Great chain of being

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The Great Chain of Being is a hierarchical structure of all matter and life, thought in medieval Christianity to have been decreed by God. Great chain of being_sentence_0

The chain starts with God and progresses downward to angels, humans, animals, plants, and minerals. Great chain of being_sentence_1

The Great Chain of Being (Latin: scala naturae, "Ladder of Being") is a concept derived from Plato, Aristotle (in his Historia Animalium), Plotinus and Proclus. Great chain of being_sentence_2

Further developed during the Middle Ages, it reached full expression in early modern Neoplatonism. Great chain of being_sentence_3

Divisions Great chain of being_section_0

The Chain of Being is a hierarchy, with God at the top, above angels, which like him are entirely in spirit form, without material bodies, and hence unchangeable. Great chain of being_sentence_4

Beneath them are humans, consisting both of spirit and matter; they can change and die, and are thus essentially impermanent. Great chain of being_sentence_5

Lower still are animals and plants. Great chain of being_sentence_6

At the bottom are the mineral materials of the earth itself; they consist only of matter. Great chain of being_sentence_7

Thus, the higher the being is in the chain, the more attributes it has, including all the attributes of the beings below it. Great chain of being_sentence_8

The minerals are, in the medieval mind, a possible exception to the unchangeability of the material beings in the chain, as alchemy promised to turn lower elements like lead into those higher up the chain, like silver or gold. Great chain of being_sentence_9

Subdivisions Great chain of being_section_1

Each link in the chain might be divided further into its component parts. Great chain of being_sentence_10

In medieval secular society, for example, the king is at the top, succeeded by the aristocratic lords and the clergy, and then the peasants below them. Great chain of being_sentence_11

Solidifying the king's position at the top of humanity's social order is the doctrine of the divine right of kings. Great chain of being_sentence_12

The implied permanent state of inequality became a source of popular grievance, and led eventually to political change as in the French Revolution. Great chain of being_sentence_13

The hierarchy was visible in every structure of society: "In the family, the father is head of the household; below him, his wife; below her, their children." Great chain of being_sentence_14

Milton's Paradise Lost ranked the angels (c.f. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite's ranking of angels), and Christian culture conceives of angels "in orders of archangels, seraphim, and cherubim, among others." Great chain of being_sentence_15

The animal division is similarly subdivided, from strong, wild, and untameable lions at the top, to useful but still spirited domestic animals like dogs and horses, to merely docile farm stock like sheep. Great chain of being_sentence_16

In the same way, birds could be ranked from lordly eagles high above common birds like pigeons. Great chain of being_sentence_17

Below them were fish, those with bones being above the various soft sea creatures. Great chain of being_sentence_18

Lower still were insects, with useful ones like bees high above nuisances like flies and beetles. Great chain of being_sentence_19

The snake found itself at the bottom of the animal scale, cast down, the medievals supposed, for its wicked role in the Garden of Eden." Great chain of being_sentence_20

Below animals came plants, ranging from the useful and strong oak at the top to the supposedly demonic yew tree at the bottom. Great chain of being_sentence_21

Crop plants too were ranked from highest to lowest. Great chain of being_sentence_22

The minerals too were graded, from useful metals (from gold down to lead), to rocks (again, from useful marble downwards), all the way down to soil. Great chain of being_sentence_23

The Chain Great chain of being_section_2

At its simplest, the chain of being runs God, Angels, Humans, Animals, Plants, Minerals. Great chain of being_sentence_24

These links of the chain are described in more detail below. Great chain of being_sentence_25

God Great chain of being_section_3

God has created all other beings and is therefore outside creation, time, and space. Great chain of being_sentence_26

He has all the spiritual attributes found in humans and angels, and uniquely has his own attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Great chain of being_sentence_27

He is the model of perfection for all lower beings. Great chain of being_sentence_28

Angelic beings Great chain of being_section_4

Further information: Christian angelology Great chain of being_sentence_29

In Christian angelology, angels are immortal beings of pure spirit without physical bodies, so they require temporary bodies made of earthly materials to be able to do anything in the material world. Great chain of being_sentence_30

They were thought to have spiritual attributes such as reason, love, and imagination. Great chain of being_sentence_31

Based on mentions of types of angel in the Bible, Pseudo-Dionysios devised a hierarchy of angelic beings, which other theologians like St. Great chain of being_sentence_32 Thomas Aquinas adopted: Great chain of being_sentence_33

Great chain of being_unordered_list_0

  • Seraphim (seraph is the primate, or superior type of angel)Great chain of being_item_0_0
  • CherubimGreat chain of being_item_0_1
  • Thrones (Ophanim)Great chain of being_item_0_2
  • DominionsGreat chain of being_item_0_3
  • VirtuesGreat chain of being_item_0_4
  • PowersGreat chain of being_item_0_5
  • PrincipalitiesGreat chain of being_item_0_6
  • ArchangelsGreat chain of being_item_0_7
  • AngelsGreat chain of being_item_0_8

Humanity Great chain of being_section_5

Humans uniquely shared spiritual attributes with God and the angels above them, like love and language, and physical attributes with the animals below them, like having material bodies that experienced emotions and sensations like lust and pain, and physical needs such as hunger and thirst. Great chain of being_sentence_34

Animals Great chain of being_section_6

Animals have senses, are able to move, and have physical appetites. Great chain of being_sentence_35

The highest animals like the lion, the king of beasts, could move vigorously, and had powerful senses such as excellent eyesight and the ability to smell their prey, while lower animals might wriggle or crawl, and the lowest like oysters were sessile, attached to the sea-bed. Great chain of being_sentence_36

All, however, had the senses of touch and taste. Great chain of being_sentence_37

Plants Great chain of being_section_7

Plants lacked sense organs and the ability to move, but they could grow and reproduce. Great chain of being_sentence_38

The highest plants had attractive attributes like leaves and flowers, while the lowest plants, like mushrooms and moss, did not, and stayed low on the ground, close to the mineral earth. Great chain of being_sentence_39

All the same, many plants had useful properties serving for food or medicine. Great chain of being_sentence_40

Minerals Great chain of being_section_8

At the bottom of the chain, minerals were unable to move, sense, grow, or reproduce. Great chain of being_sentence_41

Their attributes were being solid and strong, while the gemstones possessed magic. Great chain of being_sentence_42

The king of gems was the diamond. Great chain of being_sentence_43

Natural science Great chain of being_section_9

From Aristotle to Linnaeus Great chain of being_section_10

Further information: Aristotle's biology § Classification Great chain of being_sentence_44

The basic idea of a ranking of the world's organisms goes back to Aristotle's biology. Great chain of being_sentence_45

In his History of Animals, where he ranked animals over plants based on their ability to move and sense, and graded the animals by their reproductive mode, live birth being "higher" than laying cold eggs, and possession of blood, warm-blooded mammals and birds again being "higher" than "bloodless" invertebrates. Great chain of being_sentence_46

Aristotle's non-religious concept of higher and lower organisms was taken up by natural philosophers during the Scholastic period to form the basis of the Scala Naturae. Great chain of being_sentence_47

The scala allowed for an ordering of beings, thus forming a basis for classification where each kind of mineral, plant and animal could be slotted into place. Great chain of being_sentence_48

In medieval times, the great chain was seen as a God-given and unchangeable ordering. Great chain of being_sentence_49

In the Northern Renaissance, the scientific focus shifted to biology; the threefold division of the chain below humans formed the basis for Carl Linnaeus's Systema Naturæ from 1737, where he divided the physical components of the world into the three familiar kingdoms of minerals, plants and animals. Great chain of being_sentence_50

In alchemy Great chain of being_section_11

Alchemy used the great chain as the basis for its cosmology. Great chain of being_sentence_51

Since all beings were linked into a chain, so that there was a fundamental unity of all matter, transformation from one place in the chain to the next might, according to alchemical reasoning, be possible. Great chain of being_sentence_52

In turn, the unit of matter enabled alchemy to make another key assumption, the philosopher's stone, which somehow gathered and concentrated the universal spirit found in all matter along the chain, and which ex hypothesi might enable the alchemical transformation of one substance to another, such as the base metal lead to the noble metal gold. Great chain of being_sentence_53

Scala naturae in evolution Great chain of being_section_12

Further information: Orthogenesis Great chain of being_sentence_54

The set nature of species, and thus the absoluteness of creatures' places in the great chain, came into question during the 18th century. Great chain of being_sentence_55

The dual nature of the chain, divided yet united, had always allowed for seeing creation as essentially one continuous whole, with the potential for overlap between the links. Great chain of being_sentence_56

Radical thinkers like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck saw a progression of life forms from the simplest creatures striving towards complexity and perfection, a schema accepted by zoologists like Henri de Blainville. Great chain of being_sentence_57

The very idea of an ordering of organisms, even if supposedly fixed, laid the basis for the idea of transmutation of species, whether progressive goal-directed orthogenesis or Charles Darwin's undirected theory of evolution. Great chain of being_sentence_58

The Chain of Being continued to be part of metaphysics in 19th century education, and the concept was well known. Great chain of being_sentence_59

The geologist Charles Lyell used it as a metaphor in his 1851 Elements of Geology description of the geological column, where he used the term "missing links" in relation to missing parts of the continuum. Great chain of being_sentence_60

The term "missing link" later came to signify transitional fossils, particularly those bridging the gulf between man and beasts. Great chain of being_sentence_61

The idea of the great chain as well as the derived "missing link" was abandoned in early 20th century science, as the notion of modern animals representing ancestors of other modern animals was abandoned in biology. Great chain of being_sentence_62

The idea of a certain sequence from "lower" to "higher" however lingers on, as does the idea of progress in biology. Great chain of being_sentence_63

Politics Great chain of being_section_13

Allenby and Garreau propose that the Catholic Church's narrative of the Great Chain of Being kept the peace in Europe for centuries. Great chain of being_sentence_64

The very concept of rebellion simply lay outside the reality within which most people lived for to defy the King was to defy God. Great chain of being_sentence_65

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." Great chain of being_sentence_66

The Enlightenment broke this supposed divine plan, and fought the last vestiges of feudal hierarchy, by creating secular governmental structures that vested power into the hands of ordinary citizens, rather than in those of divinely ordained monarchs. Great chain of being_sentence_67

However, scholars such as Brian Tierney and Michael Novak have noted the medieval contribution to democracy and human rights. Great chain of being_sentence_68

Adaptations and similar concepts Great chain of being_section_14

The American philosopher Ken Wilber described a "Great Nest of Being" which he claims to belong to a culture-independent "perennial philosophy" traceable across 3000 years of mystical and esoteric writings. Great chain of being_sentence_69

Wilber's system corresponds with other concepts of transpersonal psychology. Great chain of being_sentence_70

In his 1977 book A Guide for the Perplexed, the economist E. Great chain of being_sentence_71 F. Schumacher described a hierarchy of beings, with humans at the top able mindfully to perceive the "eternal now". Great chain of being_sentence_72

See also Great chain of being_section_15

Credits to the contents of this page go to the authors of the corresponding Wikipedia page: chain of being.