Teilhard de Chardin’s Taxonomy of Evil


A friend at church is a big fan of de Chardin, and so I began re-reading sections of his Phenomenon of Man (1948) and some of his other writings over the summer. Overall, I’m impressed with the orderliness of his thinking. Despite some critical comments by readers about his mixing levels of explanationbio-32, on closer reading, he is really quite careful. I agree with Madeleine BartheIemy-Madaule, who said, “..it may be that what the thinker in him was seeking was already known to the mystic; but he never let the mystic influence the thinker.

Teilhard’s view of the Cross as absorbing all evil into itself is a bit too mythological for me, but I like other aspects of his thought such as the incorporation of telos into an evolutionary schema. I plan to return to de Chardin at some point, but a brief appendix on the topic of evil, where he gives a typology appears in Phenomenon, caught my attention. I think definitions of “evil”, “suffering”, and  “existence” (when referring to God) are critical to the discussion. Most of the time, writers speaking of “evil” are referring to suffering imposed by the choices that people make. His taxonomy of different kinds of suffering is more subtle than some and illuminating of the multiplicity and interrelatedness of the issues that are involved.

First: evil of disorder and failure. Right up to its reflective zones we have seen the world proceeding by means of groping and chance. Under this heading alone—even up to the human level on which chance is most controlled—how many failures have there been for one success, how many days of misery for one hour’s joy, how many sins for a solitary saint? To begin with we find physical lack-of-arrangement or derangement on the material level; then suffering, which cuts into the sentient flesh; then, on a still higher level, wickedness and the torture of spirit as it analyzes itself and makes choices. Statistically, at every degree of evolution, we find evil always and everywhere, forming and reforming implacably in us and around us. Necesarium est ut scandal eveniant. This is relentlessly imposed by the play of large number at the heart of a multitude undergoing organization.

Second: evil of decomposition. This is no more than a form of the foregoing, for sickness and corruption invariably result from some unhappy chance. It is an aggravated and doubly fatal form, it must be added, inasmuch as, with living creatures, death is the regular, indispensable condition of the replacement of one individual by another along a phyletic stem. Death—the essential lever in the mechanism and upsurge of life.

Third: evil of solitude and anxiety. This is the great anxiety (peculiar to man) of a consciousness wakening up to reflection in a dark universe in which light takes centuries and centuries to reach it—a universe we have no yet succeeded in understanding either in itself, or its demands on us.

Lastly, the least tragic perhaps, because it exalts us, though none the less real: the evil of growth, by which is expressed in us, in the pangs of childbirth, the mysterious law which, from the bumblest chemism to the highest syntheses of the spirit, makes all progress in the direction of increased unity express itself in terms of work and effort.

The final sentence could be seen as a summary of his views on evil and God.

…In one manner or the other it still remains true that, even in the view of the mere biologist, the human epic resembles nothing so much as a way of the Cross.