The Essence of the Democratic Idea

February 2, 1949

“A biological approach to the problem.” Written in response to a questionnaire from UNESCO and later published in The Future of Man.

Democracy is not an abstract concept of the kind that can be set forth geometrically in terms of pure ratiocination. Like so many of the notions on which modern ideologies are based—evolution, progress, feminism, and so forth—it was originally, and to a great extent still is, no more than the approximate expression of a profound but confused aspiration striving to see the light and to take shape. For this reason its elucidation calls for as much, or more, psychology as logic. De we not all spend our lives in seeking to interpret ourselves by way of actions that often appear contradictory? How can we hope to understand ourselves without first possessing some knowledge of our nature, history, and temperament?

It may be the growth of modern Democracy, and consequently the impulses underlying it, will become more intelligible if, disregarding the political and juridical aspects, we approach the problem in biological terms.

The question asked is, “What is Democracy?” Would it not be more exact and profitable slightly to modify our phraseology and to ask: “What exactly is hidden behind the idea of Democracy?”


The Present Evolutionary State of Mankind

The people who make it their business to study or order human society (ethnologists, politicians, political economists, etc.) do so in practice as though Social Man were virgin wax to be molded into any shape they choose. They do not seem to have noticed that the living substance they are manipulating is, by reason of its very formation, characterized by certain narrowly defined lines of growth; and that these, although they are sufficiently supple to permit the architects of the New Earth to make use of them, are also strong enough to disrupt any attempted arrangement that does not respect them.

This being so, of all the structural tendencies inherent in the human mass the most fundamental (indeed, the one from which all others are derived) is undoubtedly that which has led Mankind, under the twofold influence of planetary compression and psychic interpenetration, to enter upon an irresistible process of unification and organization upon itself. But to this a vital condition is attached, namely, that if it is to be viable and stable the resulting unification must not stifle but on the contrary must exalt the incommunicable uniqueness of each separate element in the unified system: something that is proved possible on a small scale by every successful team or association. In point of fact to the enlightened observer it is perfectly apparent that we could more easily prevent the earth from turning than Mankind from progressing, laboriously but inexorably, in a twofold conjoined movement toward a personalizing totalization. This evolutionary situation (arising out of a very much more generalized movement of “in-folding,” cosmic in its dimensions) could go unperceived while human socialization, still in its initial phase of expansion, was spreading over the earth’s surface. But it becomes increasingly manifest as the second phase which we have now entered, that of socialization through compression, takes clearer shape around us. And I believe it is this, to the extent that it is beginning to penetrate our consciousness, that is arousing the turmoil of so-called “democratic” aspirations in all our hearts.


Biological Definition and Interpretation of the Spirit of Democracy

Let us assume that the strangely contagious modern obsession with democratic ideas is nothing else than the feeling and liking Man has acquired for a process which, by the collective organization of the zoological group to which he belongs, is carrying him toward certain new states of superpersonalization—or, which comes to the same thing, superreflection. In other words, let us identify the spirit of Democracy with the “evolutionary sense” or “the sense of species”—the last signifying, in the case of Man, not merely the instinct for permanence through propagation, but also a will to grow through the organized arrangement of the species upon itself. We need do no more than this, it seems to me, and we shall find that light is shed on countless points that have hitherto been obscure, and that many disquieting antinomies have become (at least in theory) effortlessly reconciled.

Let us apply this principle first to the legendary attributes, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, which are indissolubly associated in our minds with the idea of any government of the people by the people; and then to the conflict, now more acute than ever, which has always divided Democracy into two factions, liberal and socialist.


Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

It was in 1789 that this famous slogan electrified the Western world: but as events have shown, its meaning was far from clear to the minds of those it inspired. Liberty—to do anything? Equality—in all respects? Fraternity—based on what common bonds? … Even today the magical words are much more felt than understood. But does not their undeniable, if vague, attraction take on a clearer aspect if we consider them, as I suggest, from a biological standpoint?

Liberty: that is to say, the chance offered to every man (by removing obstacles and placing the appropriate means at his disposal) of “transhumanizing” himself by developing his potentialities to the fullest extent.

Equality: the right of every man to participate, according to his aptitudes and powers, in the common endeavor to promote, each by way of the other, the future of the individual and the species. Indeed, is it not this need and legitimate demand to participate in the Human Affair (the need felt by every man to live coextensively with Mankind) which, deeper than any desire for material gain, is today agitating those classes and races that have hitherto been left “out of the game”?

Fraternity: as between man and man, in the sense of an organic interrelation based not merely on our more or less accidental coexistence on the surface of the Earth, or even on our common origin, but on the fact that we represent, all of us together, the front line, the crest of an evolutionary wave still in full flood.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity—no longer indeterminate, amorphous, and inert, but directed, guided, dynamized by the growth of a fundamental impulse which underlies and sustains them.

Does not everything truly become more clear in the light of this guiding principle?


Liberal Democracy and Directed Democracy

The UNESCO questionnaire refers in passing to the disparity, deplored by de Tocqueville, between “democracy” and “socialism.” Broadly speaking, the avowed object of the inquiry is an attempt to resolve, at least theoretically, the present tensions in this field between East and West.

But does not the strange and persistent cleavage, so invariably manifest within so-called democratic movements in the opposed concepts of liberalism and dirigisme (or individualism and totalitarianism) explain itself when we realize that, although they may look like contradictory social ideals, they are in fact natural components (personalization and totalization) whose interaction biologically determines the essence and progress of anthropogenesis? On the one hand we have a system centered on the individual, and on the other a system centered on the group. Sometimes the first of the two vectors, sometimes the second, breaks away and so dominates the other as to appear determined to engulf everything. A shift to the right is followed by a shift to the left. But there is really no fundamental contradiction in this. It is simply a matter of disconnection and disharmony which may even (why not?) be an inevitable and necessary alternation. Biologically, let me repeat, there can be no true Democracy without the balanced combination of these two complementary factors, which in their pure state are expressed, one by individualist and the other by authoritarian regimes.

But in practical terms how precisely are we to proceed eventually in order to bring them into harmony?


The Technique of Democracies

Very properly, a large number of UNESCO’s questions are concerned with the study and criticism of the existing forms and methods of Democracy. Since this is a sphere in which I have no competence I shall confine myself to the three following remarks, all from a biological standpoint:


In the first place, and in the light of what I have said, there are two general conditions which must at all costs be observed in the planning of democratic institutions. The first of these is that the individual must be allowed the widest possible liberty of choice within which to develop his personal qualities (the one theoretical restriction being that his choice should be exercised in the direction of heightened powers of reflection and consciousness). The second, off-setting the first, is that everything must be done to promote and foster the currents of convergence (collective organizations) within which alone, by the laws of anthropogenesis, individual action can achieve its fulfillment and full consistence. In short, what is needed is a judicious mixture of laissez-faire and firmness. The problem is one of moderation, tact, and “art” for which no hard-and-fast rules can be laid down, but which, in each particular case, every nation is perfectly capable of solving in its own way—provided its instinct of progress and “superhumanization” is sufficiently developed.


Secondly, it is only by way of countless experiments and groupings that the Democratic ideal (like Life itself) can hope to achieve its own formulation and, still more, can materialize. Despite the compressive and unifying conditions to which we are subject, Mankind is still made up of terribly heterogeneous parts, unequally matured, whose democratization can be effected only with the use of imagination and suppleness, and in conformity with the varying circumstances in each portion of the World.


Finally, it is upon the maintenance and growth in human consciousness of what I have called the “sense of the Species” that the realization of a truly democratic world society ultimately depends. Only a powerful polarization of human wills, after each fragment of humanity has been led to the discovery of his own particular form of freedom, can ensure the convergence and unified working of this plurality in a single, coherent planetary system. Above all, only this polarization, through the unity thus constituted, can create the atmosphere of noncoercion—unanimity—which is, when all is said, the rare essence of Democracy.

The Essence of the Democratic Idea

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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