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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Great Chain of Being

Rain drips outside, somewhere in the dark beyond my closed office blinds. I've been keying notes from Neil Forsyth's The Old Enemy over my morning coffee.

Ideas, ideas. Another book I'm enjoying right now is The Great Chain of Being by Arthur O. Lovejoy, an examination of the influence of the ancient idea of God's "fullness", first developed by Plato. According to Lovejoy, in this published series of lectures he delivered at Harvard University in 1933, this idea of a perfect God (for Plato, the idea of "the Good") necessitated its expression in creativity, a kind of overflowing of its goodness in the creation of forms--other, lesser ideas to begin with, but then, because of the inexhaustible superabundance of the all-Good, myriad other forms as well. This idea was developed by subsequent Platonists, especially by the 3rd-century AD philosopher Plotinus, who formed the idea into a systematic theory of emanation--the generation of ideas and forms from the central Good, or God, to fill the universe with everything.

According to Lovejoy, this idea has been tremendously influential throughout subsequent history, down at least until the 18th century, and no doubt is still shaping our thinking, subtly, today. For the idea came to be framed as the Great Chain of Being: the notion that there is a hierarchy or ladder of creation, leading from the lowest, least sentient things (rocks) up to the very highest (God, the Infinite Good), with every possible gradation in between. Humans are midway on this great Chain, the highest of material beings or the lowest of the spiritual beings, depending on how you look at it. For the Chain made angels necessary, representing the links of the Chain above us, leading on up to God. An unknown author of the 5th century AD, writing under the name of St. Paul's student Dionysius the Areopagite, set down the hierarchy of angels (nine different orders, from ordinary angels up to the seraphim who attended the throne of God). Since leading medieval theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, accepted the pseudo-Dionysius as an authority, his hierarchy has more or less stuck ever since.

Lovejoy points out that there are inherent contradictions in this idea of the Chain of Being, contradictions that have caused great tension in thinkers and people generally since the formation of the idea. For, on the one hand, the spontaneous urge of every being in the Chain is to seek to move higher, to approach more closely to the all-good Creator who is the source of all happiness. Yet, on the other, every created thing and being is a handmade expression, so to speak, of that Creator's superabundant goodness, worthy of His attention, and therefore, you might suppose, intrinsically excellent in its own right, and certainly not to be despised. In a nutshell: the very notion of a Chain of Being suggests a hierarchy of higher quality to lower, while at the same time every link in the Chain is a divine creation and therefore, presumably, all equally valuable.

The contradictions in this idea have put Western humanity under great stress for a couple of thousand years now. For on the one hand, we are enjoined to seek higher things, to purify and spiritualize ourselves so that we may unite with God, shunning the mere matter of His creation; while on the other we experience a natural joy and attraction for the world at our own level, our senses and our own physicality, all of which are God-given and therefore divine. So what's the right thing to do?

Well, I haven't finished the book. And I don't expect Lovejoy to come down on one side of the debate or the other. But I find my mind magnetized by this type of inquiry. As Lovejoy points out in his introduction, this is not philosophy in the strict sense, for his study is more wide-ranging than mere philosophical analysis. Following the evolution of an idea means looking into diverse fields, such as the arts, sciences, and politics, to see how the idea shapes people's attitudes and actions, often unconsciously. He likens the study to chemistry: the historian of ideas looks at complex "substances" and dissolves them to discover the elements of which they're made. Cool!

I may finally have found an academic discipline that I could pursue more or less wholeheartedly.

This is just a taste. There's much more to say about ideas, their history, and my own relationship with them. But that will be for future posts.


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