Teilhard de Chardin, Nietzsche and individuation

On a friend’s recommendation I started reading Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man. De Chardin was a Jesuit and a paleontologist who in this work attempted to reconcile his Christian beliefs with evolution and natural selection. The result is an intense work of great ambition, rich with vivid metaphors.

By chance I was leafing through Spinoza’s Ethics and Bergson’s Creative Evolution at the same time. These books seem to be dealing with similar themes but perhaps in very different ways and it seems a comparative reading might be fruitful. More on this later, I hope.

I’ve read about half of The Phenomenon of Man but wanted to write down some initial reactions. The reasoning, imagination and ambition here is truly great, and the book is a truly positive endeavour. I see no traces of hostility or reactive thinking here. De Chardin wants to build something new, not attack the old.

What makes the work Christian (it appears at this point) is a fundamental belief in meaning and progress towards a goal point (“the Omega point”). From this notion of progress, every part of history and the universe is supposed to be imbued with meaning teleologically. De Chardin goes so far as to posit a force that pulls beings towards greater complexity, a fundamental force of progress/nature. I’m not sure I’m convinced about this part. A more Nietzschean thinker would perhaps say that the Omega point De Chardin sees is only one of many possible points that would appear randomly in succession, with no control or method. Given enough time one would perhaps observe additional such points. (Again, this is based on my having read only half the book and I haven’t read the main thrust of the Omega point argument yet.)

De Chardin views evolution, rightly it seems, as a succession of phases that repeat themselves: first a given life form saturates itself, then delineations and nervures appear and the life form splits up, fragments, species/individuals appear. Eventually species vanish, but one member of a family may survive to form the root of the next fragmentation phase. This is the pattern that happens on the level of species and also, it seems, on the levels of national, organizational and individual history, behaviour and thought. This is how antifragility manifests itself.

Against this backdrop Nietzsche seems concerned mainly with the individuation part. His great fear is that society or mankind will collapse into a formless mass where everybody “loves their neighbor’s warmth”. This is why he emphasises hardness and distance between individuals, rather than fluidity and the amorphous unity of a crowd. He returns to this theme in practically all of his books. A society where no individuals venture out onto chilly mountaintops to expand the occupied space would be past its peak and at the beginning of its decline. Nietzsche is in some sense a philosopher of expansion, as is De Chardin, but they approach the theme differently.

It remains for me to see precisely how De Chardin will engage with Nietzsche. Hopefully more on this later.

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