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The Great Chain of Being

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The Great Chain of Being

The Great Chain of Being is the conception of the nature of the universe that had a pervasive influence on Western thought, particularly through the ancient Greek Neoplatonists and derivative philosophies during the European Renaissance and the 17th and early 18th centuries. The term denotes three general features of the universe: plenitude, continuity, and gradation. The principle of plenitude states that the universe is “full,” exhibiting the maximal diversity of kinds of existences; everything possible (i.e., not self-contradictory) is actual. The principle of continuity asserts that the universe is composed of an infinite series of forms, each of which shares with its neighbour at least one attribute. According to the principle of linear gradation, this series ranges in hierarchical order from the barest type of existence to the ENS perfectissimum, or God.

For centuries the ‘great chain of being’ held a central place in Western thought. This view saw the Universe as ordered in a linear sequence starting from the inanimate world of rocks. Plants came next, then animals, men, angels and, finally, God. It was very detailed with, for example, a ranking of human races; humans themselves ranked above apes above reptiles above amphibians above fish. This view even predicted a world of invisible life in between the inanimate and the visible, living world, long before Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries. Although advocates of evolution may have stripped it of its supernatural summit, this view is with us still

The idea of the chain of being was first systematized by the Neoplatonist Plotinus, though the component concepts were derived from Plato and Aristotle. Plato's “idea of the good” in the Republic, eternal, immutable, ineffable, and perfect, the universal object of desire, is fused with the demiurge of the Timaeus, who constructed the world of becoming because “he was good, and in one that is good no envy of anything else ever arises.” Aristotle introduced a definition of the continuum and pointed out various graded scales of existence. Thus, in the words of Plotinus, in his Enneads, “The one is perfect because it seeks for nothing, and possesses nothing, and has need of nothing; and being perfect, it overflows, and thus its superabundance produces an other.” This generation of the many from the one must continue until all possible varieties of being in the descending series are realized.

The scale of being served Plotinus and many later writers as an explanation of the existence of evil in the sense of lack of some good. It also offered an argument for optimism; since all beings other than the ENS perfectissimum are to some degree imperfect or evil and since the goodness of the universe as a whole consists in its fullness, the best possible world will be one that contains the greatest possible variety of beings and so all possible evils. The notion died out in the 19th century but was given renewed currency in the 20th by Arthur O. Lovejoy.

Most of the concepts about the nature of living things in the early modern era were derived from the writings of Aristotle. Aristotle wrote about the concept of distinct types of organisms that could be distinguished from all the rest. Aristotle was interested in much more than the biological world, and attempted to build a theory of the world as a whole. As part of this theory, he believed that all of nature could be seen as a continuum of organization from lifeless matter. Aristotle believed the world to be a perfect universe, in which species could never evolve and must remain fixed. Aristotle came up with the idea which he called, “The Great Chain of Being,” which was his attempt to make sense of the changing relationships among living beings. In this view Aristotle believed the world to be a perfect universe, in which species could never evolve and must remain fixed. There was an order to beings or ladder, with species such as worms on the bottom and human beings at the top of the ladder. Aristotle was also well-known of his work in the field of biology where he was able to classify more than five hundred types of species. Among the work of Aristotle is a writing that foreshadows the idea of natural selection, he states,” Wheresover, therefore…all part of one whole happened like propriately constituted by an internal spontaneity; and wheresover things were not thus constituted they perished, and still perish” (Avery, 2003). Also at this time religion played a major role in peoples lives and applied the religious beliefs to all aspects of their lives. The Judeo-Christian culture believed that the Earth was only about 6,000 years old, an idea that could be traced back to biblical documents. Although, many people believe that the idea of evolution goes against their personal religious beliefs many naturalists and philosophers still struggle to understand the concept of evolution.

To look at this from the religious standpoint natural theologists used the great chain of being to show that God had created stability in the world and linked all life together to prove that God existed. God created species in the great chain of being in a perfect set and hierarchy. In the religious aspect, God and the angels were at the top of the ladder and gave humans the “divine right” to command over the animals on down to plants, and then earth itself.

The fixity of species was also blended over to the political aspects of humanity by showing how different social classes “mock” the natural world. The monarch was seen as the direct ruler from God and has the divine right to command his country from God and is stable at the top of the chain of being. The other aristocrats and the religious authorities would represent the other “higher” orders of the natural world and so on down the line to the peasants with each social class “stuck” in its place.

The Great Chain of Being as described by Aristotle was adapted to the religious doctrine of Christianity through time to the early modern era as describing the fixity of the natural world. The chain was later used to show how the ladder was fit into the religious aspect of hierarchy as well as the political classes of humanity.

There have also been many critics of the great chain of being due to the fact that it contradicts people’s religious beliefs. Problems for people with the great chain of being begin when it contradicts the biblical text by stating that the world is over six thousand years old. Religious people also criticize evolution for the fact the theory states that humans and monkeys came from a common ancestor. This posed a major problem for people of religion because it contradicts the biblical text that Adam and Eve were that first beings on the plant. Religious constraints on the great chain of being became so stringent that evolution was not allowed to be taught in schools. The play Inherit the Wind is a fictitious account of the 1925 Scopes Trail, in which a Tennessee high school teacher was convicted for teaching the great chain of being to his class. “Rather than attempting to prevent the teaching of evolution, creationists began demanding equal teaching time, urging the adoption of texts that included creationist materials. By the 1980s, creationists asked to present the scientific evidence against evolution: the intelligent design theory”. Michael Ruse summarizes why people feel creationism should not be taught when he states, “Of course, in a sense, the whole Creationist position is a fraud: all that it is trying to do is push a literal reading of Genesis, very thinly veiled as science. I really do not see how anyone could get through a class-room course in Scientific Creationism, without mentioning the Bible, ever”. Today, people still have religious conflicts with the great chain of being, but they are not as extreme as they were when Darwin fist published his theory. Now people are more accepting to the idea as more and more scientific proof is found supporting the truth of this phenomena.

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The great chain of being is still a major topic of discussion today. In my mind, there is too much indisputable scientific evidence that supports the great chain of being to neglect it because of religious beliefs. There is no reason that both the great chain of being and religion can not be incorporated into people’s lives because; both religion and science serve the same purpose, to give greater insight on the world. In conclusion, people should try to have an understanding of both the great chain of being and religion because they both serve as different pathways to a higher understanding of life.


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