Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Henri Bergson, aka Henri-Louis Bergson

French Philosopher

"Instinct gave place temporarily to a system of habits, each one of which became contingent, their convergence of which became contingent, their convergence towards the preservation of society being alone necessary, and this necessity bringing back instinct with it. The necessity of the whole, felt behind the contingency of the parts, is what we call moral obligation in general - it being understood that the parts are contingent in the eyes of society only; to the individual, into whom society inculcates its habits, the part is as necessary as the whole."

"It is the whole soul, in fact, that gives rise to the free decision, and the act will be so much the freer the more the dynamic series with which it is connected tends to be the fundamental self... but the moments at which we thus grasp ourselves are rare, and that is why we are rarely free."

"It is when we detect our own weaknesses that we come to pity or despise mankind. The human nature from which we then turn away is the human nature we have discovered in the depths of our own being. The evil is so well screened, the secret so universally kept, that in this case each individual is the dupe of all: however severely we may profess to judge other men, at bottom we think them better than ourselves. On this happy illusion much of our social life is grounded."

"Knowledge and action... are only two aspects of one and the same faculty... There are things that intelligence alone is able to seek, but which, by itself, it will never find. These things instinct alone could find; but it will never seek them."

"Obedience to duty means resistance to self."

"There is no state of mind, however simple, which does not change every moment."

"We are free when our acts spring from our whole personality... Our character is still ourselves."

"You would hardly appreciate the comic if you felt yourself isolated from others. Laughter appears to stand in need of an echo. Listen to it carefully: it is not an articulate, clear, well-defined sound; it is something which would fain be prolonged by reverberating from one to another, something beginning with a crash, to continue in successive rumblings, like thunder in a mountain. still, this reverberation cannot go on for ever. It can travel within as wide a circle as you please: the circle remains, none the less, a closed one."

"Anyone who is thoroughly familiar with the language and literature of a people cannot be wholly its enemy."

"From our point of view, life appears in its entirety as an immense wave... which rises, and which is opposed by the descending movement of matter.. this rising wave is consciousness... running through human generations, subdividing itself into individuals. This subdivision was vaguely indicated in it, but could not have been made clear without matter. Thus souls are continually being created, which, nevertheless, in a certain sense pre-existed. They are nothing else than the little rills into which the great river of life divides itself, flowing through the body of humanity. The movement of the stream is distinct from the river bed, although it must adopt its winding course. Consciousness is distinct from the organism it animates, although it must undergo its vicissitudes... the brain underlines at ever instant the motor indications of the state of consciousness; but the interdependence of consciousness and brain is limited to this... consciousness is essentially free."

"All life, animal and vegetable, seems in its essence like an effort to accumulate energy and then to let it flow into flexible channels, changeable in shape, at the end of which it will accomplish infinitely varied kinds of work. That is what the vital impetus, passing through matter, would fain do all at once. It would succeed, no doubt, if its power were unlimited, or if some reinforcement could come to it from without. But the impetus is finite, and it has been given once for all. It cannot overcome all obstacles. The movement it starts is sometimes turned aside, sometimes divided, always opposed; and the evolution of the organized world is the unrolling of this conflict."

"God is love, and the object of love: herein lies the whole contribution of mysticism."

"If civilization has profoundly modified man, it is by accumulating in his social surroundings, as in a reservoir, the habits and knowledge which society pours into the individual at each new generation. Scratch the surface, abolish everything we owe to an education which is perpetual and unceasing, and you find in the depth of our nature primitive humanity, or something very near it."

"In that continuity of becoming which is reality itself, the present moment is constituted by the quasi-instantaneous section effected by our perception in the flowing mass; and this section is precisely that which we call the material world. Our bodies occupies its centre; it is, in this material world, that part of which we directly feel the flux; in its actual state the actuality of our present lies."

"Some other faculty than the intellect is necessary for the apprehension of reality."

"The tools of the mind become burdens when the environment which made them necessary no longer exists."

"We look at change but we do not see it. We speak of change, but we do not think about it. We say that change exists, that everything changes, that change is the very law of things: yes, we say it and we repeat it; but those are only words, and we reason and philosophize as though change did not exist."

"You define the present in an arbitrary manner as that which is, whereas the present is simply what is being made. Nothing is less than the present moment, if you understand by that the indivisible limit which divides the past from the future. When we think this present as going to be, it exists not yet; and when we think it as existing, it is already past."

"An innate knowledge, or rather an acquired ignorance, suggests to it straightaway the step to be taken, the decisive act, the unanswerable word. Yet effort remains indispensable, endurance and perseverance likewise. But they come of themselves, they develop of their own accord, in a soul acting and acted upon, whose liberty coincides with the divine activity."

"In the religion which we shall call dynamic, prayer is independent of its verbal expression; it is an elevation of the soul that can dispense with speech."

"It is the emotion which drives the intelligence forward in spite of obstacles."

"It is… by the superiority of its morality that a religion wins over souls and reveals them to a certain conception of things."

"Mysticism is undoubtedly at the origin of great moral transformations. And mankind seems to be as far away as ever from it. But who knows?"

"The great error of the doctrines on the spirit has been the idea that by isolating the spiritual life from all the rest, by suspending it in space as high as possible above the earth, they were placing it beyond attack, as if they were not thereby simply exposing it to be taken as an effect of mirage!"

"The soul of the great mystic does not stop at ecstasy, as at the end of a journey. The ecstasy is indeed rest, if you like, but as though at a station, where the engine is still under steam, the onward movement becoming a vibration on one spot, until it is time to race forward again."

"There is no happiness without security- I mean the prospect of being able to rely on the permanence of a state into which one has settled oneself. This assurance is to be found either in the mastering of things, or in the mastering of self which makes one independent of things."

"Through religion all men get a little of what a few privileged souls possess in full."

"True mystics open their souls to the oncoming wave."

"We do not think in real time. But we live in it, because life is greater than intelligence."

"What is found in the effect was already in the cause."

"The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend."

"To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly."

"There is no greater joy than that of feeling oneself a creator. The triumph of life is expressed by creation. "

"Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought. "

"A situation is always comic if it participates simultaneously in two series of events which are absolutely independent of each other, and if it can be interpreted in two quite different meanings."

"All the living hold together, and all yield to the same tremendous push. The animal takes its stand on the plant, man bestrides animality, and the whole of humanity, in space and in time, is one immense army galloping beside and before and behind each of us in an overwhelming charge able to beat down every resistance and clear the most formidable obstacles, perhaps even death."

"All the translations of a poem in all possible languages may add nuance to nuance and, by a kind of mutual retouching, by correcting one another, may give an increasingly faithful picture of the poem they translate, yet they will never give the inner meaning of the original."

"An absolute can only be given in an intuition, while all the rest has to do with analysis."

"And I also see how this body influences external images : it gives back movement to them."

"Art has no other object than to set aside the symbols of practical utility, the generalities that are conventionally and socially accepted, everything in fact which masks reality from us, in order to set us face to face with reality itself."

"But, then, I cannot escape the objection that there is no state of mind, however simple, which does not change every moment, since there is no consciousness without memory, and no continuation of a state without the addition, to the present feeling, of the memory of past moments. It is this which constitutes duration. Inner duration is the continuous life of a memory which prolongs the past into the present, the present either containing within it in a distinct form the ceaselessly growing image of the past, or, more profoundly, showing by its continual change of quality the heavier and still heavier load we drag behind us as we grow older. Without this survival of the past into the present there would be no duration, but only instantaneity."

"Europe is overpopulated, the world will soon be in the same condition, and if the self-reproduction of man is not rationalized... we shall have war."

"For life is tendency, and the essence of a tendency is to develop in the form of a sheaf, creating, by its very growth, divergent directions among which its impetus is divided."

"Action on the move creates its own route, creates to a very great extent the conditions under which it is to be fulfilled and thus baffles all calculation."

"Fortunately, some are born with spiritual immune systems that sooner or later give rejection to the illusory worldview grafted upon them from birth through social conditioning. They begin sensing that something is amiss, and start looking for answers. Inner knowledge and anomalous outer experiences show them a side of reality others are oblivious to, and so begins their journey of awakening. Each step of the journey is made by following the heart instead of following the crowd and by choosing knowledge over the veils of ignorance."

"Genius is that which forces the inertia of humanity to learn."

"Homo sapiens, the only creature endowed with reason, is also the only creature to pin it's existence on things unreasonable"

"I believe that the time given to refutation in philosophy is usually time lost. Of the many attacks directed by many thinkers against each other, what now remains? Nothing, or assuredly very little. That which counts and endures is the modicum of positive truth which each contributes. The true statement is, of itself, able to displace the erroneous idea, and becomes, without our having taken the trouble of refuting anyone, the best of refutations."

"I cannot escape the objection that there is no state of mind, however simple, that does not change every moment."

"I see plainly how external images influence the image that I call my body: they transmit movement to it."