The Human Phenomenon

The Human Phenomenon


Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.

A Portion Briefly Presented and Commented on by

 Leonard Swidler (

[From my reading of Teilhard’s Magnum Opus: The Phenomenon of Man, 1958 edition.]

The nihil obstat (that is, the official no objection to the publication of the book in question by the Catholic theological censor of The Human Phenomenon)—as were most of the philosophical/theological writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.—was not granted by the then hyper-conservative Jesuit theological superiors in Rome, and, hence, the book was not published until after the death of Teilhard in 1956. Fortunately, Teilhard had left the Forbidden Book manuscripts with lay friends who saw to their quick publication in time to impact the thought of Vatican Council II (1961-1965).

This book was written in the 1930s, when Totalitarianism in variant forms: Fascism (Italy), Falangism, (Spain), Salazarism, (Portugal), Nazism (Germany), Stalinism (Russia), and Militarism (Japan)… was raging, Teilhard offered the message: Do not be discouraged!

Despite an almost explosive acceleration of noos-genesis [“Nous,” Greek, “Thought”] at our level, we cannot expect to see the earth transform itself under our eyes in the space of a generation. Let us keep calm and take heart…. Monstrous as it is, is not modern totalitarianism really the distortion of something magnificent, and thus quite near to the truth?” [Corruptio optimae, pessimal—(Latin,) “Corruption of the best is the worst,” Swidler]

  1. The Personal Universe

Teilhard indicates that the whole pattern discernible in the evolutionary movement of the universe from the bottom up moves in the direction of consciousness, even of a supreme sort: 

“Evolution is an ascent towards consciousness…. Therefore, it should culminate forward in some sort of supreme consciousness.”

He then provides a brief analysis of the inner structure of consciousness which leads inevitably “upward”: Every consciousness is possessed by a threefold property: 

“(1) of centering everything partially upon itself; 

(2) of being able to center itself upon itself constantly and increasingly; and 

(3) of being brought by this very super-centration into association with all the other centers surrounding it.”

Teilhard finds that the universe in the forms of space and time structurally moves in a curved, converging fashion (as Einstein says, the Universe is curved,) eventually leading to Consciousness and beyond its primitive forms to an ultimately universalized Consciousness—Omega Point

“Because it contains and engenders consciousness, space-time is necessarily of a convergent nature. Accordingly, its enormous layers, followed in the right direction, must somewhere ahead become involuted to a point which we might call Omega [the final letter of the Greek alphabet—hence, the “final-l-l-l-l” goal of our human conscious-ness—but, endless-s-s-s-s-….], which fuses and consumes them integrally in itself. However immense the sphere of the world may be, it only exists and is finally perceptible in the directions in which its radii meet [which, as Einstein notes, “meet at infinity”]—even if this were beyond time and space altogether.”

This language and imagery reminds one of the image of Ultimate Reality always receding like the Horizon. (This image was also used by two other Jesuits of an only slightly younger age: Karl Rahner, S.J. and Bernard Lonergan, S.J.) who have similarly said, “luring” us forward (to use a Whiteheadian “Process-Thought” term for Ultimate Reality, “God”). As an atheist humanist Marxist might say: “Being human is a never-ending task-k-k-k….”

Quite different from the Advaita (“no-self”) version of Hinduism, or of Buddhism, Teilhard insists on the person not being totally absorbed, obliterated, or “blown out,” as in Nirvana

It is therefore a mistake to look for the extension of our being, or of the noosphere, in the Impersonal. The Future-Universal could not be anything else but the Hyper-Personal at the Omega Point.

  1. The Personalizing Universe

Teilhard stresses his vision that persons are the acme (high point) of the universe, and that they can never disappear—this is the thrust of the evolution of the universe:

[…because] The universe is a collector and custodian of consciousness, the mere hoarding of these remains would be nothing but a colossal wastage. What passes from each of us into the mass of humanity by means of invention…is admittedly of vital importance…. But, far from transmitting the most precious, we are bequeathing, at the utmost, only the shadow of ourselves. Our works? But even in the interest of life in general, what is the worth of human works if not to establish, in and by means of each one of us, an absolutely original center in which the universe reflects itself in a unique and inimitable way? And those centers are our very selves and personalities. The very center of our consciousness, deeper than all its radii; that is the essence which Omega, if it is to be truly Omega, must reclaim…. To communicate itself, my ego must subsist through abandoning itself, or the gift will fade away.

In brief: The higher the development of consciousness, the more it must exist and persist in its own reality without absorption. This is the unavoidable pattern of the universe:

The conclusion is inevitable that the concentration of a conscious universe would be unthinkable if it did not reassemble in itself all consciousnesses as well as all the conscious; each particular consciousness remaining conscious of itself at the end of the operation, and even (this must absolutely be understood) each particular consciousness becoming still more itself and thus more clearly distinct from others the closer it gets to them in Omega.

Here is a clear insight (that is, center-to-center union intensifies the distinct being of each center in proportion as they unite) which connects the whole universe and points ineluctably to the perfection and continuance of all parts—in this case, individual conscious persons:

In any domain—whether it be the cells of a body, the members of a society, or the elements of a spiritual synthesis—union differentiates. In every organized whole, the parts perfect themselves and fulfil themselves. Through neglect of the universal rule many a system of pantheism has led us astray to the cult of a great All, in which individuals were supposed to be merged like a drop in the ocean or like a dissolving grain of salt. Applied to the case of the summation of consciousnesses, the law of union rids us of this perilous and recurrent illusion. 

No, following the confluent orbits of their centers, the grains of consciousness do not tend to lose their outlines and blend, but, on the contrary, to accentuate the depth and incommunicability of their egos. The more ‘other’ they become in conjunction, the more they find themselves as ‘self.’ How could it be otherwise since they are steeped in Omega? Could a center dissolve? Or rather, would not its particular way of dissolving be to super centralize itself?

Teilhard then presents a vision of the ultimate goal of the universe, i.e., the gathering together of all being into the consciousnesses of persons who will be drawn to this culmination by distinct Consciousness at the center, as the dynamo from which all energy/being radiates—he says it better:

By its structure Omega, in its ultimate principle, can only be… a grouping in which personalization of the All and the personalizations of the elements reach their maximum, simultaneously and without merging, under the influence of a supremely autonomous focus of union…. called henceforward Omega Point.

Teilhard says that each individual’s natural tendency is to move more and more toward self-preservation and expansion by way of isolation or domination—but that is a self-defeating strategy:

Egoism, whether personal or racial, is quite rightly excited by the idea of the element ascending through faithfulness to life, to the extremes of the incommunicable and the exclusive that it holds within it. It feels right.

But then he points out that it is not separateness as such that is important, but the person. However, one becomes person only by way of mutuality, center to center union—this is the law of the evolving universe:

Its only mistake, but a fatal one, is to confuse individuality with personality. In trying to separate itself as much as possible from others, the element individualizes itself; but in so doing it becomes retrograde and seeks to drag the world backwards towards plurality and into matter…. To be fully ourselves it is in the opposite direction…that we must advance—toward the “other.” The goal of our-selves, the acme of our originality, is not our individuality but our person; and according to the evolutionary structure of the world, we can only find our person by uniting together…. The true ego grows in inverse proportion to “egoism.” Like the Omega which attracts it, the element only becomes personal when it universalizes itself…. Since it is a question of achieving a synthesis of centers, it is center to center that they must make contact and not otherwise.

“Which brings us to the problem of love….”

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