(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

When The Phenomenon of Man appeared in France in December, 1955, it was hailed as a major publishing event. The English translation, which appeared in 1959, appeared to be an event of equal interest and significance among English-speaking readers. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, born in Auvergne, France, in 1881, was an ordained member of the Society of Jesus. Early in his student days at a Jesuit college, he became interested in geology and mineralogy. He then began to study philosophy, followed by an interval of teaching physics and chemistry, and then began the study of theology. During his teaching years and theological studies, he acquired a competence in paleontology, and it was as a paleontologist that he was to become best known to the world.

Teilhard de Chardin’s interests gradually centered on the general facts and theories of the evolutionary process and finally were pinpointed on what was to become his life’s work: the evolution of the human race. Professionally, he was a geologist and paleontologist; as a thinker, he felt impelled to formulate a philosophy of evolution that would take into account human history, human personality, and the future possibilities for humanity on Earth. It is this formulation of concepts that constitutes Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man. Sir Julian Huxley, in an illuminating introduction, remarks that Teilhard de Chardin was a visualizer of power who saw the whole sweep of the natural history of the world, from the alpha of the origins of things to the omega of collective reflection and the fulfillment of personality. Teilhard de Chardin saw these matters with the eyes of the poet and mystic, but always with an imagination and faith supported by rational inquiry and scientific knowledge. His thoughts and conclusions are bold and visionary, but the vision is always disciplined by the demands of reality.

The Phenomenon of Man admittedly presents many difficulties for the general reader, and possibly for the professional, but Teilhard de Chardin tells the story of the evolutionary process in a style at once so finished and so engaging that the reader will find it well worth the time and concentration it will require. Much of the pleasure is a result of the excellence of the translation by Bernard Wall, who is quick to say that the writer’s style is completely and undisputedly his own.

Teilhard de Chardin’s basic hypothesis of the interiority of all created things may be presented in his own interpretation: Things possess both an exterior and an interior aspect that are coextensively related. A person who looked closely would find an interior even in his or her own depths. Once this fact has been realized, it may also be ascertained, in one manner or another, that the interior is present everywhere in nature since the beginning of time. When speaking of the “within” of the earth, for example, Teilhard de Chardin means not its depth in matter but the “psychic” part of the stuff of the universe that has been enclosed since the first appearance of Earth. In every portion of sidereal matter, throughout the cosmos, the interior world lines all points of the exterior one.

From this hypothesis, Teilhard de Chardin develops a law of complexity and consciousness, according to which a consciousness becomes more perfected as it forms the interior lining of a more complicated structure, so that the more developed the consciousness, the fuller and more organized the structure. Spiritual perfection and material complexity are only dual aspects of the same phenomenon. The Phenomenon of Man is the story of the application of this law, which is dealt with on three levels of the evolutionary spiral: prelife, life, and thought.

In physical perspective, life presupposes and supports the theory of a prelife. In the beginning, apparently through some fantastic accident, a fragment of particularly stable atoms detached itself from the sun, took its place in the cosmos, folded in on itself, and assumed the spherical shape that Teilhard de Chardin regards as of utmost importance in the evolution of matter and the emergence of consciousness. The fundamental composition of this Earth seems to have established itself from the beginning in a series of complex substances arranged in layers that form what are...

(The entire section is 1769 words.)