The Great Chain of Being


In their 1936 work, The Great Chain of Being: The History of an Idea, the scholars E. M. W. Tillyard and A. O. Lovejoy argued that ancient and medieval thought was shaped by particular ideological framework known as the "The Chain of Being."  Sometimes called the Scala Natura (scale of nature), this view saw all of creation existing within a universal hierarchy that stretched from God (or immutable perfection) at its highest point to inanimate matter at its lowest.  One can see something of this hierarchy in Plato's ranking of human souls in the Phaedrus, but also in Aristotle's notion that the capacity to act upon reason rather than instinct distinguishes human beings from animals. 


Indeed, each link in the Great  Chain of Being represented a distinct category of living creature or form of matter.  Those creatures or things higher on the Chain possessed greater intellect, movement, and ability than those placed below.   Thus each being in the Chain possessed all of the attributes of what was below plus an additional, superior attribute:


God: existence + life + will + reason + immortality + omniscient, omnipotent
Angels: existence + life + will + reason + immortality
Humanity: existence + life +  will + reason
Animals: existence + life + will
Plants: existence + life
Matter: existence

As a result of this hierarchy, creatures and things on a higher level were believed to possess more authority over lower ones. Plants, for instance, were believed to have authority over the minerals in the soil.  They were superior to minerals because, unlike inert matter, they were alive and capable of growth.  Consequently, they had Godís sanction to draw nutrients from the earth and grow upon it, while the minerals and soil existed to support plants. Similarly, animals--a step higher on the Chain of Being--were thought to have authority over both inanimate plants and minerals.  So horses could trod on rocks and earth and eat plants.  Humans in turn were believed to possess greater attributes than animals.  Thus it was proper for them to rule over the rest of the natural world.  Similarly, spiritual beings like angels and God had greater ability than humanity and so ruled over and controlled humanity as well as the rest of the animal and the inanimate world.

This view of the world as a well-ordered hierarchy ordained by God was (and in some cases remains) enormously influential.  It informed how people understood theology, science (especially astronomy), medicine, politics, and history.  It was a view with many interesting ramifications.  Among these were the following:


Moral Ramifications: it is a moral imperative for each creature to know its place in the Chain of Being and fulfill its own function without trying to rise above its station or lowering itself by behavior proper to the lower links in the chain. A human who eats like a pig, or as randy as goat, has allowed the lower, animal instincts in his nature to override his awareness of God's divine will. He is guilty of fleshly or carnal sin, and he denies spiritual aspect of his nature.  Likewise, a human who attempts to rise above his social rank does so through arrogance, pride, or envy of his betters.  Here, the error is an intellectual or spiritual sin.

Political Ramifications: the belief in the Chain of Being meant that a monarchical government was ordained by God and inherent in the very structure of the universe.  Rebellion against a king was not challenging the state; it was an act against the will of God itself, for a king was God's appointed deputy on earth, with semi-divine powers.  King James I himself wrote, "The state of monarchy is the most supreme thing upon earth: for kings are not only God's Lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself they are called Gods." 
At the same time, however, a monarch had the moral responsibility to serve God and protect his subjects.  In return for absolute power, a king was expected to rule with love, wisdom, and justice.  To do otherwise was to abandon those natural qualities that make a monarch fit to rule in the first place.  Misusing royal authority was a perversion of divine order just as rebellion against royal authority. 
In theory, there were two classes of people: Nobles and Commoners.  In practice, there are a many gradations of both classes.  These gradations, or class levels, were also thought of as parts of a Great Chain of Being, which extended from God down to the lowest forms of life, through the class structure of society and even to the trees and stones of the earth.

Scientific Ramifications: Medieval and Renaissance scientific thinking were enormously influenced by the idea that physical world reflected Godís ordained will.  In astronomy, for example, the orbits of the planets were thought to be mathematically perfect circles (as a perfect God would not produce imperfectly orbiting bodies).  The earth was at the center of these circles, which ascended planet by planet to the primum mobile, the realm of God's eternally-unchanging perfection.  The motion of the planets was attributed to some unseen propelling force.  Such unseen propulsion, of course, was wholly consonant with a God-centered and God-controlled worldview.   Even the Copernican revolution in astronomy came about within the framework of the Great Chain of Being rather than in spite of it.  Indeed, an Earth-centered model for planetary rotation isn't all bad.  It allows astronomers to predict some events in the heavens. The problem is that the mathematics needed to make such a system cohere with observed data had grown increasingly complex by the end of the 15 century.   Astronomers had 80 some objects to account for, each moving in a perfect sphere but aat varying rates  Each time a new object in the sky was discovered, scientists had  to add another sphere to the model.  Their theory had reached a kind of terminal complexity, and it seemed unlikely to Copernicus that God would make such an unlovely, overly complex universe.  So he posited the unthinkable.  What if the Earth weren't at the center of the universe?

Levels of the Chain of Being:

God: At the top of the Chain of Being, but also external to creation, God was believed to stand outside the limitations of time.  He possessed the spiritual attributes of reason, love, and imagination, like all spiritual beings, but he alone possessed the divine attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. God serves as the model of authority for the strongest, most virtuous, most excellent type of being within a specific category (called the "primate").

Angelic Beings: Beings of pure spirit, angels had no physical bodies of their own. In order to affect the physical world, angels were thought to build temporary bodies for themselves out of particles of air.  Medieval and Renaissance theologians believed angels to possess reason, love, imagination, and--like God--to stand outside the physical limitations of time. They possessed sensory awareness unbound by physical organs, and they possessed language. They lacked, however, the divine attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence of God, and they simultaneously lacked the physical passions experienced by humans and animals. Depending upon the author, the class of angels was further subdivided into three, seven, nine, or ten ranks, variously known as triads, orders or choirs. Each rank had greater power and responsibility than the entities below them.

Humanity: For medieval and Renaissance thinkers, humans occupied a unique position on the Chain of Being.  They straddled the world of spiritual beings and the world of physical creation. Humans were thought to possess divine powers such as reason, love, and imagination. Like angels, they were spiritual beings, but unlike their souls were "knotted" to a physical body.  Plato spoke in the Phaedrus about the body was a "walking tomb."  Like animals human beings are subject to passions and sensations--pain, hunger, thirst, and sexual desire. Consequently, humans had a very difficult time in balancing the divine and the animalistic parts of their nature. An angel, for example, was only capable of intellectual sin such as pride (as evidenced by Lucifer's fall from heaven in Christian belief). Humans, however, were capable of both intellectual sin and physical sins such as lust and gluttony if they let their animal appetites overrule their divine reason. Humans also possessed sensory attributes: sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell. Unlike angels, however, their sensory attributes were limited by physical organs. (They could only know things they could discern through the five senses.) The human primate was the King.

Animals: Animals, like humans higher on the Chain, were animated (capable of independent motion). They possessed physical appetites and sensory attributes, the number depending upon their position within the Chain of Being. They had limited intelligence and awareness of their surroundings. Unlike humans, they were thought to lack spiritual and mental attributes such as immortal souls and the ability to use logic and language. The primate of all animals (the "King of Beasts") was variously thought to be either the lion or the elephant.  From the animal primate, the Chain would continue to descend through various reptiles, amphibians, and insects. The higher up the chart one went, the more noble, mobile, strong, and intelligent the creature. At the very bottom of the animal section, we find creatures like the oysters, clams, and barnacles. Like the plants below them, these creatures lacked mobility, and were thought to lack various sensory organs such as sight and hearing.

Plants: Plants, like other living creatures, possessed the ability to grow in size and reproduce. However, they lacked mental attributes and possessed no sensory organs. Instead, their gifts included the ability to eat soil, air, and "heat." Plants did have greater tolerances for heat and cold, and immunity to the pain that afflicts most animals. The primate of plants was the oak tree. In general, trees ranked higher than shrubs, shrubs ranked higher than bushes, bushes ranked higher than cereal crops, and cereal crops ranked higher than herbs, ferns, and weeds. At the very bottom of the botanical hierarchy, the fungus and moss, lacking leaf and blossom, were so limited in form that Renaissance thinkers thought them scarcely above the level of minerals.

Minerals: Creations of the earth, the lowest of elements; all minerals lacked the plant's basic ability to grow and reproduce. They also lacked mental attributes and sensory organs found in beings higher on the Chain. Their unique gifts, however, were typically their unusual solidity and strength. Many minerals, in fact, were thought to possess magical powers, particularly gems.

The Great Chain of Being and the Problem of Evil:


The ancient and medieval view that all creation was ordered into a great universal hierarchy greatly informed Christian theology for over a thousand years.  This can be seen in the ingenious solution some theologians adopted to address the problem of evil (sometimes called theodicy).  Plainly stated, the problem of evil in Christian theology becomes apparent in the following syllogism:

Major Premise:  God created everything that exists.

Minor Premise: Evil exists.

Therefore, God is the source of evil. 

If the major and minor premises are true, the conclusion is logically inescapable.  This conclusion, however, is highly undesirable.  Indeed, Christianity maintains that there is but one perfect God who cannot be the source of evil or sinful imperfection.  So where does evil come from?  There are a few solutions to this problem.  One is to argue that there must be two creators.  One is responsible for all that is good and the other for all that is evil.  This lets the good creator off the hook, but it raises another problem.  If there are two creators, then the good god cannot be considered all-powerful.  In other words, this god does not have power over everything that happens.


A second route around the problem of evil is to alter the minor premise.  What if evil is not a thing?   What if it does not exist?   Perhaps it is merely the absence of good.  This proves a more acceptable solution for some Christians, for it maintains the logic of a single, all-powerful and perfect God.  Even so, it does change our conception of sin (i.e., when we choose to do evil).  Most people assume sinful people have chosen an evil course over good one, but what are they choosing when they sin if there is no such thing as evil


The idea of a Great Chain of Being ordained by God became a useful intellectual concept for explaining sin and evil, for human beings occupied a very crucial place in this scheme.  As the highest developed creatures on the Earth, we possess both animal hungers and an awareness of Godís will for us.  So sin in the medieval sense was not a choice between good and evil; rather, it was a choice between desiring goods lower on the chain of being over those that were higher. 


The early Christian theologian St. Augustine used just such an explanation to understand his own sinful nature.  As a boy Augustine and a group of rowdy kids had trespassed in order to steal some apples.  Augustine says he was not hungry, and indeed had better apples at home.  He also notes that there was no intention to sell the apples for profit.  The act of theft, which he knew to be wrong, was done merely for the sake of doing wrong.  But why would anyone do wrong just to do wrong?  This troubled Augustine, but he eventually came to realize that the theft was motivated more from a desire to be liked by his friends than in desire to do evil. 


In essence, the young Augustine had chosen friendship over justice.  It is important to note two things.  First, in Augustine's analysis the sin was not inherent in the act of theft; rather, the sin arose from the misplaced desire for a lower good over a higher good.  A second important issue is that sin in this view is not the result of bad reasoning (Augustine knew it was wrong to steal).  It was, rather, a problem of the will.  One cannot reason one's way to pious behavior.  One must desire to obey God with one's whole being.   So for some ancient and medieval theologians the desires for pleasure or wealth were not intrinsically evil, for God created these things and thus they could not be evil.  Sin only arose when we desire such worldly goods more highly than the desire to be obedient to Godís will.  Sin, then, was orienting the will down the chain rather than up; it was turning one's back on God and the proper structure of God's universe.  So the goal of medieval religious life was the struggle to orient one's desires in the proper way. 


The Great Chain of Being Today?


The novelist William Faulkner once noted that the past is not in the past.  In fact, it hasn't even passed.  This is surely true of the Great Chain of Being, which continues to inform much of how we think about our own nature and our relationship to nature.  This remains true despite the fact that since the Renaissance various ideas have seriously undermined the notion that all of creation exists in a hierarchy.  For many Christians, Martin Luther and the reformation refuted the idea that God's forgiveness filtered down through the worldly hierarchy of the Pope and the Church.  Similarly, Galileo's telescopic observations undermined the idea of a static, perfect universe with the earth at its center, an idea that grew out of assumptions inherent in the Great Chain of Being.  Enlightenment thinkers also rebelled against the last vestiges of feudal hierarchy by creating secular governmental structures that vested power into the hands of ordinary citizens rather than divinely ordained monarchs.


In the 19th Century, too, Darwin's theory of natural selection explained how living forms change evolve time (and thus are not immutably ordained).  Moreover, later evolutionary scientists using the new science of genetics showed that the distinctions between living creatures were more fluid, a matter of degrees rather than clearly defined distinctions.  Even Sigmund Freud challenged the idea that we were rational creatures capable of making wholly conscious decisions.   Even so, the Great Chain of Being still informs popular thinking.  People who feel intense sadness at a stray cat's death would not think twice about swatting a mosquito.  And animal activists who argue that animals should have legal rights are often dismissed out of hand.  Some critics have suggested that latent notions of the Great Chain of Being still inform our exploitation of the environment.