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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1769

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...

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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 known as the barysphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and stratosphere, and demonstrating the powers of synthesis inherent in the universe. On the small, spherical surface of the new planet, the powers of synthesis had ideal conditions under which to operate. Teilhard de Chardin explicates the process of cosmogenesis in the life-before-life of early Earth—the genesis of ever more elaborate structures and organizations shown in the passage from subatomic units to atoms, from atoms to inorganic molecules, and later to organic molecules.

Prelife, dormant because of its diffusion in outer space, had no sooner entered the nascent sphere of the new Earth than its activities were awakened and set in motion, along with the awakening of the powers of synthesis enclosed in matter. During the millions of years of prelife, the “complexification” of matter, the energies of synthesis were causing ever greater tensions within the earth. Something tremendous was about to happen: the advent of life in the world and the formation of another envelope over the planet, the biosphere.

Teilhard de Chardin regards the appearance of life on the globe as a point of coming to maturity in the process of terrestrial evolution, a forward step of magnitude, the start of a new order in the evolutionary process. The fact that life had a beginning at one point in the natural history of the earth in no way denies the basic condition of human knowledge that each thing has its roots in the cosmos, but to accept the theory that every being has had a cosmic embryogenesis does not contradict or disprove its beginning at some definite moment in history, a change in aspect or nature. Teilhard de Chardin describes a time before the threshold of life was passed—a terrestrial era of megamolecules out of which there originated the cell, the natural granule of life with its increase in consciousness in accordance with the law of complexification. Life had no sooner started than it swarmed over the face of the earth, ramifying as it expanded.

To illustrate this process of expansion and ramification, Teilhard de Chardin uses the picture of the Tree of Life, with its roots lost in the unknowable world of primordial matter and its trunk branching out into an unbelievable multitude of types. In the course of the millions of years of its growth, the Tree of Life pushed through the fish, the amphibia, the reptiles, the birds, the mammals, the placentals, and on to the primates. These last had reached such a degree of complexification—of cephalization and cerebralization—that they became the leading shoot of the tree. Psychic tension was increasing on Earth, presaging a new order of things for the world; the active lines of descent became warm with consciousness as they achieved their most complex structure. In the mammals—the most highly developed of creatures in structure and consciousness—after millennia, the brain began to function and thought was born at some localized point of development.

When humans first come into the reader’s view, they are already a crowd spread all over the Old World, from the Cape of Good Hope to Peking. Their infancy or “hominization” lasted thousands of years. As to what the nature of this leap from primate to human is, Teilhard de Chardin believes that hominization was more than simply the rise of a new species. Hominization brought a new quality into the world and has added a new (and final) envelope to the earth. That which makes humans different from all other species and places them at the summit of the evolutionary process is the phenomenon of reflection, the power acquired by consciousness to turn in upon itself, to regard and know itself, to know and to know it knows. This power of reflection makes humans not only different but also quite “other,” separating humanity from the rest of creation by an abyss that no other species can cross.

Has evolution stopped after its long process leading to humankind, which apparently has undergone no significant physical change since its first appearance on the planet? In answer to this question, Teilhard de Chardin launches out on bold speculations that are not easy to follow. He asserts that humanity spread over an earth whose sphericity caused it to turn in on itself rather than to become diffuse and separated as it would have done on an unlimited surface. Through migration and intermarriage, humankind has formed an almost solid mass of hominized substance, and the process continues. As a result of recent inventions, humans are found over earth and sea, in every part of the world. From the first spark of conscious reflection, there came a glow that, in ever-widening circles, has covered the earth with a new layer that has spread over and above the biosphere. This is the “thinking” layer that Teilhard de Chardin has called the noosphere.

It would appear that evolution is an ascent to consciousness. Therefore, the further complexification of the noosphere should be expected to culminate in a supreme consciousness, which Teilhard de Chardin calls the Omega point, where the noosphere will be intensely unified and will have achieved a hyperpersonal organization. The Omega point may well be reached outside time and space, but since, for Teilhard de Chardin, the supreme importance of the human personality is a matter of faith, Omega must be in some way loving and lovable at this very moment. To satisfy the requirements of humanity’s reflective activity, Omega must be independent of the collapse of the forces with which evolution is interwoven. Its four attributes are autonomy, actuality, irreversibility, and transcendence. Teilhard de Chardin suggests that it is humanity’s task to organize this global layer of thought (the noosphere) more adequately so that humans might better understand the process of evolution on the earth and direct it more fully toward the fulfillment of human personality.

It is possible that the reader will find it extremely difficult—perhaps impossible—to follow Teilhard de Chardin’s theories in their line of development to the point of convergence and realization he or she visualizes. There are, however, paths along which the reader can follow with the immense pleasure and profit attendant on being in the presence of a unique mind and a rare spirit. Teilhard de Chardin has the gifts to bring into full play humanity’s matchless endowment, its power of reflection.

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