Henri Bergson.

The Meaning of the War Life & Matter in Conflict online

. (page 1 of 2)
Online LibraryHenri BergsonThe Meaning of the War Life & Matter in Conflict → online text (page 1 of 2)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Thierry Alberto, Henry Craig, Jeannie Howse
and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at
http://www.pgdp.net (This file was produced from images
generously made available by The Internet Archive)






_English translation first published June 1915_
_Second impression, July 1915_
_Third impression, August 1915_

(_All rights reserved_)








This little volume contains the discourse delivered by M. Bergson as
President of the _Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques_ at its
annual public meeting on December 12, 1914. It is the address which
preceded the announcement of the prizes and awards bestowed by the
Academy. It is now issued in book form with the consent of the author,
and his full appreciation of the object, to give it the widest
circulation. Although it is brief, it is a message addressed directly
to the heart of our people in the crisis of war. To it is added a
short article on the same theme, contributed to the _Bulletin des
Armées de la République_, November 4, 1914.

It has been said that war, with all its terrible evils, is the
occasion of at least one good which humanity values as above price: it
inspires great poetry. On the other hand, it seems to crush
philosophy. Many may think that in this message it is poetry to which
M. Bergson is giving expression. It is, however, from the depth of his
philosophy that the inspiration is drawn. The full significance of the
doctrines he has been teaching, and their whole moral and political
bearing, are brought into clear light, focussed, as it were, on the
actual present struggle. Yet is there no word that breathes hatred to
any person or to any race. It is by the triumph of a spiritual
principle that philosophy may hope to free humanity from the
oppression of a materialist doctrine.

The opposing principle has had, and still has, philosophers to defend
it, and they belong to no particular nation or race. One of its most
brilliant and influential exponents was a Frenchman, the diplomatist,
Comte Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882). A brief word on this
remarkable man may help the reader to understand the mention of his
name on page 30. His _Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines_ (1855)
was the first of a series of writings to affirm, on ethnological
grounds, the superiority of the Aryan race, and its right and destiny
by reason of that superiority to rule all other races as bondsmen. He
was the friend of Wagner, and also of Nietzsche. Madame
Förster-Nietzsche in her biography of her brother has spoken of the
almost reverent regard which he entertained for Gobineau, and it may
be that from him Nietzsche derived the idea which he developed into
his doctrine of the non-morality of the superman.

Were the discourse of M. Bergson no more than the utterance of a
philosopher stirred by deep patriotic feeling to uphold his country's
cause and denounce his country's foes, then, however eloquent its
appeal, it would have no significance or value beyond its present
power to inspire courage in the hearts of his comrades. And it would
not differ from equally earnest appeals which other philosophers have
addressed to the world on behalf of their fellow-countrymen. It has a
much deeper meaning. It is no mere indictment of modern Germany's
rulers or people. It goes to the very heart of the problem of the
future of humanity. Shall the splendid material progress which has
marked the scientific achievement of the last century be the forging
of a sword to destroy the freedom which life has won with it from

As these words are written the conflict is raging, and the decision
seems still far off. Death is striking down the young in all the
nations, and among them many on whom our highest hopes were founded.
"But whatever be the price of victory," so writes M. Bergson to me,
"it will not have been too dearly bought if humanity is finally
delivered from the nightmare which weighs on it."


LONDON, _May 1915_



"Comprendre et ne pas s'indigner": this has been said to be the last
word of philosophy. I believe none of it; and, had I to choose, I
should much prefer, when in presence of crime, to give my indignation
rein and not to understand. Happily, the choice has not to be made. On
the contrary, there are forms of anger which, by a thorough
comprehension of their objects, derive the force to sustain and renew
their vigour. Our anger is of that kind. We have only to detach the
inner meaning of this war, and our horror for those who made it will
be increased. Moreover, nothing is easier. A little history, and a
little philosophy, will suffice.

For a long period Germany devoted herself to poetry, to art, to
metaphysic. She was made, so she said, for thought and imagination;
"she had no feeling for the reality of things." It is true that her
administration had defects, that she was divided into rival states,
that anarchy at certain times seemed beyond remedy. Nevertheless, an
attentive study would have revealed, beneath this disorder, the normal
process of life, which is always too rank at the first and later on
prunes away its excess, makes its choice and adopts a lasting form.
From her municipal activity there would have issued at length a good
administration which would have assured order without suppressing
liberty. From the closer union of the confederated states that unity
in diversity, which is the distinguishing mark of organized beings,
would have arisen. But time was needed for that, as it always is
needed by life, in order that its possibilities may be realized.

Now, while Germany was thus working out the task of her organic
self-development there was within her, or rather by her side, a people
with whom every process tended to take a mechanical form.
Artificiality marked the creation of Prussia; for she was formed by
clumsily sewing together, edge to edge, provinces either acquired or
conquered. Her administration was mechanical; it did its work with the
regularity of a well-appointed machine. Not less mechanical - extreme
both in precision and in power - was the army, on which the attention
of the Hohenzollerns was concentrated. Whether it was that the people
had been drilled for centuries to mechanical obedience; or that an
elemental instinct for conquest and plunder, absorbing to itself the
life of the nation, had simplified its aims and reduced them to
materialism; or that the Prussian character was originally so made - it
is certain that the idea of Prussia always evoked a vision of
rudeness, of rigidity, of automatism, as if everything within her went
by clockwork, from the gesture of her kings to the step of her

A day came when Germany had to choose between a rigid and ready-made
system of unification, mechanically superposed from without, and the
unity which comes from within by a natural effort of life. At the same
time the choice was offered her between an administrative mechanism,
into which she would merely have to fit herself - a complete order,
doubtless, but poverty-stricken, like everything else that is
artificial - and that richer and more flexible order which the wills of
men, when freely associated, evolve of themselves. How would she

There was a man on the spot in whom the methods of Prussia were
incarnate - a genius, I admit, but an evil genius; for he was devoid of
scruple, devoid of faith, devoid of pity, and devoid of soul. He had
just removed the only obstacle which could spoil his plan; he had got
rid of Austria. He said to himself: "We are going to make Germany
take over, along with Prussian centralization and discipline, all our
ambitions and all our appetites. If she hesitates, if the confederate
peoples do not arrive of their own accord at this common resolution, I
know how to compel them; I will cause a breath of hatred to pass over
them, all alike. I will launch them against a common enemy, an enemy
we have hood-winked and waylaid, and whom we shall try to catch
unarmed. Then when the hour of triumph shall sound, I will rise up;
from Germany, in her intoxication, I will snatch a covenant, which,
like that of Faust with Mephistopheles, she has signed with her blood,
and by which she also, like Faust, has traded her soul away for the
good things of earth."

He did as he had said. The covenant was made. But, to ensure that it
would never be broken, Germany must be made to feel, for ever and
ever, the necessity of the armour in which she was imprisoned.
Bismarck took his measures accordingly. Among the confidences which
fell from his lips and were gathered up by his intimates is this
revealing word: "We took nothing from Austria after Sadowa because we
wanted to be able one day to be reconciled with her." So, then, in
taking Alsace and a part of Lorraine, his idea was that no
reconciliation with the French would be possible. He intended that the
German people should believe itself in permanent danger of war, that
the new Empire should remain armed to the teeth, and that Germany,
instead of dissolving Prussian militarism into her own life, should
reinforce it by militarizing herself.

She reinforced it; and day by day the machine grew in complexity and
power. But in the process it yielded automatically a result very
different from that which its constructors had foreseen. It is the
story of the witch who, by a magic incantation, had won the consent of
her broomstick to go to the river and fill her buckets; having no
formula ready to check the work, she watched her cave fill with water
until she was drowned.

The Prussian army had been organized, brought to perfection, tended
with love by the Kings of Prussia, in order that it might serve their
lust of conquest. To take possession of neighbours' territory was then
the sole aim; territory was almost the whole of the national wealth.
But with the nineteenth century there was a new departure. The idea
peculiar to that century of diverting science to the satisfaction of
men's material wants evoked a development of industry, and
consequently of commerce, so extraordinary that the old conception of
wealth was completely overthrown. Not more than fifty years were
needed to bring about this transformation. On the morrow of the war of
1870 a nation expressly made for appropriating the good things of this
world had no alternative but to become industrial and commercial. Not
on that account, however, would she change the essential principle of
her action. On the contrary, she had but to utilize her habits of
discipline, method, tenacity, minute care, precise information - and,
we may add, of impertinence and spying - to which she owed the growth
of her military power. She would thus equip herself with industry and
commerce not less formidable than her army, and able to march, on
their part also, in military order.

From that time onwards these two were seen going forward together,
advancing at an even pace and reciprocally supporting each
other - industry, which had answered the appeal of the spirit of
conquest, on one side; on the other, the army, in which that spirit
was incarnate, with the navy, which had just been added to the forces
of the army. Industry was free to develop in all directions; but, from
the first, war was the end in view. In enormous factories, such as the
world had never seen, tens of thousands of workmen toiled in casting
great guns, while by their side, in workshops and laboratories, every
invention which the disinterested genius of neighbouring peoples had
been able to achieve was immediately captured, bent from its intended
use, and converted into an engine of war. Reciprocally, the army and
navy which owed their growth to the increasing wealth of the nation,
repaid the debt by placing their services at the disposal of this
wealth: they undertook to open roads for commerce and outlets for
industry. But through this very combination the movement imposed on
Prussia by her kings, and on Germany by Prussia, was bound to swerve
from its course, whilst gathering speed and flinging itself forward.
Sooner or later it was bound to escape from all control and become a
plunge into the abyss.

For, even though the spirit of conquest knows no limit in itself, it
must limit its ambitions as long as the question is simply that of
seizing a neighbour's territory. To constitute their kingdom, kings of
Prussia had been obliged to undertake a long series of wars. Whether
the name of the spoiler be Frederick or William, not more than one or
two provinces can be annexed at a time: to take more is to weaken
oneself. But suppose that the same insatiable thirst for conquest
enters into the new form of wealth - what follows? Boundless ambition,
which till then had spread out the coming of its gains over indefinite
time, since each one of them would be worth only a definite portion of
space, will now leap all at once to an object boundless as itself.
Rights will be set up on every point of the globe where raw material
for industry, refitting stations for ships, concessions for
capitalists, or outlets for production are seen to exist. In fact, the
policy which had served Prussia so well passed at a bound from the
most calculating prudence to the wildest temerity. Bismarck, whose
common-sense put some restraint on the logic of his principles, was
still averse to colonial enterprises; he said that all the affairs of
the East were not worth the bones of one Pomeranian grenadier. But
Germany, retaining Bismarck's former impulse, went straight on and
rushed forward along the lines of least resistance to east and west:
on the one side lay the route to the Orient, on the other the empire
of the sea. But in so doing she virtually declared war on the nations
which Bismarck had managed to keep allied or friendly. Her ambition
looked forward to the domination of the world.

Moreover, there was no moral restraint which could keep this ambition
under control. Intoxicated by victory, by the prestige which victory
had given her, and of which her commerce, her industry, her science
even, had reaped the benefit, Germany plunged into a material
prosperity such as she had never known, such as she would never have
dared to dream of. She told herself that if force had wrought this
miracle, if force had given her riches and honour, it was because
force had within it a hidden virtue, mysterious - nay, divine. Yes,
brute force with its train of trickery and lies, when it comes with
powers of attack sufficient for the conquest of the world, must needs
be in direct line from heaven and a revelation of the will of God on
earth. The people to whom this power of attack had come were the
elect, a chosen race by whose side the others are races of bondmen. To
such a race nothing is forbidden that may help in establishing its
dominion. Let none speak to it of inviolable right! Right is what is
written in a treaty; a treaty is what registers the will of a
conqueror - that is, the direction of his force for the time being:
force, then, and right are the same thing; and if force is pleased to
take a new direction, the old right becomes ancient history and the
treaty, which backed it with a solemn undertaking, no more than a
scrap of paper. Thus Germany, struck with wonder in presence of her
victories, of the brute force which had been their means, of the
material prosperity which was the outcome, translated her amazement
into an idea. And see how, at the call of this idea, a thousand
thoughts, as if awaked from slumber, and shaking off the dust of
libraries, came rushing in from every side - thoughts which Germany had
suffered to sleep among her poets and philosophers, every one which
could lend a seductive or striking form to a conviction already made!
Henceforth German imperialism had a theory of its own. Taught in
schools and universities, it easily moulded to itself a nation already
broken-in to passive obedience and having no loftier ideal wherewith
to oppose the official doctrine. Many persons have explained the
aberrations of German policy as due to that theory. For my part, I see
in it nothing more than a philosophy doomed to translate into ideas
what was, in its essence, insatiable ambition and will perverted by
pride. The doctrine is an effect rather than a cause; and should the
day come when Germany, conscious of her moral humiliation, shall say,
to excuse herself, that she had trusted herself too much to certain
theories, that an error of judgment is not a crime, it will then be
necessary to remind her that her philosophy was simply a translation
into intellectual terms of her brutality, her appetites, and her
vices. So, too, in most cases, doctrines are the means by which
nations and individuals seek to explain what they are and what they
do. Germany, having finally become a predatory nation, invokes Hegel
as witness; just as a Germany enamoured of moral beauty would have
declared herself faithful to Kant, just as a sentimental Germany would
have found her tutelary genius in Jacobi or Schopenhauer. Had she
leaned in any other direction and been unable to find at home the
philosophy she needed, she would have procured it from abroad. Thus
when she wished to convince herself that predestined races exist, she
took from France, that she might hoist him into celebrity, a writer
whom we have not read - Gobineau.

None the less is it true that perverse ambition, once erected into
theory, feels more at ease in working itself out to the end; a part of
the responsibility will then be thrown upon logic. If the German race
is the elect, it will be the only race which has an unconditional
right to live; the others will be tolerated races, and this toleration
will be precisely what is called "the state of peace." Let war come;
the annihilation of the enemy will be the end Germany has to pursue.
She will not strike at combatants only; she will massacre women,
children, old men; she will pillage and burn; the ideal will be to
destroy towns, villages, the whole population. Such is the conclusion
of the theory. Now we come to its aim and true principle.

As long as war was no more than a means to the settlement of a dispute
between two nations, the conflict was localized to the two armies
involved. More and more of useless violence was eliminated; innocent
populations were kept outside the quarrel. Thus little by little a
code of war was drawn up. From the first, however, the Prussian army,
organized as it was for conquest, did not take kindly to this law. But
from the time when Prussian militarism, now turned into German
militarism, had become one with industrialism, it was the enemy's
industry, his commerce, the sources of his wealth, his wealth itself,
as well as his military power, which war must now make the end in
view. His factories must be destroyed that his competition may be
suppressed. Moreover, that he may be impoverished once and for all and
the aggressor enriched, his towns must be put to ransom, pillaged, and
burned. Above all must the war be short, not only in order that the
economic life of Germany might not suffer too much, but further, and
chiefly, because her military power lacked that consciousness of a
right superior to force by which she could sustain and recuperate her
energies. Her moral force, being only the pride which comes from
material force, would be exposed to the same vicissitudes as this
latter: in proportion as the one was being expended the other would be
used up. Time for moral force to become used up must not be given. The
machine must deliver its blow all at once. And this it could do by
terrorizing the population, and so paralysing the nation. To achieve
that end, no scruple must be suffered to embarrass the play of its
wheels. Hence a system of atrocities prepared in advance - a system as
sagaciously put together as the machine itself.

Such is the explanation of the spectacle before us. "Scientific
barbarism," "systematic barbarism," are phrases we have heard. Yes,
barbarism reinforced by the capture of civilization. Throughout the
course of the history we have been following there is, as it were, the
continuous clang of militarism and industrialism, of machinery and
mechanism, of debased moral materialism.

Many years hence, when the reaction of the past shall have left only
the grand outline in view, this perhaps is how a philosopher will
speak of it. He will say that the idea, peculiar to the nineteenth
century, of employing science in the satisfaction of our material
wants had given a wholly unforeseen extension to the mechanical arts
and had equipped man in less than fifty years with more tools than he
had made during the thousands of years he had lived on the earth. Each
new machine being for man a new organ - an artificial organ which
merely prolongs the natural organs - his body became suddenly and
prodigiously increased in size, without his soul being able at the
same time to dilate to the dimensions of his new body. From this
disproportion there issued the problems, moral, social, international,
which most of the nations endeavoured to solve by filling up the
soulless void in the body politic by creating more liberty, more
fraternity, more justice than the world had ever seen. Now, while
mankind laboured at this task of spiritualization, inferior powers - I
was going to say infernal powers - plotted an inverse experience for
mankind. What would happen if the mechanical forces, which science had
brought to a state of readiness for the service of man, should
themselves take possession of man in order to make his nature material
as their own? What kind of a world would it be if this mechanism
should seize the human race entire, and if the peoples, instead of
raising themselves to a richer and more harmonious diversity, as
_persons_ may do, were to fall into the uniformity of _things_? What
kind of a society would that be which should mechanically obey a word
of command mechanically transmitted; which should rule its science and
its conscience in accordance therewith; and which should lose, along
with the sense of justice, the power to discern between truth and
falsehood? What would mankind be when brute force should hold the
place of moral force? What new barbarism, this time final, would arise
from these conditions to stifle feeling, ideas, and the whole
civilization of which the old barbarism contained the germ? What would
happen, in short, if the moral effort of humanity should turn in its
tracks at the moment of attaining its goal, and if some diabolical
contrivance should cause it to produce the mechanization of spirit
instead of the spiritualization of matter? There was a people
predestined to try the experiment. Prussia had been militarized by her
kings; Germany had been militarized by Prussia; a powerful nation was
on the spot marching forward in mechanical order. Administration and
military mechanism were only waiting to make alliance with industrial
mechanism. The combination once made, a formidable machine would come
into existence. A touch upon the starting-gear and the other nations
would be dragged in the wake of Germany, subjects to the same
movement, prisoners of the same mechanism. Such would be the meaning
of the war on the day when Germany should decide upon its

She decided, he will continue, but the result was very different from
what had been predicted. For the moral forces, which were to submit to
the forces of matter by their side, suddenly revealed themselves as
creators of material force. A simple idea, the heroic conception which
a small people had formed of its honour, enabled it to make head
against a powerful empire. At the cry of outraged justice we saw,
moreover, in a nation which till then had trusted in its fleet, one
million, two millions of soldiers suddenly rise from the earth. A yet
greater miracle: in a nation thought to be mortally divided against
itself all became brothers in the space of a day. From that moment the
issue of the conflict was not open to doubt. On the one side, there
was force spread out on the surface; on the other, there was force in


Online LibraryHenri BergsonThe Meaning of the War Life & Matter in Conflict → online text (page 1 of 2)