|Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Planetary Consciousness
by Rene Wadlow
“Why do we hesitate to open our hearts to the call of the world within us, to the sense of the earth?...Men suffer and vegetate in their isolation; they need the intervention of a higher impulse to force them beyond the dead point at which they are halted and propel them into the region of their deep affinity. The sense of the earth is the irresistible pressure which comes at a given moment to unite them in a common enthusiasm...The age of nations has passed. Now, unless we wish to perish, we must shake off our old prejudices and build the earth.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French paleontologist who died 10 April 1955 − Easter Day that year − after a lifetime of study of the past of our planet and of the evolution of the human species concluded that humanity was entering a new age with a higher, peaceful and more responsible sense of the world community.
Little in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's background and early life seemed to prepare him for becoming the champion of planetary awareness. He was born on the first of May 1881 in Orcines in the French Massif Central, the son of landed aristocracy from Auvergne. Auvergne is an economically poor part of France, and its aristocracy must make up in family pride what they lack in wealth. The Teilhard de Chardin were more distinguished than wealthy. “Fiery their force and heavenly their home” was the motto on the family coat of arms.
Pierre grew up in a family milieu that reflected his social class; narrow, provincial, and on the defensive against the rise of the French bourgeoisie that held political power. The family was sentimentally religious in the sense that it observed all the outward forms of a narrow intolerant Catholicism − a Catholicism that felt itself on the defensive against the strong anti-clerical sentiment that was common both to the French bourgeoisie in power in the Third Republic and to the new Socialist movement.
At 11 years old, he was sent away to a Jesuit secondary school at a time when education in France was a battlefield. The State-run schools were for the Republic and free thought. The Church-run schools were nostalgic for the King and insistent on an orthodox piety. The Jesuit secondary school he attended had as its motto “God's will is my will” and was known for training boys to become military officers. The French army at the time in its officer corps was anti-democratic, spending its time equally divided between plotting a revenge war against Germany and plotting the overthrow of the Republic.
The army got its revenge war from 1914 to 1918 during which Teilhard de Chardin served as a stretcher-medical orderly. However, he also had time to read poetry, especially the poems of Charles Péguy, an unorthodox Catholic and a Socialist at the same time. Teilhard also repeatedly read Dante, whose vision of Hell was close to the battlefield scenes that Teilhard saw.
Prior to the start of the war, in 1899, he started his studies to become a Jesuit priest in Aix-en-Provence and became a priest in 1901. He was then sent to teach at a Jesuit secondary school in Cairo, Egypt, and became interested in the botany of the Middle East. Always as part of his training, he spent time in England where he read the writings of Henri Bergson and became interested in the nature of evolution which became the core of his approach to life.
During the War, when he had free time, he started writing essays to put order in his ideas and emotions. He shared these essays with a small circle of friends, most of whom had been classmates in the training for the Jesuit order. Somehow, some of these essays of a cosmic-scientific philosophy were passed on to the superiors in the Jesuit order who fairly quickly saw that Teilhard's vision of Christ as the motor of evolution was rather far from Christ as the redeemer of original sin. The French Church at the time was under heavy attack from the Roman inquisitors of the Holy Office for “modernism”, and the last thing that they needed was an original thinker. Thus Teilhard was encouraged to accept an offer to go to China and work on paleolithic sites far from cities, in particular on the remains of “Pekin Man”. He also participated in sites in Burma and Java. He was in China during the Second World War and was aware of the vast changes that were taking place. As he wrote from a China at war in 1941 “a wave of troubled skepticism (adorned with the name of realism) is sweeping through the world...This is an attitude of doubt that will prove fatal if we do not take care because in destroying the love of life, it also destroys the life-force of Mankind.” He was able to give talks to diplomatic and intellectual circles in China during the War, stressing his vision of a hopeful heart and an open mind.
The wider vision of Teilhard continued to frighten the guardians of Catholic orthodoxy. The Holy Office and the Jesuit order forbade Teilhard to publish his philosophical writings on a Cosmic Christ and a new evolutionary stage in human consciousness. At the end of the Second World War, on returning to France, Teilhard was offered the palaeontology chair at the Collège de France − the inner temple of French intellectual life. The Jesuit order made him turn down the offer, not because they distrusted his scientific work on prehistory, but if he stayed in Paris he would be asked to speak to students and in conferences. His philosophical ideas would spread. As he had never learned to speak English well, the Jesuits sent him to New York where he could discuss prehistory at the Wenner-Green Foundation for Anthropology but rarely lecture to students.
He left his manuscripts in the care of a former Dutch Ambassador to China − a Protestant −who was then also living in New York. Thus it was only after his death that Teilhard's writings could be published. He felt that his conditions of obedience to the Jesuit order stopped at his death. He was thus unable to explain or to defend his writings, but his influence has grown steadily.
Church and State have always been united in their efforts to limit ideas, to control thought, to stone the prophets. Today, the “Islamic Revival” throughout the world leaves an endless trail of death. Not to be outdone, States have redoubled efforts to persecute thought.
Teilhard de Chardin was well aware that as the thrust toward world unification is recognized, it sends shock waves of an unsettling character. All segments of mankind, large and small, try to face up to the new environment by redefining and reorganizing themselves in the light of their present experience. Thus, as the forces of convergence increase, these forces are countered by strong tendencies which try to fortify the old and crumbling familiar world. It is against this dark background that we must gather the forces that will allow for the next steps in human evolution.
P. Teilhard de Chardin Human Energy (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1969)
For a good intellectual biography of Teilhard, see Robert Speaight The Life of Teilhard de Chardin (New York: Harper&Row, 1967)
René Wadlow, president and a U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives.