Reflection on the Compression of Mankind

January 18, 1953

Published in Psyché, and later in Activation of Energy.


The Agony of Our Age: A World That is Asphyxiating

After thousands and thousands of years of slow expansion, the human species, ever increasing in numbers, has just suddenly entered a phase of compression. Along all their frontiers, the various population groups spread out over the globe have come into contact, and they are beginning to be ever more closely forced together on the surface of an earth that is every day becoming more restricted. And, unfortunately, the most directly perceptible result of this compression would appear to be, for our generation, a generally experienced agony—not to say a general worsening of our situation.

For, in short, it is not under the influence—always the same influence—of an extreme demographic pressure that a linked series of disorders and evils is making itself felt, threatening gradually to make the world uninhabitable for us?

This flood of sheer humanity which seeps up through every fissure, drowning all the best of us, and, in virtue of its very mass, one might say, escaping from the governance of selection—

This disappearance, so enervating both intellectually and physically, of solitude and nature, in favour of the factory and the town—

This disagreeable closeness of intercourse, this continual friction between individuals who become more alien or even hostile to one another, the more numerous they are—

This mechanization of persons by enslavement to forms of work that are inevitably collectivized—

This complication, this burden, this increasing insecurity of daily life, which largely explains1 the extreme nervous tension (or even the disturbing neuroses) of our time—

Not to mention the increasing danger of contagious influences and the exhaustion of resources in an over-populated setting—

—And all this because there are too many of us in too little room.

The truth is, it is just like a train in the rush hour—the earth is coming to be a place on which we simply cannot breathe. And this asphyxiation explains the violent methods employed by nations and individuals in their attempt to break loose and to preserve, by isolation, their customs, their language, and their country. A useless attempt, moreover, since passengers continue to pile into the railway carriage.

Instead of being exasperated by these nuisances from which we all suffer, or waiting vaguely for things to settle down, would we not do better to ask ourselves whether, as a matter of solid experiential fact, there may not possibly be, first, a reassuring explanation of what is going on, and, secondly, an acceptable issue to it?

To answer this question is the purpose of these reflections.


The Source of the ‘Evil’: A Universe that is Closing In

At first sight, what seems most alarming in the present excess of pressure upon the human layer is the sheer crude simplicity of the process that is taking place. We are witnessing the almost explosive proliferation of a part of the biosphere, which (through emergence into reflection) has suddenly been released from the rest of the living mass, and is now piling up, to the point of being crushed, on the closed surface of the earth: nothing could be less mysterious than this determinism and this geometric progression—and yet nothing could be more blind and more implacable.

Man in his thousands and thousands of millions—simply the equivalent of a gas under pressure.

That is what we are tempted to say.

And it is precisely that which we find so disheartening.

—However, is it really true that in the case of the overpopulation of our planet there is no special feature for the physicist, backed up by a biologist, to reckon with? Something new appears in a gaseous mass whose volume is reduced: the temperature rises. Similarly, when the human mass is continually more compressed, does not some significant effect make itself apparent which, if we knew how to look at it correctly, would teach us the true nature of the phenomenon and show us how it really behaves?

In order to characterize—and condemn—the age in which we live—we are only too ready to point to the rise of the masses, the intrusion of the machine mentality, the trend towards totalitarianism … and heaven knows what else. But what is science’s position in all this, and what use are we making of it?

A great deal has been written, for and against, about science—crediting it, as the case may be, with all the good things and all the bad things that happen to us. One more instance of the tree of good and evil. But how is it that, in the midst of this chorus of criticism and praise, no one thinks of going beyond the various planes of utilitarianism, of moral judgments, or of pure speculation, and pointing out a further fact: by that I mean, that, before being good or bad, the conquest of the world by man’s intelligence is primarily and basically a phenomenon of an ‘intensification of consciousness’ closely linked with the historical progress of civilization. Precisely in so far as they are forced together, the thinking elements, which we all are, undoubtedly increase, under the influence of inter-reflection, their power of individual reflection. Brought together as one whole, they can understand what a single one of them in isolation could never have succeeded in understanding. That being so, surely in this perfectly clear case of a mankind that is being mentally ultra-humanized by self-compression, we meet again the same familiar linked couple of compression→consciousness: the couple which (as a consequence of the arrangements inevitably produced by compression in an organic medium) has been controlling all the progress made by evolution since its beginning.

If that is indeed so, then we must henceforth, where at first we saw nothing but the brutal clamping in a vice of the human mass, recognize the sign of, the driving force behind, and the price to be paid for, a new forward leap achieved on the earth by the cosmic forces of psychogenesis from which we emerged toward the end of the Tertiary. After a simple reflection, co-reflection—that is to say, super-reflection.

Thereby, too, in the flash of illumination cast by this shaft of light a whole new prospect emerges: that of a world not suffocated by, but elevated by, its internal tension.

From this re-adjusted point of view, it is true, the force which is compressing us in even more implacable than we thought: since instead of there being simply a planet which is contracting, there is the entire universe concentrating in the depths of our being.

On the other hand, as we can readily appreciate, this vast energy, by showing itself to be cosmic in order, changes its nature and ceases to be a burden to us: since, precisely in so far as it forces us into closer spiritual contact, it can tomorrow become the most active factor in our true and final liberation.


The Great Release: A Convergence Ahead

Contrary to what happens so often in nature, the propagation of our species does not seem destined to regularize and limit itself automatically: for the more numerous men are, the more their ingenuity protects them and incites them to multiply even more.

In such an event, and in order to escape the asphyxiation which threatens us, the remedies habitually proposed are: either a drastic restriction of reproduction, or, again (an ancient dream that is now, maybe, ceasing to be a dream?), a mass migration of human beings to some still uninhabited star.

But, with whatever skill such methods of decompression may be improved, surely their very nature is such that they are to some degree imaginary, precarious, and desperate. The idea, in particular, of a transplanetary swarm of migrants must undoubtedly be rejected as impossible to realize, simply from the fact that not a single visitor from another quarter of the heavens has ever come to find us.

To my mind (and providing, as I believe, that the world in which we live can be regarded as sufficiently coherent not automatically, when all is said and done, to suppress the life it engenders) we must look for the relief without which our zoological phylum cannot now survive, not in a eugenic reduction nor in an extra-terrestrial expansion of the human mass, but rather in what one might call ‘an escape into time, through what lies ahead.’

Let me explain this important point.

Earlier, relying on the undisputed fact of the rise of science, I suggested the idea that there is a psychic trend in the universe—a trend that draws the human mass under pressure (and because it is under pressure) towards ever more reflective states of consciousness.

In virtue, we should note, of its convergent nature, such a movement, if it does in fact exist, necessarily determines, at a finite distance in the future, a critical point or peak of common encounter, which may be defined:

—either, in a first approximate definition, as an ultimate centre of co-reflection

—or, more completely, as a focus-point of ‘conspiration’2 of the thinking monads,

since, by psychological necessity, it is impossible for us to think actively and completely with another without tending to identify ourselves affectively with that other.

With that clear in our minds, let us consider the extreme point of reflection and union thus determined by extrapolation into time of the generating lines of man.

It is not evident, in the first place, that simply by the fact of its appearance on our horizon, such a pole of attraction, if we should succeed in distinguishing its rays, would have the power to initiate a general intensification of the forces of hominization throughout the whole of the thinking layer of the earth?

And secondly, is it not certain that, just as a crowd is restored to order and flows through peacefully once the gates that held it back are opened for it, so the multitude of men, once it is so polarized and activated in the very fibres of its being, would immediately be restored to harmony and calm simply by the force of the call that summons it to press on ahead?

‘By the very fact that it introduces arrangement and energizes, convergence brings a release of tension.’

The more one thinks about this elementary truth, the more one is convinced that our thinking earth, subjected henceforth to a pressure which nothing would appear to be able to prevent from rising from within, is biologically confronted with the following dilemma:

—of either remaining psychologically in its state of disordered agitation: and of being crushed

—or of developing within itself a faith in the future precise enough and ardent enough, through very excess of compression upon itself, for it to emerge from the ordeal mentally and affectively made one.


  1. The other (possibly the most important?) part of the explanation being the unvoiced anxiety experienced by a being momentarily lost in the immensity of a universe he no longer understands.

  2. The expression is Edouard Le Roy’s.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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