A Note on Progress

August 10, 1920

Written in Paris and published posthumously in The Future of Man.

The conflict dates from the day when one man, flying in the face of appearance, perceived that the forces of nature are no more unalterably fixed in their orbits than the stars themselves, but that their serene arrangement around us depicts the flow of a tremendous tide—the day on which a first voice rang out, crying to Mankind peacefully slumbering on the raft of Earth, “We are moving! We are going forward!” …

It is a pleasant and dramatic spectacle, that of Mankind divided to its very depths into two irrevocably opposed camps—one looking toward the horizon and proclaiming with all its newfound faith, “We are moving,” and the other, without shifting its position, obstinately maintaining, “Nothing changes. We are not moving at all.”

These latter, the “immobilists,” thought they lack passion (immobility has never inspired anyone with enthusiasm!)1, have commonsense on their side, habit of thought, inertia, pessimism, and also, to some extent, morality and religion. Nothing, they argue, appears to have changed since man began to hand down the memory of the past, not the undulations of the Earth, or the forms of life, or the genius of Man or even his goodness. Thus far practical experimentation has failed to modify the fundamental characteristics of even the most humble plant. Human suffering, vice, and war, although they may momentarily abate, recur from age to age with an increasing virulence. Even the striving after progress contributes to the sum of evil: to effect change is to undermine the painfully established traditional order whereby the distress of living creatures was reduced to a minimum. What innovator has not retapped the springs of blood and tears? For the sake of human tranquility, in the name of Fact, and in defense of the sacred Established Order, the immobilists forbid the Earth to move. Nothing changes, they say, or can change. The raft must drift purposelessly on a shoreless sea.

But the other half of mankind, startled by the lookout’s cry, has left the huddle where the rest of the crew sit with their heads together telling time-honored tales. Gazing out over the dark sea they study for themselves the lapping of waters along the hull of the craft that bears them, breathe the scents borne to them on the breeze, gaze at the shadows cast from pole to pole by a changeless eternity. And for these all things, while remaining separately the same—the ripple of water, the scent of the air, the lights in the sky—become linked together and acquire a new sense: the fixed and random Universe is seen to move.

No one in the world who has seen this vision can be restrained from guarding and proclaiming it. To testify my faith in it, and to show reasons, is my purpose here.

It is clear in the first place that the world in its present stat is the outcome of movement. Whether we consider the position of the rocky layers enveloping the Earth, the arrangement of the forms of life that inhabit it, the variety of civilizations to which it has given birth, or the structure of languages spoken upon it, we are forced to the same conclusion: that everything is the sum of the past and that nothing is comprehensible except through its history. “Nature” is the equivalent of “becoming,” self-creation: this is the view to which experience irresistibly leads us. What can it mean except that the Universe must, at least at some stage, have been in movement; that it has been malleable, acquiring by degrees, not only in their accidental details but in their very essence, the perfections which now adorn it? There is nothing, not even the human soul, the highest spiritual manifestation we know of, that does not come within this universal law. The soul, too, has its clearly defined place in the slow ascent of living creatures toward consciousness, and must therefore in one way or another have grown out of the general mobility of things. Those who look reality in the face cannot fail to perceive this progressive genesis of the Universe, and with a clarity which leaves no room for doubt. Whatever the other side may say, clinging to their imaginary world, the Cosmos did once move, the whole of it, not only locally but in its very being. This is undeniable and we shall not discuss it further. But is it still moving? Here we have the real question, the living, burning question of evolution.

It is the fundamental paradox of Nature as we see it now that its universal plasticity seems suddenly to have hardened. Like an ocean-wave caught in a snapshot, or a torrent of lava stiffened by cooling, the mountains and living things of the Earth wear the aspect, to those who study them, of a powerful momentum that has become petrified. Nature seen at a distance appears to be malleable and in motion; but seek to lay hands on it, to deflect by force even the least of Life’s directions, and you will encounter nothing but absolute rigidity, an unshakably stubborn refusal to depart from the preordained path.

But let us note that this present rigidity of Nature does not, as some people believe, in any way lessen the certainty of its past mobility. What we regard as the fixity of present organisms may be simply a state of very slow movement, or of rest between spells of movement. It is true that we have not yet succeeded in shaping life to our requirements in the laboratory; but who has shaped or witnessed the shaping of a geological stratum? The rock which we seek to compress crumbles because we work too fast or with over-small fragments. Calcareous matter, if it is to be made malleable, needs to be embedded in a vast mass, and perhaps its reshaping is a process of immense slowness. If we have not seen the upward thrust of mountain ranges it is because their rise was accomplished either in widely spaced jerks or with so slow a rhythm that since the coming of Man nothing of the kind has happened, or at least nothing that has been perceptible to us. Why should not Life, too, be mobile only in great masses, or through the slow action of time, or in brief stages? Who can positively affirm that at this moment, although we perceive nothing, new forms are not taking shape in the contours of the Earth and of Life? …

The plasticity of Nature in the past is an undeniable fact; its present rigidity is less capable of scientific proof. If we had to choose between transformism and fixism, that is to say between two absolutes—everything incestantly in motion, or everything for ever immovable—we should be bound to choose the first. But there is a third possible hypothesis, namely that everything was at one time fluid but is now irrevocably fixed. It is this third alternative that I wish to examine and dismiss.

The hypothesis of a definitive halt in terrestrial evolution is, to my mind, suggested less by the apparently unchanging nature of present forms than by a certain general aspect of the world coinciding with this appearance of cessation. It is most striking that the morphological change of living creatures seems to have slowed down at the precise moment when Thought appeared on Earth. If we relate this coincidence to the fact that the only general line taken by biological evolution has been in the direction of the largest brain—broadly speaking, of the highest state of consciousness—we are compelled to wonder whether the true fundamental impulse underlying the growth of animal forces has not been the “need” to know and to think; and whether, when this overriding impulse eventually found its outlet in the human species, the effect was not to produce an abrupt diminution of “vital pressure” in the other branches of the Tree of Life. This would explain the fact that “evolving Life,” from the end of the Tertiary era, has been confined to the little group of higher primates. We know of many forms that have disappeared since the Oligocene, but of no genuinely new species other than the anthropoids. This again may be explained by the extreme brevity of the Miocene as compared with other geological periods. But does it not lead us to surmise that the “phyla” possessing higher psychic attributes have absorbed all the forces at Life’s disposal?

If we are to find a definitive answer to the question of the entitative progress of the Universe we must do so by adopting the least favourable position—that is to say, by envisaging a world whose evolutionary capacity is concentrated upon and confined to the human soul. The question of whether the Universe is still developing then becomes a matter of deciding whether the human spirit is still in process of evolution. To this I reply unhesitatingly, “Yes, it is.” The nature of Man is in the full flood of entitative change. But to grasp this it is necessary (a) not to overlook the biological (morphogenic) value of moral action, and (b) to accept the organic nature of interindividual relationships. We shall then see that a vast evolutionary process is in ceaseless operation around us, but that it is situated within the sphere of consciousness (and collective consciousness).

What is the difference between ourselves, citizens of the twentieth century, and the earliest human beings whose soul is not entirely hidden from us? In what respects may we consider ourselves their superiors and more advanced than they?

Organically speaking, the faculties of those remote forebears were probably the equal of our own. By the middle of the last ice age, at the latest, some human groups had attained to the expression of aesthetic powers calling for intelligence and sensibility developed to a point which we have not surpassed. To all appearance the ultimate perfection of the human element was achieved many thousands of years ago, which is to say that the individual instrument of thought and action may be considered to have been finalized. But there is fortunately another dimension in which variation is still possible, and in which we continue to evolve.

The great superiority over Primitive Man which we have acquired and which will be enhanced by our descendants in a degree perhaps undreamed-of by ourselves, is in the realm of self-knowledge: in our growing capacity to situate ourselves in space and time, to the point of becoming conscious of our place and responsibility in relation to the Universe.

Surmounting in turn the illusions of terrestrial flatness, immobility, and autocentricity, we have taken the unhopeful surface of the Earth and “rolled it like a little ball”; we have set it on a course among the stars; we have grasped the fact that it is no more than a grain of cosmic dust; and we have discovered that a process without limit has brought into being the realms of substance and essence. Our fathers supposed themselves to go back no further than yesterday, each man containing within himself the ultimate value of his existence. They held themselves to be confined within the limits of their years on Earth and their corporeal frame. We have blown asunder this narrow compass and those beliefs. At once humbled and ennobled by our discoveries, we are gradually coming to see ourselves as a part of vast and continuing processes; as though awakening from a dream, we are beginning to realize that our nobility consists in serving, like intelligent atoms, the work proceeding in the Universe. We have discovered that there is a Whole, of which we are the elements. We have found the world in our own souls.

What does this conquest signify? Does it merely denote the establishment, in worldly terms, of an idealized system of logical, extrinsic relationships? Is it no more than an intellectual luxury, as is commonly supposed—the mere satisfaction of curiosity? No. The consciousness which we are gradually acquiring of our physical relationship with all parts of the Universe represents a genuine enlarging of our separate personalities. It is truly a progressive realization of the universality of the things surrounding each of us. And it means that in the domain external to our flesh our real and whole body is continuing to take shape.

That is in no way a “sentimental” affirmation.

The proof that the growing coextension of our soul and the world, through the consciousness of our relationship with all things, is not simply a matter of logic or idealization, but is part of an organic process, the natural outcome of the impulse which caused the germination of life and the growth of the brain—the proof is that it expresses itself in a specific evolution of the moral value of our actions (that is to say, by the modification of what is most living within us).

No doubt it is true that the scope of individual human action, as commonly envisaged in the abstract theory of moral and meritorious acts, is not greatly enhanced by the growth of human knowledge. Inasmuch as the willpower of contemporary man is not in itself more vigorous or unswerving than that of a Plato or an Augustine, and individual moral perfection is still to be measured by steadfastness in pursuance of the known good (and therefore relative) we cannot claim as individuals to be more moral or saintly than our fathers.

Yet this must be said, to our own honor and that of those who have toiled to make us what we are: that between the behavior of men in the first century A.D. and our own, the difference is as great, or greater, than that between the behavior of a fifteen-year-old boy and a man of forty. Why is this so? Because, owing to the progress of science and of thought, our actions today, whether for good or ill, proceed from an incomparably higher point of departure than those of the men who paved the way for us toward enlightenment. When Plato acted it was probably in the belief that his freedom to act could only affect a small fragment of the world, narrowly circumscribed in space and time; but the man of today acts in the knowledge that the choice he makes will have its repercussions through countless centuries and upon countless human beings. He feels in himself the responsibilities and the power of an entire Universe. Progress has not caused the action of Man (Man himself) to change in each separate individual; but because of it the action of human nature (Mankind) has acquired, in every thinking man, a fullness that is wholly new. Moreover, how are we to compare or contrast our acts with those of Plato or Augustine? All such acts are linked, and Plato and Augustine are still expressing, through me, the whole extent of their personalities. There is a kind of human action that gradually matures through a multitude of human acts. The human monad has long been constituted. What is now proceeding is the animation (assimilation) of the Universe by that monad; that is to say, the realization of a consummated human Thought.

There are philosophers who, accepting this progressive animation of the concrete by the power of thought, of Matter by Spirit, seek to build upon it the hope of a terrestrial liberation, as though the soul, become mistress of all determinisms and intertias, may someday be capable of overcoming harsh probability and vanquishing suffering and evil here on Earth. Alas, it is a forlorn hope; for it seems certain that any outward upheaval or internal renovation which might suffice to transform the Universe as it is could only be a kind of death—death of the individual, death of the race, death of the Cosmos. A more realistic and more Christian view shows us Earth evolving toward a state in which Man, having come into the full possession of his sphere of action, his strength, his maturity and his unity, will at last have become an adult being; and having reached this apogee of his responsibility and freedom, holding in his hands all his future and all his past, will make the choice between arrogant autonomy and loving excentration.

This will be the final choice: whether a world is to revolt or to adore.2 And then, on an act which will summarize the toil of centuries, on this act (finally and for the first time completely human) justice will set its seal and all things be renewed.

The truth can now be seen: Progress is not what the popular mind looks for, finding with exasperation that it never comes. Progress is not immediate ease, well-being, and peace. It is not rest. It is not even, directly, virtue. Essentially Progress is a force, and the most dangerous of forces. It is the Consciousness of all that is and all that can be. Though it may encounter every kind of prejudice and resentment, this must be asserted because it is the true: to be more is in the first place to know more.

Hence the mysterious attraction which, regardless of all setbacks and a priori condemnations, has drawn men irresistibly toward science as to the source of Life. Stronger than every obstacle and counterargument is the instinct which tells us that, to be faithful to Life, we must know; we must know more and still more; we must tirelessly and unceasingly search for Something, we know not what, which will appear in the end to those who have penetrated to the very heart of reality.

I maintain that it is possible, by following this road, to find substantial reasons for belief in Progress.

The world of human thought today presents a very remarkable spectacle, if we choose to take note of it. Joined in an inexplicable unifying movement men who are utterly opposed in education and in faith find themselves brought together, intermingled, in their common passion for a double truth; namely, that there exists a physical Unity of beings, and that they themselves are living and active parts of it. It is as though a new and formidable mountain chain had arisen in the landscape of the soul, causing ancient categories to be reshuffled and uniting higgledy-piggledy on every slope the friends and enemies of yesterday: on one side the inflexible and sterile vision of a Universe composed of unalterable, juxtaposed parts, and on the other side the ardor, the faith, the contagion of a living truth emerging from all action and exercise of will. Here we have a group of men joined simply by the weight of the past and their resolve to defend it; there a gathering of neophytes confident of their truth and strong in their mutual understanding, which they feel to be final and complete.

There seem to be only two kinds of mind left; and—it is a disturbing thought—all natural mystical power and all human religious impulse seem to be concentrated on one side. What does this mean?

There are people who will claim that it is no more than a mode, a momentary ripple of the spirit—at the most the passing exaggeration of a force that has always contributed to the balance of human thinking. But I believe we must look for something more. This impulse which in our time is so irresistibly attracting all open minds toward a philosophy that comprises at once a theoretical system, a rule of action, a religion, and a presentiment, heralds and denotes, in my view, the effective, physical fulfillment of all living beings.

We have said that progress is designed to enable considered action to proceed from the willpower of mankind, a wholly human exercise of choice. But this natural conclusion of the vital effort, as we can now see, is not to be regarded as something consummated separately in the secret heart of each monad. If we are to perceive and measure the extent of Progress we must look resolutely beyond the individual viewpoint. It is Mankind as a whole, collective humanity, which is called upon to perform the definitive act whereby the total force of terrestrial evolution will be released and flourish; an act in which the full consciousness of each individual man will be sustained by that of every other man, not only the living but the dead. And so it follows that the opus humanum, laboriously and gradually achieved within us by the growth of knowledge and in the face of evil, is something quite other than an act of higher morality: it is a living organism. We cannot distinctly view its progress because the organism encloses us, and to know a thing synthetically one has to be able to see it as a whole. Yet is there any part of ourselves which does not glow and responsively vibrate with the measure of our growth?

We need only to look about us at the multitude of disjointed forces neutralizing each other and losing themselves in the confusion of human society—the huge realities (broad currents of love or hatred animating people and classes) which represent consciousness in potency but have not yet found a consciousness sufficiently vast to encompass them all. We need only recall those moments in time of war when, wrested out of ourselves by the force of a collective passion, we have a sense of rising to a higher level of human existence. All these spiritual reserves, guessed at and faintly apprehended, what are they but the sure evidence that creation is still on the move, but that we are not yet capable of expressing all the natural grandeur of the human mission?

Vistas such as these, I know, do not appear to come within the Christian perspective; and because of this most of those who point to them and welcome them seem, at least by implication, to be heralding the appearance of a religion destined to supplant all earlier creeds. But how does it all arise—the challenge on the one hand, and the mistrust on the other—except out of the fact that neither we nor our adversaries have sufficiently measured the powers of growth with which Christ endowed his Church?

For my own part I accept the reality of the movement which tends to segregate, within the bosom of Mankind, a congregation of the faithful dedicated to the great task, “Advance in unity!” Moreover, I believe in its truth; I consider the fact that it contains in its ranks a great number of sinners, of “the maimed, and the halt, and the blind,” to be evidence of this truth. But this does not cause me to believe that the eager multitude crying out today for guidance is in search of any Shepherd other than He who has already brought it bread.

Christ, as we know, fulfills Himself gradually,3 through the ages in the sum of our individual endeavors. Why should we treat this fulfillment as though it possessed none but a metaphorical significance, confining it entirely within the abstract domain of purely supernatural action? Without the process of biological evolution, which produced the human brain, there would be no sanctified souls; and similarly, without the evolution of collective thought, through which alone the plenitude of human consciousness can be attained on Earth, how can there be a consummated Christ? In other words, without the constant striving of every human cell to unite with all the others, would the Parousia be physically possible? I doubt it.

That is why I believe that this coming together, from all four corners of the intellectual world, of a great mass of naturally religious spirits, does not portend the building of a new temple on the ruins of all others but the laying of new foundations to which the old Church is gradually being moved.

Little by little the idea is coming to light in Christian consciousness that the “phylogenesis” of the whole man, and not merely the “ontogenesis” of his moral virtues, is hallowed, in the sense that the charity of the believer may more resemble an impulse of constructive energy and his self-detachment be more in the nature of a positive effort.

In response to the cry of a world trembling with the desire for unity, and already equipped, through the workings of material progress, with the external links of this unity, Christ is already revealing himself, in the depths of men’s hearts, as the Shepherd (the Animator) of the Universe. We may indeed believe that the time is approaching when many men, old and new believers, having understood that from the depths of Matter to the highest peak of the Spirit there is only one evolution, will seek the fullness of their strength and their peace in the assured certainty that the whole of the world’s industrial, aesthetic, scientific, and moral endeavor serves physically to complete the Body of Christ, whose charity animates and re-creates all things.

Fulfilling the profound need for unity which pervades the world, and crowning it with renewed faith in Christ the Physical Center of Creation; finding in this need the natural energy required for the renewal of the world’s life; thus do I see the New Jerusalem, descending from Heaven and rising from the Earth.

He who speaks these words before the Tribunal of the Elders will be laughed at and dismissed as a dreamer.

“Nothing moves,” a first Sage will say. “The eye of common sense sees it and science confirms it.”

“Philosophy shows that nothing can move,” says a second.

“Religion forbids it—nothing must move,” says a third.

Disregarding this triple verdict the Seer leaves the public place and returns to the firm, deep bosom of Nature. Gazing into the depths of the immense complex of which he is a part, whose roots extend far below him to be lost in the obscurity of the past, he again fortifies his spirit with the contemplation and the feeling of a universal, stubborn movement depicted in the successive layers of dead matter and the present spread of the living. Gazing upward, toward the space held in readiness for new creation, he dedicates himself body and soul, with faith reaffirmed, to a Progress which will bear with it or else sweep away all those who will not hear. His whole being seized with religious fervor he looks toward a Christ already risen but sill unimaginably great, invoking, in the supreme homage of faith and adoration, “Deo Ignoto.


  1. For the status quo of life as it exists: the “immobility” of the Christian, or of the Stoic, may arouse fervor because it is a withdrawal, that is to say an individual anticipation (more or less fictitious) of consummated progress.

  2. My purpose is not to show that a necessary or infallible line of progress exists, but simply to establish that, for Mankind as a whole, a way of progress is offered and awaits us, analogous to that which the individual cannot reject without falling into sin and damnation.

  3. In his Mystical Body: cf. the last paragraph of Cosmic Life.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin


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