Fire and Force: Civilization as Noosphere in the Works of Teilhard De Chardin

By Stevens-Arroyo, Anthony M. | Comparative Civilizations Review, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Fire and Force: Civilization as Noosphere in the Works of Teilhard De Chardin


Stevens-Arroyo, Anthony M., Comparative Civilizations Review


Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

The French Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was a priest trained as a paleontologist. He became a living proof of the adage that it is luck to be "in the right place at the right time." In his career, he was witness to the unraveling of the Piltdown Man hoax in 1912 when he was still a student in England and as a mature scientist worked in the unearthing of me Peking Man in 1921, a major event in paleontology that revolutionized much of the early twentieth century thinking about evolution. Silenced by the Vatican, which was still wrestling with theological implications of evolution, de Chardin turned to writing more spiritual reflections on the meaning of evolution to the human experience.

In that context, he addressed the issue of civilization, adopting a strikingly innovative perspective. Who else, after all, has written about civilizational process as driven by the "fire and force" of love? This emotional, even mystical, approach to the study of civilizations, however, is not the only contribution of Teilhard to the field of civilizational studies.

De Chardin's1 thought was highly influenced by his reading of the French Jewish philosopher, Henri Bergson, (1859-1941) winner of the 1927 Nobel Prize in Literature for his L'Évolution Créatrice. Published in 1907, Bergson's work argued against Herbert Spencer's rationalist application of Darwin's theory to human civilization. Bergson's objections were important because they refuted a reductionist trend of those times to impose biological determinism upon human behavior. Although Spencer's intentions may be debated, the influence of British Utilitarianism in his writings allowed the emergence of the raw and reactionary political theory of "Social Darwinism."

By that measure, society was shaped by "survival of the fittest," a phrase Spencer coined to interpret Darwin's theory. Bergson rejected the notion that human advance derived solely from social power acting in self-interest and advocated instead a greater respect for the development of virtuous altruism in evolution. Whether in animal instincts towards pack behavior or the human creation of tribal loyalties, Bergson viewed Darwinism as proof that "the fittest" were not necessarily the biggest and the strongest but rather the most adaptive and cooperative among the species. To separate his approach from Spencer's emphasis on physical power, Bergson stated that evolution was a spiritual force contained within matter, implicitly repudiating Aristotelianism in which spirit and matter are counterpoised as quasi-dualistic forces. One can see in the writings of de Chardin a reflection of Bergson's humanizing efforts upon Spencer's ambitious undertaking.

It would be a grand mistake, however, to equate Teilhard's theories of the evolution of civilization to mere repetition of either Bergson or Spencer. De Chardin's approach to the human experience is significantly different from that of both predecessors for its scientific understanding of evolution, its emphasis upon futurity, and its Christian mysticism. His theories demand familiarity with paleontology, an education in Classical Greek philosophy and patience with countless neologisms. Those qualities, not incidentally, also stamped his work as so idiosyncratic as to avoid falling within any one alone of the academic disciplines of biology, theology or history.

In our own discipline of Civilizational Studies, one can link individual scholars of the ISCSC2 to de Chardin, but he is seldom cited in the body of work since the 1970s. This paper will offer an overview of crucial concepts in Teilhard's thought that bear on civilizational studies. At issue is whether de Chardin's notion that evolution is guided by the fire and force of love can be applied to the institutions and innovations that characterize civilizations. …

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