Monday, 8 January 2018

The Two Sources of Morality and Religion by Henri Bergson

I tend towards Bergsonism which is an alert attention to his thought whether it seems inscrutable, as it often does, or not. Bergsonianism I take to be a willingness to co-opt a slice or two into one’s own loaf. I’m not sure that any of the modern Bergsonianisms have much use for his last major work The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. A citation will hint why which is odd because there is no major conflict with evolutionary ethics/ethology at present fashionable.

We have been searching for pure obligation. To find it we have had to reduce morality to its simplest expression. The advantage of this has been to indicate in what obligation consisted; the disadvantage, to narrow down morality enormously. Not indeed because that part of it which we have left on one side is not obligatory: is there such a thing as a duty which is not compulsory? But it is conceivable that, starting from a primitive basis of obligation pure and simple, such as we have just defined, this obligation should radiate, expand, and even come to be absorbed into something that transfigures it. Let us now see what complete morality would be like. We shall use the same method and once more proceed, not downwards as up to now but upwards, to the extreme limit.
In all times there have arisen exceptional men, incarnating this morality. Before the saints of Christianity, mankind had known the sages of Greece, the prophets of Israel, the Arhats of Buddhism, and others besides. It is to them that men have always turned for that complete morality which we had best call absolute morality. And this very fact is at once characteristic and instructive; this very fact suggests to us the existence of a difference of kind and not merely one of degree between the morality with which we have been dealing up to now and that we are about to study, between the maximum and the minimum, between the two extremes. Whereas the former is all the more unalloyed and perfect precisely in proportion as it is the more readily reduced to impersonal formulae, the second, in order to be fully itself, must be incarnate in a privileged person who becomes an example. The generality of the one consists in the universal acceptance of a law, that of the other in a common imitation of a model.
Why is it, then, that saints have their imitators, and why do the great moral leaders draw the masses after them? They ask nothing, and yet they receive. They have no need to exhort; their mere existence suffices. For such is precisely the nature of this other morality. Whereas natural obligation is a pressure or a propulsive force, complete and perfect morality has the effect of an appeal.
Only those who have come into touch with a great moral personality have fully realized the  nature of this appeal.

The primitive morality of which he speaks is the in group tribal morality of the closed society. This is a fundamental virtually instinctual promptness to align oneself with the good of the group. Bergson’s delineates the impossibility of moving to the open religious moral schema without the powerful spiritual magnetism of the avatar.


Anonymous said...

that's at odds with contemporary psychology which points not to joining the good of the group but for joining for the interests/benefits of the group.

ombhurbhuva said...

Bergson is writing about the primitive tribe/group that you are born into so there is no question of joining it to partake of its benefits.