Henri Bergson: The Jewish Christian-Convert Philosopher Who Reverted to Judaism Then Died Before Discovering He Might Have Been Buddhist…

“Homo sapiens, the only creature endowed with reason, is also the only creature to pin its existence on things unreasonable.”

–The Buddha, I mean, Henri Bergson

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

The Buddha, I mean, Henri Bergson

“The present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause.”

The Buddha, I mean, Henri Bergson

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Dr. Henri Bergson (1859 -1941) is one of the most famous, influential philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries about whom many remain uninformed. As a young man, he would win a prestigious award for his solution to a mathematical problem that Pascal had claimed to have already solved, but to which he, unlike Bergson, somehow, neglected to ever publish his own solution. Then, despite Bergson’s promise of brilliance, something apparently went quite wrong because though he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1927, it was for, of all things, literature, not mathematics. What went wrong, you ask? Well, Bergson eventually made the shift from “hard” math to the subject matter most of our parents warned us to avoid lest we receive no financial assistance from them in the pursuit of our own university educations: the humanities.

In 1889, 38 years prior to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Bergson would be awarded a doctorate for his thesis titled Essai sur les données immediates de la conscience (Time and Free Will). In this work, “Bergson offered an interpretation of consciousness as existing on two levels, the first to be reached by deep introspection, the second an external projection of the first.”1  Nonetheless, his forays into the wilds of consciousness were hardly unique. Buddha Gautama had claimed, some 2500 years prior, virtually the same thing. Additionally, Bergson’s views on free will and determinism, though significant, also echoed his predecessor, the Buddha. Again, in Time and Free Will,  he stated: “Consciousness indeed informs us that the majority of our actions can be explained by motives. But it does not appear that determination here means necessity, since common sense believes in free will.”2 The Buddha said as much in his exposition on the ‘five (s)kandhas,’ aka ’five aggregates,’ in which he described the relationships between the “processes” of form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness. Admittedly, the concept of “free will” gets much trickier in the Buddha’s exposition, but I suppose that’s because he wasn’t a “modern” thinker, right?

Throughout his career, Bergson would accrue numerous awards, prestigious posts and faculty positions, as well as one of the most prestigious distinctions of all – fierce opposition by the Catholic Church. Having been heavily influenced by the works of such authors as Darwin, with whom he disagreed in significant ways, Bergson would come to develop a different concept of evolution, as evidenced in his 1907 publication,  Creative Evolution. Nonetheless, in 1940, Bergson would do the unthinkable and not only abruptly and completely renounce all of the aforementioned honors in opposition to the Vicchy government’s offer to grant him a special dispensation from their anti-Semitic laws, but also register himself as a Jew. Now, that’s what I call making a point. And what was truly interesting about this tact was that despite the decidedly Buddhist bent of his own theories, not to mention his albeit non-practicing but Judaic background, he’d actually become a Christian by then, which didn’t do much for his credibility… So, Dr. Henri Bergson was a Jew, who converted to Christianity, then reverted back to the Judaism he’d never practiced, just to make a point – even though he was more Buddhist than many Buddhists then, or now… And sadly, for the last decade or so of his life, he suffered from crippling arthritis, eventually dying of bronchitis.

But wait, how’d Bergson acquire his Buddha-like rap if he didn’t study Buddhism? And there does not appear to be any great discussion of his doing so. Perhaps, during his excruciatingly ardent, brilliant, detailed inquiries, he simply stumbled into ‘Truth,’ or the so-called ‘Universal Law of Nature’, which, incidentally, is the foundation of Buddhism, itself. This is why the Dalai Lama XIV said, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” Hello, Dalai! That’s something to think about! Contrast this with Hebrews 11:1 of the Holy Bible, New Testament, which defines faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”  And then there’s the Buddha, himself, who warned us in his Kalama Sutta to take nothing at face value, or on blind faith, even if those very words had departed from his own lips. In the preface to his translation, from the original Pali, it states:

The instruction of the Kalamas (Kalama Sutta) is justly famous for its encouragement of free inquiry; the spirit of the sutta signifies a teaching that is exempt from fanaticism, bigotry, dogmatism, and intolerance.

In a fundamentalist Christian world like that of the Reverend Fred Phelps of GodHatesFags.com fame, Dr. Bergson is a *&%$#@ Jew who almost made it. In a Christian world, Dr. Bergson is either a failed-Christian who almost made it, or possible one who did “make it” because of an exceptionally merciful and loving God. But in a Buddhist world, Dr. Bergson, whether he was a ‘declared’ Buddhist, or not, could be a[n] potential [arahant], a once-returner, or simply a buddha honing in on his final liberation, though not yet for many lifetimes. In other words, he, at the very least, touched on deep truths with which many of us still struggle today, Buddhist, or not. And he appears to have expressed them brilliantly.

Dr. Bergson’s memory has endured significant obscurity, considering his worldly and spiritual accomplishments, and he’s also met with as much ridicule as respect. For example, Bergson’s “intuitionist philosophy” inspired respected philosopher, Bertrand Russell, to opine:

“Intuition is at its best in bats, bees, and Bergson.”

But as Bergson, himself, said:

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

The Buddha, I mean, Henri Bergson

And  that’s  precisely  why Buddhists meditate!

Shalom.

And of course, as always, Namaste…

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Other Suggested Readings:

1“Henri Bergson – Biographical.” Nobelprize.org Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 8 Sep 2015. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1927/bergson-bio.html

2”Henri Bergson” at
The Information Philosopher, http://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/philosophers/bergson/

Gunter, Pete, A.Y., “Henri Bergson” at
http://petegunter.net/philosophy/henri-bergson/

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2 thoughts on “Henri Bergson: The Jewish Christian-Convert Philosopher Who Reverted to Judaism Then Died Before Discovering He Might Have Been Buddhist…

    1. Why, thank you, Amanda. And it’s fabulous to hear from you, especially because it’s been awhile since I’ve been around! I’m looking forward to re-acclimating myself to the WordPress community, and people like you, in particular. All my best, Vivien.

      Liked by 1 person

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