Henri Bergson: Life and Consciousness
Jacques-Emile Blanche ; Study for a portrait of Henri Bergson, 1911
Life and Consciousness
[The Huxley Lecture delivered in the University of Birmingham, May 24, 1911]
"The problems men have most deeply at heart, those which distress the human mind with anxious and passionate insistence, are not always the problems which hold the place of importance in the speculations of the metaphysicians.
Whence are we ? What are we ? Whither tend we ?
These are the vital questions, which immediately present themselves when we give ourselves up to philosophical reflexion without regard to philosophical systems. (...)
Philosophers who have speculated on the meaning of life and on the destiny of man have failed to take sufficient notice of an indication which nature itself has given us. Nature warns us by a clear sign that our destination is attained.
That sign is joy.
I mean joy, not pleasure. Pleasure is only a contrivance devised by nature to obtain for the creature the preservation of its life, it does not indicate the direction in which life is thrusting. But joy always announces that life has succeeded, gained ground, conquered. All great joy has a triumphant note.
Now, if we take this indication into account and follow this new line of facts, we find that wherever there is joy, there is creation; the richer the creation, the deeper the joy. The mother beholding her child is joyous, because she is conscious of having created it, physically and morally.
The merchant developing his business, the manufacturer seeing his industry prosper, are joyous, — is it because money is gained and notoriety acquired ? No doubt, riches and social position count for much, but it is pleasures rather than joy that they bring; true joy, here, is the feeling of having started an enterprise which goes, of having brought something to life.
Take exceptional joys,— the joy of the artist who has realized his thought, the joy of the thinker who has made a discovery or invention. You may hear it said that these men work for glory and get their highest joy from the admiration they win. Profound error ! We cling to praise and honours in the exact degree in which we are not sure of having succeeded.
There is a touch of modesty in vanity. It is to reassure ourselves that we seek approbation; and just as we wrap the prematurely born child in cotton wool, so we gather round our work the warm admiration of mankind in case there should be insufficient vitality.
But he who is sure, absolutely sure, of having produced a work which will endure and live, cares no more for praise and feels above glory, because he is a creator, because he knows it, because the joy he feels is the joy of a god.
If, then, in every domain the triumph of life is creation, must we not suppose that human life has its goal in a creation which, unlike that of the artist and philosopher, can be pursued always by all men — creation of self by self, the growing of the personality by an effort which draws much from little, something from nothing, and adds unceasingly to whatever wealth the world contains ?
Regarded from without, nature appears an immense inflorescence of unforeseeable novelty. The force which animates it seems to create lovingly, for nothing, for the mere pleasure of it, the endless variety of vegetable and animal species. On each it confers the absolute value of a great work of art. It seems as much attached to the first comer as to man himself.
But the form of a living being, once designed, is thenceforward indefinitely repeated, and the acts of this living being, once performed, tend to imitate themselves and recommence automatically. Automatism and repetition, which prevail everywhere except in man, should warn us that living forms are only halts: this work of marking time is not the forward movement of life.
The artist's standpoint is therefore important, but not final. Richness and originality of forms do indeed indicate an expansion of life, but in this expansion, where beauty means power, life also shows a stop of its impulse, a momentary powerlessness to push farther, like the joy who rounds off in a graceful curve the end of the slide.
The standpoint of the moralist is higher. In man alone, especially among the best of mankind, the vital movement pursues its way without hindrance, thrusting through that work of art, the human body, which it has created on its way, the creative current of the moral life.
Man, called on at every moment to lean on the totality of his past in order to bring his weight to bear more effectively on the future, is the great success of life. But it is the moral man who is a creator in the highest degree, — the man whose action, itself intense, is also capable of intensifying the action of other men, and, itself generous, can kindle fires on the hearths of generosity.
The men of moral grandeur, particularly those whose inventive and simple heroism has opened new paths to virtue, are revealers of metaphysical truth. Although they are the culminating point of evolution, yet they are nearest the source and they enable us to perceive the impulsion which comes from the deep.
It is in studying these great lives, in striving to experience sympathetically what they experience, that we may penetrate by an act of intuition to the life principle itself.
To pierce the mystery of the deep, it is sometimes necessary to regard the heights. It is earth's hidden fire which appears at the summit of the volcano.