The Most Revolutionary Philosopher Since Plato?

At the core of Charles Péguy’s recently translated Notes on Bergson and Descartes: Philosophy, Christianity, and Modernity in Contestation is the view that Bergsonian philosophy represents a revolutionary moment in the history of French and so of Western culture—since, for Péguy, the two virtually coincided, in both directions. As such, it is for him on a par with the thinking of Plato, who proposed the eternity of truth, and of Descartes, who intended to dispose with human disorder. Bergson now proposes, according to Péguy, to put our thinking back in touch with finite reality, which is the living out of time. If we follow him in this respect, then we can render our participation in eternal truth more genuine and immediate, and we can achieve an ordre that is less extrinsic than Cartesian or Racinian ordonnance, but is instead intrinsically at one with the experienced order of life itself.

Péguy also calls attention to those features of Cartesian thought that are more Augustinian and rendered still more so by the tradition of French spiritualism (after François Fénelon and Pierre Maine de Biran) in which Bergson stood: beginning reflection with the experience of God, affirming creation as continuous; seeking for an intuitive rather than rule-governed logical sequence; advertence to empirical evidence beyond the reach of reasoning; firm commitment to the rational project one has set for oneself. But he sees all these features as more consistently adhered to by Bergson.

The latter, like Victor Hugo, for Péguy in effect offers a specifically French romanticism that remains also a classicism. An approach and a style for which clarity is not the enemy of depth, and radiant insight does not end problematic perplexity, but rather opens it more manifestly to view. And a philosophy that above all, in the Cartesian tradition, adheres to the reality at once of matter and yet also of spirit. English reductive empiricist associationism and German idealism are thereby equally refused. Likewise English utilitarianism and Germanic Kantian formalism. Likewise again, both German idealist acosmism and Germanic vitalist pantheism. A duality of spirit and matter is instead insisted upon and yet also, after Bergson, qualified, since finite spirit is now seen as emerging within time and the material processes of motion.

Péguy invokes at the heart of these texts the Bergsonian concept of duration (durée). As he insists, Bergson was not advocating an irrationalism, but was rationally pointing out (in the ultimate wake of David Hume via the mediation of Biran) that our most fundamental mental processes are experiences of felt intuition whereby non-quantitative multiplicities merge, intertwine, and mutually develop within us. These processes at once compose our subjectivity and yet from the outset (in contrast to the assumptions of phenomenology) lead us outside it, because they overflow any attempted determinate unification of awareness and are at one with the unfolding process of natural motion and of time within us. For this reason, our access to the external world is not simply by observation and representation, but through an immediate indwelling of its processes, which permits a sympathetic resonance with all other finite beings. Motion is not primarily mechanical, since (as again Hume pointed out) the notion of one body having an efficient influence on another, entirely separate and discrete body is not rationally comprehensible and indeed paradoxically involves an unexplained action at a distance. It is instead a process of vital, creative, and spontaneous development between dynamic realities that are as much conjoined as divided.

This continuous intermingling composes the sequence of time. In its primary reality it is at once irreversible, because unilaterally developmental, and yet also inseparable, in all finite beings, from trace-memories of the past and anticipatory projections of the future, whether unconscious or conscious. This is because, as Péguy underlines, past, present, and future are not just relatively different points according to position on a single scale, as they would appear to be in a spatial representation, but are rather inherently different in their ontological quality. Thus, the past as past is not a past present moment, as if that moment were still somehow lingering in a ghostly fashion, but is rather absolutely past as spiritual memory (of which, for Bergson, neural traces are only the vehicle) even though there is no present moment at all without this memory trace and its continuously habitual influence. Similarly, the future is not just a future anterior (though it is crucially also that), a present moment to come or one that will eventually “have been over,” but is also the real horizon of eschatological promise, of hope, and of the always incomplete. It is just this note of expectation that ensures that the present moment is not merely one of habitual memory, both unconscious and conscious, but also something inherently unfinished and still existentially lived with “suppleness,” rather than being the tout fait, the always already over and incarcerated.

For Bergson, in the long-term wake of Augustine, space is secondary to time. Space consists of all the more hardened, rigidified, habituated deposits of motion and temporal flow, which give rise to both quantity and the sheer exteriority of things “outside us.” This by no means, however, confines us within some sort of solipsism and mere secondariness of empathy, because Bergson also considered that material things themselves consist in a dynamic series of pulsating and vibrating images, and that knowledge arises when these images become representatively conscious within us in a necessarily partial fashion. He thereby articulated a version of a theory of knowledge by identity that is not without some kinship to the scholastic epistemology of species. But at the same time, spatial stiffening in Bergson does hold a certain not-just-subordinate-but-also-defective ontological status, which eventually encourages him to contrast the fixity of nature and of more “natural” human societies with the dynamism and absolutely free creativity of spirit.

After Bergson, who affirmed the accuracy of the poet’s construal of his thought, Péguy emphasizes above all the importance of remaining in the present moment. Instead of doing so, we constantly treat the present as if it were already the past—as if it was entirely determined, entirely foreclosed, entirely predictable and unoriginal.

In this way, Péguy sustains the Bergsonian link between presence and freedom. Instead of thinking of causality and liberty as problematic opposites, the French philosopher articulated a mode of vitalism whereby a kind of free spontaneity goes all the way down to the depth of material nature. In consequence, the elaboration through habit of complex dynamic emotional processes within our minds is always composing a specific kind of individuated and characterized liberty. It follows that, for both the philosopher and the poet, to be genuinely free is to be creative, to do something entirely new. Yet this notion is the very opposite of supposing freedom to be something unprecedented: to the contrary, just because the creative is a matter of unique style, it is also a matter of long gestation and formation. In this way, Bergson refuses the picture whereby human freedom is confronted by a series of external pressures or external options. Instead, it only arises as an ever more consciously shaped process of unique habituation which then allows us to act with “originality” in a specific arising circumstance.

It is this notion of freedom as creativity that Péguy above all wishes to uphold: human beings actively and not just passively participate in divine creation in a “literal” sense. The open-endedness of the future properly acts as a salve against the ever-present danger of the hardening of habit into identical repetition. The genius is the person most able to guard against this danger and yet no one is really free of it. Thus, the creativity of the child always exceeds even that of the genius and the earliest ages of humankind remain the most creative ones. In any developed culture, the originality of the child will manifest itself often as disobedience, but beyond even the creativity of revolt lies the creativity of foundation—of the more radically phylogenic infancy that once gave rise to cities, though also that which, in excess of the mere negativity of revolution, newly gave rise to the French Republic in modern times.

Modernity is for Péguy above all the process of suppression of free, creative presence. It denies the present in the name of both the past and the future—although the past and present falsely thought of as impossible pure presences left behind and still to come. Thus, it seeks immediately to stockpile the present as the past, in order all the better to plan and calculate the future, which, by definition on this model of endless postponement, is never really going to arrive. For previous societies, to live in the present was to live for the day with no thought for the morrow (as the Gospels teach) and to live in hope under heaven of eternal life. Modernity, by contrast, is a process of systematic continual sacrifice to an absolute utopian future that can never come to pass, for ontological rather than political reasons.

In this fashion, we can newly see that the suppression of antique contemplation is also the suppression of real labor, of real action, and so of a real modernity, if one can put it that way. However, Péguy’s grasp of the implications of Bergsonian duration is not one-sided. He does not merely see that it is a diagnosis of our suppression of the present. He also sees that it a diagnosis of our betrayal of other dimensions of time. Thus, to the occlusion of presence we can also add the suppression of irreversibility and the suppression of positive habit as non-identical repetition.

In the second case of the suppression of irreversibility, Péguy says that modern people characteristically think that they can always begin all over again and start from an absolute beginning. But to the contrary, if our freedom is only developed memory and habit, this is impossible. We are always pre-situated and circumscribed by our cultural histories, by our personal biographies, and also by the process of aging, which tends to rigidify our habits and so to limit the range of our real possibilities, as illustrated by the disillusioning eventual fates of none other than Susannah, Figaro, and even Cherubino, “those professionals of youth” (as Péguy puts it), in the final play of Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy, La Mère Coupable.

We have realistically to act in the light of all this, yet modernity pretends otherwise. This, one could interpolate, is the reverse face of that utilitarian calculation, which squeezes out the present in favor of the planning of the future by an accumulated past. For modern people also fantasize that they can, especially as individuals, “freely” remove themselves from this process altogether—sometimes, indeed, through mere fantasy. In this way they are the dualistic victims of the false ontological model of liberty as mere extrinsic response to “pressure” and to “option” which Bergson so well diagnosed and denounced.

In the third case of suppression of positive habit, we encounter one of the most central and interesting tensions in Péguy’s outlook. We have already seen that he tends to insist on the unique opening creative power of the first in a series—on founders of new cities, including Christ, on the antique, on childhood, on the initial rather than the later works created by genius. One could legitimately say that this is rather like the generative power of absolute Unity in Neoplatonism, or the fontal and inexhaustible power of God the Father, especially in Eastern Christian Trinitarian theology.

Yet at the same time, Péguy equally insists that there is no pure, isolated original moment prior to repetition. Thus for him, a significant historical event becomes so retrospectively, by ritual repetition, as with Bastille Day—of which Péguy famously said that the first such commemoration was the storming of the Bastille itself. This is not a denial of real historicity, but, after Bergson, a more accurate understanding of that in which historicity truly consists. For if a past event is not really there any more, then its absolutely real present persistence is in memory, which is always selective and creative. One can protest here about memory’s distortive capacity and that is certainly true, but one must not forget that the event as once lived was never of itself tout fait; its very event character was not as yet fully decided. In this perspective the question of historical accuracy does not evaporate, but it is shown that a “true depiction of a past event” is inseparable from the question of loyalty to that event, and of commitment or otherwise to its tonality and valency. It is just for this reason that Péguy, in Pascalian fashion, sees the model of New Testament fulfillment of prophecy (a surprisingly consummate maximum loyalty to its tonality) as more objectively characteristic of real historical process than the usual models of causal determinism by which historians are lured and which ignore the saturated, creatively arising and so uncaused dimension of any truly significant—and so “really historical”—event.

Within this perspective, Péguy considers that Christ, while being, as the divine person who unites divine with human nature, all-inspiring, was also, as a human individual, simply the first person in the series of saints, uniquely characterized like every human individual and not as such “the best” at everything—the best writer or artist or cook, or athlete or politician, for example. In this sense then, even the divine humanity is more clarified and revealed through later non-identical repetitions of sainthood, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit within the Church. One might also say that this recognition of the need for “a supplement at the origin” (to use Derridean terminology) corresponds to the view of Trinitarian doctrine that the Father is entirely and “reversely” constituted as origin by his generation of the Son.

Nevertheless, what is fascinating in terms of later debates is that Péguy neither opts purely for the “romanticism” and “modernism” of the pure expressive origin, nor for the “postmodernism” of the paradoxical need for repetition at the outset. Rather, he seems to hold both in tension and this is symbolized (again with a Derridean echo) by the balance he sustains between orality and writing. On the one hand, he consistently associated the primacy of the present moment with the superiority of the voice, above all with French oral Catholic peasant culture, whereas both Judaism and Protestantism are said to be religions of the book and so to risk the hardening of habit. On the other hand, he also insisted that the hero and saint would be without effect in memory and tradition save for the role of the recorder: of the Gospel writers, of the playwright celebrating the deeds of the martyr, and of the more accidental record that is the legal report of the trial of Joan of Arc.

It is for this reason that his stylistic response to Bergson exceeds that of the modernists: he is not interested, as with Marcel Proust or Virginia Woolf, in merely reporting the supposed “givens” of subjective consciousness and memory (which is in effect to reduce Bergsonism to phenomenology), nor in expressing pure symbolic replicas of duration that are then paradoxically timeless, as in the case of sheerly abstract art. Instead, he seeks actively to perform duration, in such a way that his additions to memory through commemoration, which inevitably recast it, nonetheless, just for that reason, remain engaged in a realist and “representational” (and not just postmodern “playful”) fashion with a past that is shared and historical, as well as private and autobiographical.

This tension involved in Péguy’s style and philosophy between pure origin and necessary addition at the outset is nonetheless in a way unresolved and thereby invites a gloss. One can argue that it is coherent, because merely to insist on “writing,” on an “original repetition,” on emanation as exhausting the One, or on the Son as the entire expression of the Father, is to invite the riposte that thereby the supplement, or the endless sequence of supplementations (which may, as for postmodernism, be continuously subversive) have after all become themselves the absolutely fixed origin. Thus, to sustain the “postmodern” point against absolute foundations, one must after all insist on a certain mysterious foundational excess: after all upon “orality,” on an origin before repetition, on the transcendality of “the One,” rather than it being just the first in a numerical series. And even on the fontal transcendence of the Father, which one can reconcile with his being exhaustively, even as origin, the generation of the Son, through the thesis that the Holy Spirit as the substantively relational “interpretation” of the Son is the only way in which this mysterious original excess can be at once manifested and also “reversely” (by a doubling of reversal) constituted. If childhood is for Péguy primary, then so is that vieillissement (aging) that begins already, he says, at age thirty, and yet is able to recover, universalize, and infinitize the innocence that in a sense childhood merely intimates. Obviously this is for him the supreme significance of the age at which Christ undertook his ministry after his reception of the Spirit.

In more finite and participated terms, this “spirituality” is manifested in Péguy’s own reading and writing practices, in the way in which he constantly moves forward and backwards in a spiraling motion. His stylistic use of micro-repetition witnesses to the need constantly to be in the re-affirming present, where the original inspiration can never be regarded as safely established once and for all, but must be endlessly re-established against the lure of complacent decay through re-insistence and slight variation according to changing context. This is the “oral” and “present” component. At the same time, repetition witnesses to the reality that the present is always a ritual, non-identical repetition of past, habitual significance, only established through continuity. This is the “written” and “past” component. But beyond either, Peguy’s stylistic conjoining of both origin and issuing series in terms of both future hope and specific reinterpretation as active political engagement in the present moment and era provides the third and “future” component of spiritual “finality.”

Editorial Note: This essay is a partial excerpt of the foreword by John Milbank to Notes on Bergson and Descartes: Philosophy, Christianity, and Modernity in Contestation by Charles Péguy, courtesy of Wipf and Stock.

Featured Image: Henri Bergson, before 1941; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.


John Milbank

John Milbank is Emeritus Professor of Politics, Religion and Ethics at the University of Nottingham where he is also President of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy. His most recent book, written with Adrian Pabst, is The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future.

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