The War and the France of Tomorrow

By Henri Bergson

[Scribner's Magazine, December 1917]

Professor Henri Louis Bergson, philosopher, historian, and French Academician, has been attached to the Faculty of the College of France for the last fifteen years, and he is well known in Great Britain and the United States. He writes as follows to the editor of this magazine:

"THE NEW YORK TIMES CURRENT HISTORY is most interesting, and I always read it with particular attention.

"I inclose a short lecture which I delivered in Paris a few weeks ago, and which appeared in the Revue Bleu; since then I have not written or spoken in public about the war."

Professor Bergson's article on the future of France, and sent by him to CURRENT HISTORY MAGAZINE, appears below in translation:

What will be the France of tomorrow? It will be, you may be certain, whatever we shall desire it to be; for the future depends upon us, it is what untrammeled human wills make it. It is time to cast aside arbitrary theories which have been, I do not know why, dubbed scientific. Were the course of history determined by fixed laws, an intelligence sufficiently great, knowing the intensity and direction of the forces bearing upon humanity, would be able to calculate future events as an eclipse of the sun or moon is foretold. No. An intelligence, no matter how vast, possessing full details of all the primal causes acting today upon each man, would be incapable of deducing there from the formation of the future because everything will depend upon the stimuli, unforeseen and unforeseeable, which free wills, creators of their own destiny and that of their country, will give when and where they please, and in whatever direction they please.

Nevertheless, liberty is not caprice. A man may vainly make illogical decisions. He may persevere even for a while in such a line of conduct, if he has carefully reflected before starting. And so with a whole people. Here foresight is possible in a certain measure, provided it does not aim at rigorous precision and does not pretend to entire assurance, provided it seeks to emphasize tendencies rather than to prophesy events, provided, finally, it takes account of the psychological elements of the problem.

Nothing is more instructive in this respect than the fate of the forecasts regarding the present war. It has been remarked, and truly enough, that most of them had proved false. In spite of warnings many people insisted "War has become impossible. No chief of State will be foolish enough to declare it. What man would dare take the responsibility of setting fire to Europe and causing a catastrophe unprecedented in the world's history?" Nevertheless, such a man has been found. He has taken this responsibility lightly; and, not less lightly, a whole nation has followed him.

Then people said: "Even supposing war does break out, it cannot last. Neither the belligerents nor the rest of Europe would endure such a strain for more than a few weeks." Nevertheless, they have endured it. The war has already lasted many months, and we shall make it last until complete, definite victory comes.

They said also: "The new explosives, the long-range, rapid-fire guns will make bayonet charges impossible from now on. In future wars, if there are to be wars, great distances will separate the combatants." Well, never—I do not say since the invention of powder only, but since the invention of the bow and arrow—never have soldiers fought at such close range. At certain points on the front only a few meters separate the hostile armies. And as for bayonet charges, they have become so frequent that one can no longer, as in former wars, give them individual names to make them live in posterity's admiration; they are a commonplace in this war.

It was said also that work in the fields would stop, that manufacturing and trade would tumble, that it would mean economic and financial ruin. Nothing has fallen, nothing has stopped. Economic and financial ruin threatens our enemies beyond a doubt, but our own condition in these respects is perfect, our credit intact. On all these points, and others besides, people were mistaken.

Why were they mistaken? Let us look closer, let us consider each of the predictions in turn. We shall see that they had always reasoned on human affairs without considering sufficiently the human element.

The arms of today have undoubtedly a much greater range and rapidity of fire than those of former times; and if matters progressed mechanically, the fighting forces would be as far from each other as the greater range of their arms would allow. But mankind is supple and inventive. In face of danger enormously increased, he has sought and found means of sheltering himself without renouncing the offensive, without ceasing even to menace the enemy constantly with a hand-to-hand combat.

And so with agriculture, manufacture, the very life of the country; they would be seriously menaced by the war if human needs were absolutely fixed things, incapable of extension and compression. But necessities contract and activity expands under stress of circumstance; consumption and production adapt themselves to new conditions. This elasticity of human nature and the psychology of human nature should have been taken into consideration before prophecies were made.

The psychology of nations had been still less considered, it would seem; otherwise no one would have believed the war impossible. Assuredly, war would be expensive even to the victor; but there was one nation which believed itself certain of victory, and which reasoned besides that, no matter what the cost, it would gain vastly, since it would attain thereby the domination of the world. On this single aim it had concentrated for half a century all its energy, aroused by cupidity and hatred into a state of arrogance and madness. To that nation setting fire to Europe was of slight consequence; in advance it absolved itself of all blame by persuading itself that it was the chosen people, instrument of God's will upon earth. Under these conditions war had to come.

Those who imagined that if war did break out it would be short were likewise deceived. The war could not possibly be brief, because it would be necessarily a war to the death. France would realize at once that her national existence was at stake—nay, more than her existence; the very fate of humanity more than the existence of one or many peoples; the ideal of life, everything that makes life worth while. Yes; they should have foreseen all that, knowing what France has always been; and it should have been foreseen also that all Frenchmen would be in accord, united in a single unshakable resolution when the moment should come for arising against the powers of evil for the safety of the nation and of humanity.

As for foreseeing the state of mind of our soldiers, that is a different matter. One cannot foretell anything of the future except by past analogy, and the mental state of the French soldier is without precedent in the history of warfare. The psychologist who should insist upon comparing it with something familiar to him would have to seek elsewhere than in the annals of military valor. He would be obliged, I believe, to recall the descriptions which the great men of action among the mystics have left us of their inner life. They traversed, no doubt, the phase of enthusiasm which ends in ecstasy, but for them it was only a temporary state. Beyond the enthusiasm, further yet than the "vision of God," they reached that state of supreme calm where, having become again their former selves in appearance, speaking and acting like ordinary mortals, attending to their daily occupations and sometimes to the most humble work, they felt themselves inwardly metamorphosed, as if God had absorbed them into His eternity. Far be it from me to identify this state of mind with that of our soldiers; nevertheless, there is an analogy. Hear the stories, read the letters which reach us from the front; all evoke pictures of the same kind. Not the slightest arrogance, but a genial and simple heroism, sure of itself as if, beyond enthusiasm, higher than all known forms of patriotism in which one still distinguishes himself from the country which he loves, the French soldier had brought his soul to entire unity with that of his nation and drew therefrom the strength to go no matter where, even to death itself, with a feeling of security.

Returning, then, to the question which we asked at the outset: What will remain tomorrow of all the accumulated energies of today? Shall we still have strength and inspiration to carry a victorious, rejuvenated, revivified France to higher and higher destinies? I can only reply once again: That will depend upon us; we shall preserve our energizing force if we desire to preserve it. Let me add, I believe we shall desire it. I believe we shall desire it because our national will is not to suffer in future from the weakness which has hitherto hampered it in all its undertakings. Of this weakness we have perceived only the exterior, superficial symptoms; it has had its source in the depths of the nation's spirit.

You know, perhaps, that certain psychologists explain most nervous trouble by some former disappointment, by some thwarted, repressed tendency. The victim had become reconciled and perhaps even believed that he had forgotten the affair. It was an inclination or an ambition or an aspiration of early youth or even of infancy. As we were unable to satisfy it we had decided that we would think no more about it. But it has continued to think about us. Installed in the subsoil of our consciousness, it works there without our knowledge; it pushes and presses whatever is above it. That means shakings, explosions—in a word, the whole series of nervous troubles—until the physician-psychologist, having discovered the recollection concealed in the subconscious depths, brings it to the surface and drives it away.

Well, something of the same kind has happened to the mind of France. It had—that was forty-four years ago—a great disappointment, and it kept the memory thereof always alive and active, even when it believed to have forgotten. Oh, it was far from a wound of self-esteem; from such a wound we would have recovered. It was much deeper than that. By seeing force take the place of justice, Alsace-Lorraine snatched from France, success crown a course of brutality, chicanery, and falsehood, we had learned almost to doubt the existence of justice, and to lose faith in all the great things which had always been incarnated in France. And because we had yielded to doubt we were discontented. And because we were discontented with ourselves we were discontented with each other. Back of the visible, tangible causes of our discords was a wounded idealism, a patriotism paradoxical as it may seem a grieved patriotism which could be seen even in the anti-patriotic utterances of certain orators. But tomorrow the evil will have disappeared. Tomorrow the great injustice will have been repaired, force will have restored the right.

That is why I am without fear for the future. The France of tomorrow will be not only a victorious France; it will be a France which will desire and be able to preserve its impetus of inspiration, because it will have recovered, with the restoration of its territory, confidence in itself and confidence in the double ideal of liberty and justice with which its name has always been associated.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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