Politeness

Henri Bergson

Abstract


This is the English translation of a speech Bergson made at Lycée Henri-IV on July 30, 1892. This is an interesting text because it anticipates Bergson’s last book, his The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. Like the distinction in The Two Sources between the open and the closed, “Politeness” defines its subject matter in two ways. There is what Bergson calls “manners” and there is true politeness. For Bergson, both kinds of politeness concern equality. Manners or material politeness amount to the ritualized greetings and formalities by means of which we usually define politeness. Unfortunately and like The Two Sources, Bergson attributes this formalized relation to other human beings with primitive and “inferior races.” Nevertheless, Bergson sees in these formalities an attempt, in the name of equality, to ignore other people’s talents and merits so that one can dominate morally superior people. In contrast, true politeness or “spiritual politeness” consists in “intellectual flexibility.” When one meets a person of superior morality, one is flexible in one’s relation to him or her; one abandons the formalities in order to really live her life and think her thoughts. Here we find equality too: “what defines this very polite person is to prefer each of his friends over the others, and to succeed in this way in loving them equally.” After making a comparison to dance, Bergson defines spiritual politeness as “a grace of the mind.” Since both kinds of politeness concern equality, Bergson associates both with justice. However, beyond these two kinds of politeness and justice there is “politeness of the heart,” which concerns charity. In order to indicate politeness of the heart, Bergson describes the kind of person, a sensitive person, who anxiously awaits a word of praise in order to feel good about herself but who also, when she hears a word of reproach, is thrown into sadness. Although Bergson calls the sensibility of this person “a bit sickly,” he also claims that the sensibility is found in the heart of each of us. It indicates a fundamental sympathy with others. For this person such a word from another makes every power of one’s being vibrate in unison. So in this short speech, one will find Bergson distinguishing between material politeness, mental or spiritual politeness, and politeness of the heart. Politeness of the heart is true openness to others. And, for Bergson, it opens up to a society exemplified by ancient philosophy: true friends of each other and of ideas.


Keywords


Bergson; morality; religion; education; justice; charity

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5195/jffp.2016.767

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