It is rest which is really composite. If we could adapt ourselves, to the rhythm of life we should realise that change is something simple and indivisible. What we call a state is the appearance which a change assumes in the eyes of a being who himself changes according to an analogous rhythm. Take, for example, a summer day. We are stretched on the ground. Everything is at rest. There is absolute repose and immobility. But the grass is growing, the leaves of the tree decay. We ourselves are growing older. But that which seems rest, simplicity itself, is but a composite of our ageing with the changes that take place in the grass, in the leaves, in all that is around us. Suppose our ageing (durée intérieure) grow slower, adopting the rhythm of the grass and trees, we should perceive a procession of changes like that which the fakir produced when he put a seed into a flower pot, and in a few moments produced leaves, flower, and, finally, fruit.

The ever-flowing stream of life, then, is the great outstanding fact in human experience. Every moment we can see it taking up fresh dead matter and restoring it to vitality, transforming it from the inorganic to the organic. Now it is vegetable, now animal, now human, conscious of the very intelligence which first sent forth the life stream upon its creating mission.   


But Bergson's quarrel is not only with the materialists with their cry, "Man is what he eats." He is equally sure that human intelligence is not at all what Plato taught in the allegory of the cave. Its function is not to look at passing shadows, nor yet to turn itself round and contemplate the glaring sun. Harnessed like yoked oxen to a heavy task, man feels the play of his muscles and joints, the weight of the plough and the resistance of the soil. To do, and to know we are doing, such is the function of human intelligence. Another analogy used by M. Bergson was that of the notes and the melody of good music. The notes succeeded each other and formed the melody, but the notes were not the melody. What charmed the ear was that which one perceived while it endured. Our inner life was like a melody, indivisible. This indivisibility of the flux of the inner life from beginning to end, this cohesion of the past with the present, is what constitutes the substantiality of the soul. In the humanity of which we are a part, intuition is almost completely sacrificed to intellect. But the flickering lamp of intuition glimmers up whenever a vital interest is at stake. Trust your intuitions, says Bergson.


What, then, is the essential difference between mind and matter? Mind, answers Bergson, runs the whole of its course in one and the same indivisable movement, its entire past being incorporated with its present in a duration which is always growing. Matter, on the contrary, has only an infinitesimal memory, just sufficient to bridge the gulf between one moment and another. The man of action is the man who, like the mind, condenses external duration, and thereby comes to dominate events. So, by analogy, the mind appears as a free force wishing to master matter. The history of this effort is the very history of the evolution of our planet.

Man is apt to represent the past as cut off from the present—as not existing, as dead. Yet memories could be recalled by the consciousness. How were these memories to be explained. Surely, by the proposition that the totality of our past was present to the consciousness. The memory, envisaged as a purely spiritual thing, preserved all the past. But for human action, this was too much. For action, a man only wants to recall certain parts of the past at certain moments. The brain is the organ of selection. Far from being an instrument for recalling the past, it is an instrument of oblivion. But there were some recollections which manage to creep past the brain screen— those useful to present action. In short, the brain is the organ of movement, the organ whereby the body contracts certain habits of movement, such as habits of articulation. But the brain is in no sense the equivalent of mental life. Rather it gives equilibrium to the mind by limiting its field of vision. "The brain limits the mind as one puts blinkers on a horse, to force it to look in front.


The soul—which is essentially action, will liberty—is then the creative force par excellence, it creates acts. What, then, is the origin of soul. On Saturday M. Bergson considered the guess of Plotinus that souls reside in the supra-sensible world, and that they have fallen into bodies. But he considered the idea only to reject it. Instead he suggested that if we take all human souls, real and possible, we find that they are far from being as distinct from each other as we believe. We should rather figure to ourselves, in the beginning, a general interpenetration of souls, and regard this interpenetration as the very principle of life. This world-spirit produces life and all the evolution of life by its entrance into matter.

So we are driven, at last, to the position which M. Bergson has not yet adopted—that of a Creative Mind and Power behind and in the world of Man and Nature. The deepest truths seem to be reached when our finite minds are regarded as phases of the infinite, and universal intelligence, and our wayward intuitions echoes of an all-sustaining love. At times, M. Bergson seems very near to this final conclusion. Speaking in "Creative Evolution" of intuition, he recalls how it glimmers whenever a vital instinct is at stake: — "We have this sudden illumination before certain forms of maternal love, so striking, and in most animals so touching, observable even in the solicitude of the plant for its seed. This love, in which some have seen the great mystery of life, may possibly deliver us life's secret. It shows us each generation leaning over the generation that shall follow. It allows us a glimpse of the fact that the living being is, above all, a thoroughfare, and that the essence of life is in the movement by which life is transmuted." 

Surely a thinker who has reached this position might well complete his system by positing a Shaper of Things who is the Lord and Giver of Life of Christian orthodoxy. Bergson has, in fact, been reproached with furnishing a world scheme which lacks a final purpose. He replied with a quotation from Plotinus: — "If a man were to inquire of Nature the reason of her creative activity, and if she were willing to give ear and answer, she would say, 'Ask me not, but understand in silence, even as I am silent and am not wont to speak.' " 

It may be that some will not care to adventure upon the 390 pages of Bergson's "Creative Evolution. To these I would suggest the essay upon "Laughter, which has just been translated into English. There are twelve or fourteen pages upon the object of art in the smaller book which will give a clear idea of the quality and value of Bergson's thought, and the clarity and richness of his style. And, while upon the subject of books, may I add a word for Masefield's new poem, "The Everlasting Mercy"? It was published in the "English Review" for October, and will shortly appear in book form. I can promise that no lover of forceful English and manly utterance will lay the magazine down until the sixty-page poem is finished.

The Mercury 9 December 1911

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