Professor Henri Bergson, the foremost philosopher of our times, is seventy-five years old. The Jewish thinker, one of France’s Forty Immortals, is being universally honored on this occasion.
Hermann Keyserling wrote of Bergson years ago:
“His philosophy is perhaps the most original work since the days of Immanuel Kant.”
Henri Bergson’s “Philosophy of Change” and his “Creative Philosophy” was thus summarized briefly in a work revised by Bergson himself:
“Philosophy reveals to us a reality that is consistent with the satisfaction of our higher ideals. It discloses the life of the spirit. It may give us neither God nor immortality in the old theological meaning of these terms and it does not show us human life and individual conduct as the chief end, purpose and center of interest. But the reality of life is essentially freedom. Philosophy delivers us from the crushing feeling of necessity that the scientific conception of a closed mechanical universe has imposed on modern thought. Life is free activity in the open universe. We may be of little account in the great whole. Humanity itself and the planet on which it has won its success may be an infinitesimal part of the universal life, but it is one and identical with that life and our struggle and striving is the impetus of life. And this, above all, our spiritual life means to us, the past has not perished, the future is being made.”
I had the privilege of several interesting meetings with the great philosopher, both at his home in Paris, and during his visit to this country, a little over twenty years ago, when he came here at the invitation of Columbia University.
During these interviews he discussed a wide range of subjects, religion, the immortality of the soul, literature, philosophy, feminism, “cubism” and “futurism” in art. He also gave me his views on the Jewish problem at the time.
Answering my question regarding his studies of the immortality of the soul, Professor Bergson said:
“I have studied the diseases of the mind and the diseases of memory and of certain cases in which I could see the precise relation between mind and memory. I have come to the conclusion that it is a mistake to think that the work of the mind and of the brain is identical. Only a small part of the mind is done by the brain. The brain is only a province of the mind. The mind represents a country and the brain is only one of its provinces. The work done by the country is immensely wider in scope than that done by the province. The death of the brain is a probability. But I have found that the mind goes on living after the brain has died. From this I concluded that the mind survives the body. I cannot say definitely that the mind is immortal, but there is a strong probability that it is.
“Modern philosophy is a study that can go on doing further research in this direction. Philosophy, like science, can make progress. There is still great progress to be made in science; there is still some distance to go in that domain.”
In answer to my question regarding the new movements in art and literature, the great philosopher said:
“I am interested in anything that shows talent. Any school is interesting if it shows talent. I do not believe in any special schools of art, in any special methods. In literature and art, methods are nothing. Genius is everything. I recall one day a correspondent came to interview me about the original exhibition of the ‘Cubists.’ Their idea was that any painting must be made of squares. He wanted to know my opinion about the ‘Cubist.’ My answer was that I preferred genius. The same I may say about the ‘Futurists.’ I believe that real genius creates its own methods. So with regard to all new movements and new schools, I say that they must first have genius.”
Concerning the Jewish question and the Zionist movement, Professor Bergson said to me in 1912, in Paris:
“To us French people this question seems paradoxical. We are so assimilated. If there were a new Zion, I do not think many Jews would go there. A prominent Jewish statesman, when asked in 1848, what he thought of Zionism, replied that he would be in favor of Zionism, if he were given the post of Jewish ambassador to Paris.”
“But for the oppressed and the persecuted?” I asked.
“That is another question,” replied Professor Bergson. “Oppressed people must look for ways out of their oppression and they are justified in seeking a new home. Whether it would be possible to solve the Jewish question in that way, I cannot answer. Russia may become more tolerant. The Jews of other countries have attained equal rights. After equal rights have been secured by the Jews, I believe the Jewish question will be solved.
“I do not much believe in permanent special qualities of races. Nature is very often nothing else than habit and education. There are racial differences between the white, yellow and black races, but there is no difference in the white races. People can adopt the qualities, the defects and the habits of the people among whom they live. In Europe we see that the difference in races is nothing but habit, education and the degree of living together. It is a mistake in psychology that much is ascribed to nature which should be ascribed to habit.
“I doubt whether the Jews have any special hereditary defects or qualities, considering that their blood has been so mixedâ€”very much more than is believed. Whole tribes in Russia were converted to Judaism. I believe the Jewish question will be solved when the Jewish people will have attained equal rights in the countries where they are being persecuted. And the sooner that is attained the better for the Jews, of course, but also for the countries where they live.”
During the war, and after the Balfour Declaration, I met Professor Bergson again, in this country, where he came as a member of a French mission. Speaking of Zionism on that occasion, he said to me:
“Palestine will now become the reservoir of Jewish culture and new hope.”
Just as Professor Bergson had to revise his views on Zionism, he must have revised his views on assimilation after the rise of Hitlerism in Germany and the persecution of the German Jews who called themselves Germans.
Twenty years ago Tsarist Russia was the Jewish inferno. Today Hitlerite Germany has outstripped in anti-Jewish cruelty the Russia of pogroms. Tsarist Russia was relegated to the scrapheap of history a few years later. Now it is Hitlerite Germany’s turn to join the dead Tsarist autocracy. Just as Tsarism destroyed itself by its methods, violence and stupidity, so Hitlerism is destroying itself by its savage terrorism and stupidity. But the tempo of its self destruction is infinitely faster now.
As Professor Bergson pointed out, all new movements must first have genius. And Nazism has only arrogant and brutal mediocrity.