The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea
by Arthur O. Lovejoy, 1936
originally posted at Throne and Altar
The author proposes to trace the career of an idea from its invention by Plato to the early Romantics at the beginning of the nineteenth century. To sum up, the “great chain of being” is a proposed reason God had for creating the universe. Although perfect and self-sufficient, He is prompted by His very goodness to share His being and have it reflected in various partial ways through finite creatures. Although some creatures are more excellent than others, none perfectly manifests the perfection of its Creator, so a fuller, better universe that more adequately glorifies its Creator will have a diversity of creatures all along the scale of being, from the highest angels to the lowest inert matter.
A natural development of this idea is that God must create as full a universe as possible. What but a defect of goodness or power could deter Him from such generosity? In the Middle Ages, few embraced this logic (although Abelard for one did), but even then it was tricky to evade. There was perhaps more wiggle room then, as divine motives were stated more vaguely in terms of fittingness rather than logical compulsion. By the seventeenth century enthusiasm for this principle of plenitude had only grown, and coupled to the principle of sufficient reason in the systems of Spinoza and Leibniz it became inescapable that God was fully constrained to create a maximally full, maximally diverse universe.
Coupled to the ideal of plenitude was the ideal of continuity. If every slot is filled, there should be no gaps in nature between the forms of creatures. Today, the existence of intermediate cases between classes is regarded as an embarrassment to classical “essentialist” philosophy. However, most philosophers from Aristotle to Leibniz insisted that every imaginable intermediate or hybrid should be found in nature. As Locke wrote
In all the visible corporeal world we see no chasms or gaps. All quite down from us the descent is by easy steps, and a continued series that in each remove differ very little one from the other. There are fishes that have wings and are not strangers to the airy region; and there are some birds that are inhabitants of the water, whose blood is as cold as fishes…There are animals so near of kin both to birds and beasts that they are in the middle between both. Amphibious animals link the terrestrial and aquatic together;…not to mention what is confidently reported as mermaids or sea-men. There are some brutes that seem to have as much reason and knowledge as some that are called men…And when we consider the infinite power and wisdom of the Maker, we have reason to think, that it is suitable to the magnificent harmony of the universe, and the great design and infinite goodness of the Architect, that the species of creatures should also, by gentle degrees, ascend upwards from us toward His infinite perfection, as we see they gradually descend from us downwards.
Many others could be quoted on this point, but I picked the above for its entertaining discursion into seventeenth century science. The principles of plenitude and continuity in fact provided a program for early modern science–filling the “missing links” between classes. Through the following centuries, examples of filled links were supplied to an eager public by biologists, anthropologists, and eventually P. T. Barnum.
There are difficulties, though. As Samuel Johnson pointed out, all varieties cannot be instantiated, because for a continuous variable they are infinite. By his time, though, proponents of the great chain of being were confidently asserting an infinitude of inhabited planets–how could an infinite God settle for anything less?–to hold the rest, so Johnson remained a minority. As the eighteenth century rolled on, another idea gained popularity: that God creates every imaginable creature but places them at different times, thus adding change and progress for an even more excellent universe. (The original principle of plenitude was thought to imply a static, always maximally full universe.)
The great chain of being had a surprising degree of influence. As the author tells, it seems to have been the main motivation for dropping the idea that the stars are fixed on an outer extremely-distant sphere. Even Copernicus and Kepler didn’t doubt the existence of this sphere, and there was no evidence until the nineteenth century that all other stars are not the same distance from the sun. Some early thinkers such as Nicholas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno, however, had argued that an infinite universe is a more fitting creation for an infinite God, and this seems to have been decisive for many minds.
The chain of being is the main argument for the existence of angels not based on Revelation.
In the eighteenth century, it was heavily used in theodicy arguments. Not only lowly beings, but imperfections and evils are necessary for the fullness, and thus higher perfection, of the whole. It worked, too well in fact. The consequent ethic of any fully satisfying theodicy must be one of absolute complacency. Absolute optimism, as this belief was called, turns out to be identical to absolute hopelessness, for every evil is a logical necessity. Then there is the awkwardness that revelation promises the eventual end to some of these evils supposedly needed for the universe’s good.
The story ends with the early German Romantics, who were inspired by the principle of plenitude as found in Plotinus to rebel against the Enlightenment’s ideal of uniformity. Diversity is good. The greatest art should be stamped by particularities of its culture of origin. Men went two ways with this, as the author astutely notes–some toward greater appreciation for other minds and cultures, others toward the cultivation of personal or group idiosyncrasies. While not formally contradictory, the two impulses do not fit comfortably in one soul. Meanwhile, temporizing the chain of being had given men such as Shelling the odd idea that progress is better than static perfection, so such could not be denied to God Himself, leading to all the incoherencies of evolutionist theology which are so popular in our time.
In Lovejoy’s opinion, his history is ultimately one of a failed experiment. In spite of its patronage by great minds such as Plotinus, Aquinas, and Leibniz, the idea of a great chain of being can’t be made credible, as became clear as soon as its full implications were finally drawn out. The principles of plenitude, continuity, and sufficient reason simply are not true. The universe has contingent facts, and we must deal with this.
Do I agree? I would not count the idea of a chain of being as definitively dead as its biographer calls it. For one thing, Lovejoy is wrong to claim that there is a contradiction in Platonism between God’s absolute self-sufficiency and His need to create. The Demiurge doesn’t need creatures to fill a lack in His being; He must be creating by an exigency of his nature, which predictably produces creatures. The two are not the same. Nor do I buy Lovejoy’s argument that the question of when an eternal Creator should choose to create is a problem for the principle of sufficient reason. It was for an analogous reason that Leibniz posited a relationist account of space, and the same option is available regarding time. Finally, I think the author is too quick in dismissing Aquinas’ arguments for why God needn’t make the optimal universe. Aquinas argues 1) God cannot make an object to be better than the essence it instantiates, 2) the perfection of God implies perfection in His manner of creation but not its output, and 3) God could not have made the universe better, but he could have made superior universes with other objects. Lovejoy pronounces the first two irrelevant and the third self-contradictory, but I’m not sure. Suppose by “the universe” Aquinas meant “this universe”, a whole with some essence such that the addition of certain members would cause a change of identity of that whole. Compare: “this painting could not be better than it is, but other paintings of other things might be superior” is clearly not contradictory. If this is what the Angelic Doctor meant, then his first two distinctions are quite relevant. His meaning is admittedly unclear though.
Perhaps it is possible to salvage some of these principles, but I am in agreement with the author that it would not be worth the effort. I also agree that it is best simply to be grateful for the happier influences that the idea of a great chain of being has had, such as the anti-Enlightenment belief that, evils excepted, the diversity of creation is a good thing.