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The Open Society and Its Prophets

Henri Bergson’s original heuristic of open and closed societies emphasizes that liberalism is a religion born out of moments of mystical perception and faith

Blake Smith
October 04, 2021
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Henri BergsonTablet Magazine; original photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Henri BergsonTablet Magazine; original photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Liberals trying to articulate a vision of decent political order often invoke the concept of the “open society,” made famous by philosopher of science Karl Popper in his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies, and later by the various incarnations of the Open Society Foundation of philanthropist George Soros, who was originally inspired by Popper’s work. Popper, trying to defend liberal democracy against the forces that he believed had led to Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism, distinguished open societies, in which human beings are capable of freely expressing their rational judgments about social conventions, from closed societies, in which such questioning is forbidden and uncritical obedience imposed. The division between closed and open societies is by these lights self-evident, and history is the record of human progress from closed to open in the face of periodic threats of catastrophic regression.

The outlines of Popper’s account remain part of many American liberals’ mental sketch of politics, even if they have never read The Open Society or heard of its author. Liberalism appears to its defenders as a regime founded on discussion and debate, in which free individuals participate without fear of censorship or undue moral pressure. Citizens in a liberal society are “open” to new ideas and to argument about them. They are, moreover, “open” to the influence of such ideas to reshape their lives; they are not committed to inflexible norms inherited from their tradition but are able, through their interactions with other open-minded interlocutors, to choose their own trajectories. Liberals neither receive from the past nor transmit to the future a commitment to maintain a specific set of truths, values and practices; all social and personal values are subject to ceaseless contestation and change. The open society and its members are thus open all at once to reason (as opposed to irrational prejudices binding them to convention), debate (as opposed to unspeaking conformity or the parroting of ideological scripts), and change (their personal and collective futures, which they will determine for themselves, being at present unknown).

Emphasizing rationality and human agency, however, may suggest that the open society forecloses humanity’s need for morality and religion. If society is essentially a debating club, in which individuals exchange and refine their opinions, how can the voices of either moral duty or of God be heard? As our traditions record them, these seem to speak to us not in a register of deliberation and mutual questioning but in sometimes terrifying imperatives. Illiberals of the right and left have thus long accused liberals of promoting freedom of speech, democratic deliberation, and skepticism about absolute truth as means of deafening themselves to the call of conscience. From such a moralizing perspective, the open society is open in the manner of a cloaca or a wound.

The tension between our desires for freedom and morality, however, was not unknown to the thinker who established the distinction between “open” and “closed” societies. He was not Karl Popper, but the French Jewish philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941), in his last major work, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932). Bergson had spent most of his career offering bold restatements of our experiences of time, knowledge, and the permanence or transformations of objects and perceptions. In The Two Sources, however, he turned to politics. Rather than arguing, as Popper would, that the open and the closed are distinct forms of society, separated by the chasm between reason and unreason, he held that a rhythm of opening and closing is the heartbeat of every society, and every social institution and practice.

Society, Bergson insisted, begins “closed” and cannot survive without to a great extent remaining so. In this, he took inspiration from his former classmate Emile Durkheim, the founder of French sociology, who argued that society dominates and shapes its members to a degree many of his contemporary readers found horrifying to contemplate. Like Durkheim, Bergson argued that human beings are compelled to uphold social norms and fulfill our duties to each other, often in opposition to our own desires. We experience these compulsions, which constitute our moral sense, as coming at once from inside and outside us. In order to be effective, our feeling of duty must be automatic, compelling us to act without hesitation in predictable ways. It can be so only if the field of situations in which it would apply—that is, the whole of society—is itself stable, regular and relatively unchanging. A “closed society,” in Bergson’s view, both requires and generates a compulsory “closed morality” among its inhabitants. In a chilling comparison that he repeats throughout the book, he adds that a such a society and such a morality are as natural to human beings as an anthill is to ants.

The human anthill of the closed society, in which people are unconsciously compelled to follow social norms, is disturbed by the power of individual thought. In order to function, society requires individuals to cooperate, make sacrifices, and defend the collective against its enemies. Thinking, however, “counsels egoism.” It sets the thinker, who now becomes the judge of his own case, against the demands of others and of his own conscience.

Interrogating the latter, the thinker now can develop a conscious, personal moral sense different from the one instilled in him by social pressure. Still more dangerously for society, he now begins to worry. Thinking for himself means being able to look toward the uncertain future, in anxiety about what may befall him—and most terrifyingly, what may befall him after death. Alone in his thought contemplating the hereafter, he wonders if life, temporary as it is, can be worth living, and if the passions and commitments of his fellows do not conceal a fundamental vacuity, an absence of meaning. Such thinking, Bergson argued, necessarily involves at least a “momentary loosening of our attachment to life” and to the values that we are supposed to share with other members of our society. Whether calculating our self-interest, questioning our prejudices, or fearfully contemplating the death awaiting us, thought is always individuating, taking us a step away from the social world.

The closed society opens for its members one by one through their private moments of thought. If it had no means of defending itself against the danger of thought, society would collapse, as self-centered, anxious individuals refused to sacrifice their autonomy for the good of the collective.

Religion preserves society from these otherwise fatal openings of thought. Within thought itself, Bergson claimed, is a “function of fabulation,” a capacity for making myths that could reattach individuals to the norms of their society and to a sense that life is meaningful. Myths, constructed by our thought and organized into religious systems, serve as a kind of maze in which thinking, instead of wandering out on its own far from the common consensus of our society, loses itself harmlessly in artificial complexities. Religion is thus “nature’s defensive reaction against the dissolving power of intelligence.”

Bergson’s description of society and religion so far may seem bleakly cynical. The existence of the former depends on its inhabitants’ unthinking adherence to convention, while the purpose of the latter is to return wayward individuals to the fold of obedience when they have, to the danger of society, begun to think. Bergson, however, meant this as an indictment of neither society nor religion. Both must be, in an irreducible way, closed—because human life is so vulnerable, not least to the inner danger of thought, that it must be sheltered by routines and fables. But while religion and morality, in one sense, guard this enclosure, they also provide, far more powerfully than thought alone, the means of opening and expanding it.

As the title of The Two Sources suggests, Bergson saw religion and morality as having two essential dimensions. In their “closed” aspect, they protect society by inculcating moral duty and myths. They also, however, can provide exceptional individuals with intuitions that raise them above the level of social convention to a glimpse of human unity, and beyond the human, to the divine.

The experience of such intuitions, Bergson argued, is critically different from the experience of thinking. In thinking, we realize that the norms and narratives of our society are artificial, perhaps absurd, and neither serve our self-interest nor shelter us from the terror of death and meaninglessness. The operant opposition here is between convention and nature. In moments of inspiration, however, there is a third term, something beyond convention or nature, which Bergson calls “life.” Life is not the merely the way that human beings do live or would live in detachment from the way that their societies have made them; it is a superhuman call to realize the potential for what human beings and their societies could be. Far from withdrawing us from the artificial sphere of convention to contemplate our personal fate, it summons us to create a new world, one truer to life’s rich possibilities.

Bergson called those who receive such intuitions “mystics,” but they are not the sort of mystics who withdraw permanently into the desert, forest, or monastic cell to contemplate in solitude. Rather, they are prophets, like those of the Old Testament, challenging members of their societies to receive a new message. Indeed, Bergson seems to have taken as his model the figure of Isaiah, who warned Israel that its traditional “burnt offerings and sacrifices” no longer conformed to a truly religious spirit. The closed morality of religion and convention must be opened up, he urged, in a process by which not only Jews but gentiles would be transformed. “Nations that do not know you will hasten to you,” he told Israel, with their minds “full of things unheard before.” The open society, Bergson argues, is what is heralded in such prophetic announcements of human unity, when the boundaries between existing societies and religions are suspended as people share an ecstatic receptivity to a superhuman call to make themselves anew.

For Bergson, such “mystical” openings are the path not only of transformations in what we might think of as religious matters, but of politics as well—from Bergson’s perspective, indeed, the distinction between religion and politics becomes intellectually untenable. Liberal democracy is “essentially evangelical,” founded on a religious insight into humanity’s unity and dignity. Preserving liberal democracy is thus not so much a matter of legalistically defining rights and norms, as of keeping alive this “religious character” of openness to fresh expressions of its founding intuition that all human beings are equal—an equality which can only be understood relative to some nonhuman term, be it God or Bergson’s rapturous, vague “life.” Democracy is not only one form of political regime among others, but a mystical, messianic, open religion.

To say that democracy is a religion intuited and spread by prophets is to capture some of the rapturous enthusiasms of its founding, as well as to explain its continuing hold on human hearts. It is also to say that democratic societies can only survive insofar as they remain to a great extent closed, becoming a new kind of theocratic anthill in which the antinomian or anxiety-producing potential of individual thought is largely neutralized by convention and myth.

Bergson denied that there is such a thing as progress toward a permanently open society. Prophetic openings close, as flashes of universalist insight dim into a new kind of particularism, paradoxically understood by its practitioners as fidelity to the founding intuition. The fissure in society torn open by the prophet so that he could speak to his contemporaries becomes after his death the unchangeable dogma of a closed sect. Nor can we imagine that the historical sequence of these openings and closings is leading to a better world, since this would suppose that the prophets all are traveling “in the same direction” and working for the “progressive realization of an ideal.” But prophets quarrel among themselves, pulling us toward their rival universalisms. Isaiah and Jesus, Muhammad and Marx, are perhaps all prophets, but are not fellow travelers.

As liberals, and as members of religious traditions, we cannot hope to arrive at a state of absolute and enduring openness. Rather, we must continue making the difficult effort to bear the tension of the opposites, the necessity of both the closed and the open within our society and ourselves. We do our best to follow to the conventions and stories without which society would fall apart, while remaining faithful to our potential for individual thought, however dangerous it may be for both our own happiness and the good of society. We are beholden to the values that have been handed down to us—in our case, to the limited and partial expressions of human unity that our religious and political traditions have made available to us—but also to the spirit that originally inspired them, a spirit that in the past has called, and in the future will call again, to leave behind customary practices and understandings in order to seek a higher ground. We are called to the uneasy and difficult balancing of contradictions, and a ragged rhythm of expansions and contradictions, rather than to a declaration of the superiority of the open over the closed, or to a confident sense of its coming victory.

Bergson’s understanding of “open” and “closed” societies was perhaps doomed to unpopularity. Popper began The Open Society by briefly noting and then dismissing Bergson’s work as based on religion rather than reason. Indeed, Bergson’s turn to politics was appreciated neither by his contemporaries nor by posterity. By the time he published The Two Sources in 1932, after three decades of fame at the height of French intellectual life, he had begun, at least in the judgment of his contemporaries, to outlive his relevance. Increasingly Hegel, as interpreted by Alexandre Kojève, became the obligatory reference point for thinkers who considered themselves to be serious. In turn, schools of thought that responded to Hegel, such as the existentialists (whose critiques of Hegel were inspired by Kierkegaard, increasingly available in new French translations, and the Russian Jewish expatriate Lev Shestov) and Marxists (whose critiques were of course guided by Marx). Even the young Raymond Aron, whose intellectual independence set him outside these trends, saw Bergson as a relic to be left on the shelf.

One of the few readers to recognize the importance of The Two Sources as a political text was Leo Strauss, the German Jewish political philosopher who shaped the thought of generations of American scholars and statesmen. In 1941, four years after his arrival in the United States, Strauss gave a seminal lecture “On German Nihilism” now recognized as a key moment in his intellectual biography. Strauss—who had a habit of not referring explicitly to the thinkers he was addressing or critiquing—did not mention Bergson by name. But Bergson’s concept of the “open society” (which had not yet been borrowed by Karl Popper) was at the center of his talk. Indeed, Strauss’ argument was that Nazism, and behind it the broader movement of radical German conservativism that had arisen in the 1920s, was a “moral protest” against the open society in favor of the closed—a protest to which Strauss was profoundly sympathetic.

Strauss argued that the German right had observed—and suggested that it had observed correctly—that an open society is “actually impossible.” He might have pointed out—but did not—that this was Bergson’s point as well. The French philosopher would have agreed with German conservatives, and even Nazis, that “certain basic facts of human nature which have been honestly recognized by earlier generations,” such as the necessity of collective obedience to moral norms and belief in fictions that promote social cohesion, were often ignored by the partisans of liberal democracy, which only serves as an animating ideal in moments of particularly intense ethical and political inspiration. Although this ideal summons individuals to defy and then reorder the norms and beliefs of their societies, the latter also have a legitimate, and often overwhelming, interest in defending those norms and beliefs. Through the instruments of coercion and ideology, order must be maintained, or else life would be impossible.

The German right differed from Bergson, however, insofar as it aspired to a kind of supposedly “serious” moral stance that might eliminate both the need for illusions and the dangerous incitation to independent thinking posed by the ideal of openness. It appeared to conservatives that the supposedly open society was “morally inferior” to closed societies, since it relied on “hypocrisy” rather than frankly avowing its basis in domination and conformity.

Strauss was to some extent giving voice to his own objections to liberalism, which had indeed appeared to him during the interwar period, no less than it had to the Nazis, as “amoral: the meeting ground of seekers of pleasure, of gain, of irresponsible power, indeed of any kind of irresponsibility and lack of seriousness.” He saw the loosening of moral conventions and traditions as mere degeneracy, not, as Bergson did, as offering the possibility for prophetic awakenings that might allow new conventions to be developed on a wider basis or in a spirit truer to the fundamental ethical intentions of the order they seemed to shatter. Morality could only exist in a closed society, Strauss suggested, since open-ended speculation was incompatible with the “basic demands of moral life,” and a society dedicated to the possibility of such speculation, in the public sphere and available to the participation of all possible interlocutors, would necessarily annihilate morality and society itself.

In his later work, as Strauss reconciled himself at least superficially to liberalism, and more profoundly to the need for hypocrisy. He adumbrated a theory according to which the dangerous potential of thought—about which he was in agreement with Bergson—should be contained by leaving its practice to a self-conscious elite of “philosophers” who concealed their intellectual detachment from their society’s norms and myths. By taking on the role of educators, such philosophers could modify these norms and myths to make their societies more congenial to the practice of thinking, but only on the condition that they made such modifications so carefully and slowly that they passed imperceptibly by the attention of the unthinking multitude. That the norms and myths of American society were those of at least apparent individualism, intellectual freedom, and self-creation was only another irony about which philosophers, behind closed doors, might smile.

For those who have as much difficulty believing in the brilliance of a philosophical elite as they do in the inevitable triumph of progress and reason, neither Strauss’ accommodation to liberalism, nor Popper’s confidence in its superiority, seem adequate to challenge of the present. Bergson’s philosophy, in contrast, offers us the possibility of defending liberalism without falling into—or at least without forgetting the danger of—either cynicism or naivete. We are called to remain in a lucid, tense, and hesitant duplicity, conscious of the tension between what is required for society to remain viable, and therefore necessarily ‘closed,’ and what is required for it to remain hospitable to critical thought and mystical insight. But we are also called to a double fidelity, honoring the openings of the past both insofar as they created our norms and stories, and insofar as they promise new fissurings of our closed world. To make sense of this paradoxical task, liberals must see religious life not as an irrational force to be consigned to the private sphere or instrumentally manipulated, but as a model that teaches us how to reconcile, or at least to bear the irreconcilability of, the closed tradition and the open inspiration, the letter of the law and the example of the prophets.

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.