Difference between revisions of "Great Chain of Being"

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The doctrine that all things that exist must necessarily be, including evil, inevitably leads to a doctrine of optimism, that "all things are as they should be". Other theologians called this a heresy as it puts 'the creation and the Creator on the same footing, and denies the perfectibility of the world'.
 
The doctrine that all things that exist must necessarily be, including evil, inevitably leads to a doctrine of optimism, that "all things are as they should be". Other theologians called this a heresy as it puts 'the creation and the Creator on the same footing, and denies the perfectibility of the world'.
  
 +
The much discussed book on evil during this time was William King's, "De origine mali", where he wrote: "evils are not only consistent with infinite wisdom, goodness and power, but necessarily  results from them".
 +
 +
The traditional division of evil was between 1) evils of limitation or imperfections 2) natural evils and 3) moral evils.
 +
 +
The argument of King was that no creation could conceivably be perfect, and that the second class of evils proceeds from this. It was goodness to create, but the created was necessarily imperfect (otherwise it would be the same as god). In a really full universe, there must naturally be opposition, and this explains natural evils. For eample, matter consists of opposing forces, and nature is crowded so there is a struggle for survival. Lovejoy notes that this God loves diversity and the multitude more than peace and harmony, and thus, this strains all the other tenets of Christian doctrine.
 +
 +
By contrast the new Zeitgeist of the 18th cy started to react against the principle of Plenitude, and the resulting ideology of optimism, because of what it implied concerning the 'persistence of evil'.
 +
 +
The Law of Conservation of Evil said that since evil was part and parcel of the constitution of the universe, then the betterment of one partial evil, would lead to the increase of another. This is a world without hope!
 +
 +
It is better to admit that the world is not entirely rational, but susceptible to amendment, than to conceive of it as perfectly rational, but without hope!
  
 
===The role of the Copernical Revolution===
 
===The role of the Copernical Revolution===

Revision as of 08:29, 10 November 2020

* Book: The Great Chain of Being. By Arthur O. Lovjejoy.

URL =

Review

Michel Bauwens, 2003:

This is the book that has often been cited by Ken Wilber as a key summary of the history of a complex of ideas, related to the hierarchical nature of the universe as a "chain of being" culminating in the Absolute It was delivered as a series of lectures in Harvard during 1933, as a "William James Lecture", and the author says that 'just one hundred years ago', this was still the domimant philosophical idea in the Western world.

The first chapter distinguishes the specificity of the discipline of the 'history of ideas' from the general history of philosophy.

The second chapter discusses the genesis of the idea in the work of Plato, after first contrasting the 'otherworldlines' from 'thisworldlynes' and the idea of a perfect self-sufficient Being from one that creates all possible living things in its image (the principle of Plenitude).

Plotinus wrote: The One is Perfect, it seeks nothing, and possesses nothing, and, being perfect, it overflows, and thus, in its overAbundance produces the Other.

Aristotle was more modest, in his view of the necessity of the world: his unmoved Mover did not create things, or only as a final cause because of its attraction. Within Aristotle's work we find a contrast between his belief in classification, and his reputation as the father of logic, and his insistence on continuity, that there are no sharp distinctions in nature, only gradations. This it was he, rather than Plato, who explicitely mentioned gradations and rankings in beings, whether dependent on scale (the degree of development at birth, from zoophytes to the human), or in terms of the 'powers of the soul': "ech order possessing all the powers of those below, plus an additional differentiating set of its own". This is the root of the later conception of the 'Great Chain of Being', whih was first explicitely formulated by Plotinus, and neo-Platonism, in the doctrine of emanation, which fuses the principles of plenitude, continuity, and gradation.

Chapter 3 is on the chain of being in medieval thought and some of its contradictions. The christian implications of the neoplatonic doctrine of plenitude, being first formulated by St. Augustine and by the unknown 5th cy author "Pseudo-Dyionisius". Augustine states clearly that "ifall things were equal, all things could not exist.",i.e. equality precedes diversity. A first contradiction is between the creative and generative power of God, which necessarityl creates things, and the opposite stress on his freedom and discretion in that process of creation, i.e. the divine Will, "the world contains whatever the Maker has wanted to put in it"; thus he can conceive of anything, but can will the non-existence of things as well. Another contradiciton in medieval thought was that between God as the Idea of the Good, the self-sufficient Absolute Being, to which all should aspire (through initiation, contemplation, absorption), i.e. the ASCENDING process for Man; and God as Goodness, i.e. te creative emanation in the plenitude of Creation, the delight in existence, the DESCENDING phase.

Chapter 3 is on the chain of being in medieval thought and some of its contradictions. The christian implications of the neoplatonic doctrine of plenitude, being first formulated by St. Augustine and by the unknown 5th cy author "Pseudo-Dyionisius". Augustine states clearly that "ifall things were equal, all things could not exist.",i.e. equality precedes diversity. A first contradiction is between the creative and generative power of God, which necessarityl creates things, and the opposite stress on his freedom and discretion in that process of creation, i.e. the divine Will, "the world contains whatever the Maker has wanted to put in it"; thus he can conceive of anything, but can will the non-existence of things as well. Another contradiciton in medieval thought was that between God as the Idea of the Good, the self-sufficient Absolute Being, to which all should aspire (through initiation, contemplation, absorption), i.e. the ASCENDING process for Man; and God as Goodness, i.e. te creative emanation in the plenitude of Creation, the delight in existence, the DESCENDING phase.

Medieval Christendom would clearly choose the former. But, always in fact holding on to the contradiction of both principles, and thus not, like Eastern systems such as Vedanta, accepting the doctrine of 'illusionism' ('Maya' as illusion).

The conflict between good and goodness, held in check in the Middle Ages, would explode in the Renaissance. Another contradcition concerns holding at the same time the otherworldly position that the created world is something to escape from, and that the universe, as is, is an expression of divine goodness. The possibilities to escape would have been the Hindu position, that the sensible world is an illusion ; or the Gnostic-Manichean position that this world is wholly evil, and finally the Buddhist position, to refuse any speculation and to insist on escaping from it.

In examining the transition to modern conceptions, Lovejoy denies that it were Copernicus and Kepler which were the most important.


Instead he lists ive other challenging achievements:

- 1) that other planets may have other living and sentients beings

- 2) the shattering of the idea of an other wall with fixed stars attached to it

- 3) the conceptions of stars as suns with planets

- 4) the supposition that these planets may have conscious inhabitants

- 5) the assertion of the physical infinity of the universe


Lovejoy then discusses the evolution of the doctrine in the Renaissance through a discussion of Giordano Bruno, and the general acceptance of the notion of a plurality of worlds with its potential inhabitants, also based on the principle of "Plenitude", much more than the astronomical ideas themselves. He concludes that the zeitgeist preceded the scientific revolution.

This is followed by a complex exposition of Spinoza and Leibniz and the principle of sufficient reason, which says that God, the only principle and Being where essence and existence coincide, makes it a logical necessity for all possible beings to exist (or, that all existing beings owe their full existence to it). This extreme interpretation of what is also the principle of plenitude, eliminates time altogether, as 'everything exists now'.

Despite the growth of science, which completely shunned this sufficient reason for the complex chain of empirical causes, it was the 18th cy, which gave the Chain of Being its utmost popularity. The 18th cy. writers reacted strongly to those who had, especially the century before, seen man as 'central in the universe', for which all other beings were made. No , all beings were made for themselves, due to the principle of plenitude, and though Man was in the 'middle', the link between the sensible and intellectual being, the links below him were finite, but those above him were infinite. Thus, humility was required. But one change is that this conception was 'naturalized', with angels being replaced by the hypothetical intelligences from other planets, as aruged even by Kant. In the 18th cy, one of the dominating tendencies was optimism, not in the sense that everything was good, but in the sense that everything had its place in the natural order and that wanting to change man and society, was not only futile but dangerous.

The author then discusses the influence of the microscope and the resulting field of microbiology, which had first confirmed the principles of continuity and plenitude, showing life to go on to the infinitely small.

Up to Kant, the Chain of Being was recognized as the basis of the research program in biology. In the Kantian scheme on the possibilities of knowledge, Man could never know the full reality, but the law of continuous scale of Beings, was a respectable 'Ideal of Reason'.

Chapter IX turns it attention to temporality, pointing out that until that time, the traditional interpretation of the Chain of Being excluded Time and any notion of progress, and even evolution; since the latter implied the distinction of species, and not their immutable presence in Eternity. Those that reacted against these static views, argued that the principle of Plenitude, i.e. the Realisation of all possibilities of Life, was only realized in the fullness of time, nont in any particular instant. The absence of hope, due to the law of conservation of evil, and the impossibility of individual progress, since each station in life was necessary (and thus 'moving up', could only come thrugh the moving down of somebody else), became intolerable. In the new conception, the Chain of Being came to be considered as a ladder to be climbed by the individual soul, in this life and after, closer and closer to perfection. The Platonic identification of the good as the cessation of desire, was replaced by the conception of a perpetual process of possible betterment.

This prepared the ground for the emergence of Romanticism. The main critics of Plenitude in the 2nd half of the 18th cy. were Voltaire, Blumenback and Dr. Johnson. Though the idea is beautiful, a cursory look at the facts will show that there is no continunation in inanimate matter, that there are too many leaps and gaps in living nature, and no proof of higher beings outside belief. Dr. Johnson adds that in view of the infinity of gradation, the Chain is impossible, but this is the very argument used by Leibniz to temporalize the Chain as an eternal trial towards Perfection.

The next chapter discusses Romanticism and the Zeitgeist of lauding diversity and creativity/innovation as the supreme value. Romanticism was the epitome of the principle of plenitude; on the one hand by claiming that universality could only be achieved by the widest possible integration of varying perspectives, and that this process could never be complete at any particular time. And, on the other hand, in the almost opposite notion that the romantic artist had to cultivate: his utmost particularlity. In terms of religion, Romanticism led to a new conception of the Godhead itself, no longer an otherwordly self-sufficient Absolute, but the very process of Creation itself. In other words, God himself became 'temporalized', seen as the Absolute that would come into being only at the end of time. God only becomes 'Real' in the history of the cosmos. This new vision was well explained by Scheleiermacker and Schelling, with a vehement counter-essay by F.H. Jacoby.

The book then ends with a evaluation and conclusion: that the whole idea of the Chain of Being, fruitful as it may have been as an intellectual project taking millenia to unfold (and making the whole of philosophy a 'footnote to Plato'), has been a failure, killed by temporality and the contingency of our world

Details

Some further detailed extra notes

On Plenitude and Evil

It is not so that the principle of gradation disappears in modernity, where sharp dualistic distinctions arise such as body and mind, life and matter, animal and human. A remembrance of the principle of gradation helps avoid a lot of dualistic exaggerations.

The principle of Plenitude means that "all that can exist, will exist". This generation of the Many from the One cannot come to an end so long as any possible variety of being in the descending order is left unrealized: it must move forever outward, until the ultimate confines of of the possible are reached

This principle also explains 'evil': The best world must contain all possible evil, i.e. all conceivable finite degrees of the privation of good. There rages "amongst animals and amongst men a perpetual war", but this is necessary for the good of the Whole, "for it is better for an animal to be eaten by another, than to have never existed at all". Conflict is simply difference carried out to the extreme of opposition.

The doctrine that all things that exist must necessarily be, including evil, inevitably leads to a doctrine of optimism, that "all things are as they should be". Other theologians called this a heresy as it puts 'the creation and the Creator on the same footing, and denies the perfectibility of the world'.

The much discussed book on evil during this time was William King's, "De origine mali", where he wrote: "evils are not only consistent with infinite wisdom, goodness and power, but necessarily results from them".

The traditional division of evil was between 1) evils of limitation or imperfections 2) natural evils and 3) moral evils.

The argument of King was that no creation could conceivably be perfect, and that the second class of evils proceeds from this. It was goodness to create, but the created was necessarily imperfect (otherwise it would be the same as god). In a really full universe, there must naturally be opposition, and this explains natural evils. For eample, matter consists of opposing forces, and nature is crowded so there is a struggle for survival. Lovejoy notes that this God loves diversity and the multitude more than peace and harmony, and thus, this strains all the other tenets of Christian doctrine.

By contrast the new Zeitgeist of the 18th cy started to react against the principle of Plenitude, and the resulting ideology of optimism, because of what it implied concerning the 'persistence of evil'.

The Law of Conservation of Evil said that since evil was part and parcel of the constitution of the universe, then the betterment of one partial evil, would lead to the increase of another. This is a world without hope!

It is better to admit that the world is not entirely rational, but susceptible to amendment, than to conceive of it as perfectly rational, but without hope!

The role of the Copernical Revolution

Lovejoy corrects the notion that the pre-Copernican system placed the earth and therefore Man, at the most important place in the universe, i.e. its Center. In reality, medievals considered the center to be the worst place of all, and theor cosmology was in fact diabolo-centric, with hell inside the center of the earth. The change from geo-centric to helio-centric was in fact a change to a "a-centric" conception of the Universe.


Simplification through Reason

The ruling assumption of the Enlightenment was Reason, i.e. the existence of universal truths that attain validity, because all rational men can acquiesce in them. Thus, says Lovejoy, it was an age of simplication, of reducing everything to more simple and understandable truths. It was therefore against difference. The history of Europe after this is a history of acceptance vs resistance to this simplication. For example, the Romantics would claim that the exact opposite: "that excellence lies in diversity".


Lovejoy on the characteristics of Romanticism

- the immense multiplication in genres and verse forms

- the aesthetic legitimacy of 'genre mixing'

- the taste for nuance

- the quest for local color

- the endeavor to reconstruct the imagination, the inner life of remote places, or time

- the demand for fidelity in landscape description

- the distrust of universal formula's in politics

- the cultivation of the individual, national and racial particularities

- the valuation of originality


Thus, Romanticism has consisted in the substitution of 'diversitarianism' for 'uniformitarianism', as the ruling assumption of thought in the 19th cy.