“We have ever more perfect eyes in a world in which there is always more to see. See or die.”
—Teilhard de Chardin
At least, that was how I encountered it in an epigraph of a book I was reading.That’s actually a condensed, slight misquotation. The full line in context is much less pithy (according to my favorite modern translation):
“Seeing. One could say that the whole of life lies in seeing — if not ultimately, at least essentially. To be more is to be more united — and this sums up and is the very conclusion of the work to follow. But unity grows, and we will affirm this again, only if it is supported by an increase of consciousness, of vision. That is probably why the history of the living world can be reduced to the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes at the heart of a cosmos where it is always possible to discern more. Are not the perfection of an animal and the supremacy of the thinking being measured by the penetration and power of synthesis of their glance? To try to see more and to see better is not, therefore, just a fantasy, curiosity, or a luxury. See or perish. This is the situation imposed on every element of the universe by the mysterious gift of existence. And thus, to a higher degree, this is the human condition.”
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Human Phenomenon, trans. Sarah Appleton-Weber, p. 3
Yeah, I then tracked down the book and read it, in two translations. Occasionally I can go on a philosophy kick, it’s allowed. And that book is a trip, I recommend it. Some sections are knock-you-on-your-ass profound, while others let me understand why when I Googled the quotation I stumbled on a psychadelic hippy poster.
In this passage I get caught up in the encouragement, the humility, and the imperative. First, I take “seeing” as a shorthand for perception more generally. Perfection of perception here is I think both a scientific and a theological concept (Tielhard was both a Jesuit philosopher and a paleontologist). It’s accuracy, detail, scope, understanding, appreciation, and finally synthesis. But I take a page here from Thoreau’s distinction, “do not observe, behold”: perception includes awe and gratitude. In a scientific sense, perfection is accuracy and understanding; in a theological sense, perfection is a measure of closeness to God. This is a continuously ongoing process, elaborating “ever more perfect eyes.“ Our abilities improve and Teilhard asserts that this improvement is limitless. We will never reach that state of perfection but we will always, if we do not ignore or deny what we see, get closer to it. But, “there is always more to discern.” No model is perfect, no perspective truly whole. If we could achieve that we would not be “as gods,” we would be gods. And finally it’s not just for scholars and wankers and blathering in cafes, but a vital imperative. Blindness, denial, ignorance, unwillingness to improve are lethal luxuries.
As a species our only chance of survival is to perceive more, to think better, and to act on what we learn. And as individual people, that’s also our best shot.