A History of Western Philosophy

The Great Chain of Being

We begin our exploration into the roots of Western prejudice with one of its most important carriers—The Great Chain of Being. 

It is impossible to exaggerate how important the Great Chain of Being is to understanding the origin and the persistence of prejudice and inequality in Western culture and through its influence, across most of the known world. In some ways this is because, to know the world is to have rationalized it according to the Great Chain of Being. There will be several aspects to understanding the Great Chain of Being, but by the end of our lectures I hope that you will have begun to see just how far reaching its implications were and remain. 

We will take our starting point from a series of lectures given by Arthur Lovejoy in 1933 at Harvard University, which were later published in this book in 1936.

The Great Chain of Being: A study of the history of an idea by Arthur Lovejoy

He believed the most important divide in Plato was that between this-worldliness and other-worldliness. Now we must explore this more deeply to understand his thesis on the Great Chain of Being. The first key distinction that shaped the Western world was that the genuinely true was seen as other-worldly while our own ordinary experiences of this world are only ephemeral, here today and gone tomorrow, unable to establish anything like eternal truths. 

Here is what Lovejoy says.

By ‘otherworldliness,’ then … I mean the belief that both the genuinely ‘real’ and the truly good are radically antithetic in their essential characteristics to anything to be found in man’s natural life, in the ordinary course of human experience, however normal, however intelligent, and however fortunate. The world we now and here know – various, mutable, a perpetual flux of states and relations of things, or an ever-shifting phantasmagoria of thoughts and sensations, each of them lapsing into nonentity in the very moment of its birth – seems to the otherworldly mind to have no substance in it; the objects of sense and even of empirical scientific knowledge are unstable, contingent, forever breaking down logically into mere relations to other things which when scrutinized prove equally relative and elusive … But the human will, as conceived by the otherworldly philosophers, not only seeks but is capable of finding some final, fixed, immutable, intrinsic, perfectly satisfying good, as the human reason seeks, and can find, some stable, definitive, coherent, self-contained, and self­explanatory object or objects of contemplation. Not, however, in this world is either to be found, but only in a ‘higher ‘ realm of being. (1964, 25-6) 

One can easily begin to see a hierarchy here. The other-worldly is judged higher and this-worldly is judged lower. The higher has a number of different names: the metaphysical – that which is above the material world; the transcendental – that which transcends this world; the ideal – or thinking, which is a higher activity than doing; and of course, God – which is above and beyond human being. 

Now we could simply accept that this is just relevant to Plato and the Greek world. But that would be to avoid an interesting and difficult question. Why was it like this? Why did they think like this? Lovejoy’s response to these questions takes us to the heart of the question that concerns us, what is the origin of inequality and prejudice in the West? As Lovejoy reminds us, this creed has been the ‘dominant official philosophy of the larger part of civilized [sic] mankind [sic] through most of its history’ (1964, 26). The extent to which today’s world remains part of this history is perhaps one of the most important questions that can be asked when thinking about prejudice in the modern world.

But Lovejoy also mentions here another theme – that of distance. Lovejoy finds a hierarchy in distance. He says

Where some form of otherworldliness is generally professed, the socially prevalent scale of values is largely shaped by it and the principal themes and objectives of intellectual effort receive their character from it … The otherworldly philosopher is made the ruler, or the secret ruler of the ruler, the mystic or the saint becomes the most powerful, and sometimes the shrewdest, of politicians. There is perhaps nothing so favorable to success in this world’s business as a high degree of emotional detachment from it. (1964, 27-8)

He turns first to Plato.

Plato, it need hardly be said, is the main historic source of the indigenous strain of otherworldliness in Occidental philosophy and religion, as distinguished from the im­ported Oriental varieties. It is through him, as Dean Inge has said, “that the conception of an unseen eternal world, of which the visible world is but a pale copy, gains a permanent foot­hold in the West …. The call, once heard, has never long been forgotten in Europe” (1964, 35)

And in particular, from a well-known part of Plato’s Republic, he says

It is only when, in the Republic, Plato introduces an Idea of Ideas, from which the others seem to be conceived as in some obscure manner derivative, that he plainly appears as the father of otherworldliness in the West … Here, as elsewhere, there is no question as to the nature of Plato’s historic influence; the completely ‘other’ and ineffable ‘One,’ the Absolute of the Neo­platonists, it is certain, was for those philosophers, and their many later echoers, medieval and modern, Jewish, Moslem, and Christian, an interpretation of Plato’s’ Idea of the Good.’ (1964, 39-40)

Thus, for Plato, ‘the chief good for man even in this life is nothing but the contemplation of this absolute or essential Good’ (1964, 41). Lovejoy is comfortable with the idea that Plato’s Good is also Plato’s God, and this obviously has its own history in the Neoplatonism and Christianity, Judaism, and Islam over the next two centuries.

As we will see, the key characteristic of Plato’s conception of the Good, and of God, is self-sufficiency or autarkeia, meaning completeness. Think for a second about the link between this idea and the concept of identity; it will play a very important part in the development of inequality and still does so today. Lovejoy notes a consequence, and we might call it a logical consequence, of this idea of the Good as self-sufficiency. If the idea of God is also the idea of the fullest possible expression of self-sufficiency, its absolutely true expression, then everything else in the cosmos falls short of this perfection and adds nothing to it. Perhaps the truth can do without everything else? From the divine point of view, perhaps everything else has no value? It creates a theology made explicit in Aristotle: 

This implication of the Platonic Idea of the Good speedily became explicit in the theology of Aristotle. “One who is self-sufficient,” he writes in the Eudemian Ethics, “can have no need of the service of others, nor of their affection, nor of social life, since he is capable of living alone. This is especially evident in the case of God. Clearly, since he is in need of nothing, God cannot have need of friends, nor will he have any.” (1964, 43)

It suggests perhaps, God’s indifference to the universe and to life within it.

But Plato was not satisfied with this. He sought to find meaning in this-worldliness and found it by arguing that this world was derivative of the other world and linked to it by its own nature―by Intellect. As such, the truth that humans desire has its source in that same desire; the desire of intellect to understand. 

But it is in the Timaeus that perhaps we get a clue about the origin of inequality. Plato asks why is there any real world at all in addition to God? Or why is there a world of becoming in addition to a world of eternal being? The answer to this is found in the second question. What determines how many things there are in this world?  This is tantamount to asking, why are we here? ―a question that has always been at the heart of the Liberal Arts.

And of course to wonder at the universe is to ask how and why it is and how and why we are in it?

Now, at this stage, one might be wondering why Plato thinks a division between this world and the other world is necessary at all. Why ‘invent’ the other world? This takes us slightly beyond the scope of our lectures, but let us make a brief response. In the description of Aristotle’s cave (not Plato’s) wonder leads to the question of the other-worldly since we experience an order in the cosmos that we did not create for ourselves. One might say that it is order―science―that leads to the mystical―religion. Instead of Aristotle, take for example Einstein in 1930.  ‘I am of the opinion that all the finer speculations in the realm of science spring from a deep religious feeling, and that without such feeling they would not be fruitful. I also believe that this kind of religiousness, which makes itself felt today in scientific investigations, is the only creative religious activity of our time’ (Jammer, 1999, pp. 68-9). 

In 1930 Einstein also wrote an essay called What I Believe. In it he said, 

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science … A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds―it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. (Jammer, 1999, p. 73).  

In his essay Religion and Science, also in 1930, he wrote that for early species it was fear the generated religious ideas. Then came a God who answered the need and desire for guidance, love and support―more of an anthropomorphic conception of God, which Einstein himself did not hold. The third stage of religious experience Einstein calls the cosmic religious feeling. ‘The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought’ (Jammer, 1999, p. 78).

OK. Back to Plato’s questions; why is there a this-world, and what determines what should be in it? This takes us to the Great Chain of Being. It is part of Plato’s own attempts to understand the world rationally, and to understand a rational world, that is, to understand order in the cosmos through thinking that reflects that order. The answer to the first question is given in the Timaeus (from Lovejoy).

Before beginning the story of the genesis of the world, “let us,” says Timaeus, “state the cause wherefor he who constructed it did construct Becoming and the universe.” The reason is that “he was good, and in one that is good no envy of anything else ever arises. Being devoid of envy, then, he desired that everything should be so far as possible like himself. This, then, we shall be wholly right in accepting from wise men as being above all the sovereign originating principle of Becoming and of the cosmos.” (1964, 47)

Remember that this God is also Good, and self-sufficient. And it would be impossible for such a Being to be an impediment to the existence of anything else, for such a Being would not be perfect if it did not create that which it was possible to create. 

We must take note of this for it is crucial to what follows. Perfection would not be perfect if it did not create everything that it was possible to create. It would be less than perfect to leave something uncreated that could be created. Thus, it is perfection, or the Good, that answers the questions: why is there a world? Because it is Good that there is. And why is there such variety in this world? Because Good means that everything that can be made must be made. We will be able to follow the implications that this has for inequality over the next two and half millennia.

This introduced a tension in the thinking of truth that accompanied the thinking of God in the three religions of the Book, and from Kant onwards still accompanies the idea of truth today. It is this.

… for centuries [it] was to give rise to many of the most characteristic internal conflicts, the logically and emotionally op­posing strains, which mark its history – the conception of (at least) Two-Gods-in-One, of a divine completion which was yet not complete in itself, since it could not be itself without the existence of beings other than itself and inherently incomplete; of an Immutability which required, and expressed itself in, Change; of an Absolute which was nevertheless not truly absolute because it was related, at least by way of implication and causation, to entities whose nature was not its nature and whose existence and perpetual passage were antithetic to its immutable subsistence. The dialectic by which Plato arrives at this combination may seem to many modern ears unconvincing and essentially verbal, and its outcome no better than a contradiction; but we shall fail to understand a large and important part of the subsequent history of ideas in the West if we ignore the fact that just this dual dialectic dominated the thought of many generations, and even more potently in medieval and modern than in ancient times. … How many kinds of temporal and imperfect beings must this world contain? – the answer follows by the same dialectic: all possible kinds. The “best soul” could begrudge existence to nothing that could conceivably possess it, and “desired that all things should be as like himself as they could be.” (1964, 50)

Here is the most familiar idea about the difficulty of truth. Either it is absolute and unchangeable, or it is relative and changeable. Or we might know this more familiarly as, can truth ever be objective, or does it always depend in some way on our own subjective experiences? We will return to this question many times in our lectures. 

For now, we will continue with Lovejoy’s explanation of the origin of the Great Chain of Being from Plato. In creating everything possible, says Plato in the Timaeus, we can see that the world is the perfect image of the whole, and that all the animals or creatures within it, individual and species, are parts of that perfect whole, parts of the perfect Good. There is nothing left over from which a second universe could be created. If we are investigating the origin of inequality then what we might take from this is that this myth sees creation based on an idea of fairness. It would be unfair to leave something that could be created as uncreated. It is fair that everything that can be created is created. Perhaps you can already see where this is heading. It is fair that everything exists as it does, as it is found. Diversity, or as one might say today, difference, is the Good. But, as we will also see, this is not a diversity or difference of equality. It is a diversity grounded in hierarchy, or in the Great Chain of Being.

Fairness, then is fulness. Lovejoy calls this ‘the principle of plenitude’ (1964, 52) ―plenitude meaning abundance, or the condition of being full and complete. No potential remains unfulfilled. Creation is exhaustive. The world is better, fairer, the more it contains. 

Lovejoy notes here that the Good, or God, is free to choose to create or not. But the principle of plenitude is ‘a dialectical necessity’ (1964, 54) meaning that it is an unconditional Good in its own right. It is not contingent. It does not depend on anything else. Creation – fairness – is inherent to the Good. It is its own imperative. It must be done. One might say here that the Good or God can do no other than its own necessity. Aristotle does not agree with this. He says that it is possible for things to exist potentially and not actually. He does not therefore agree with the Platonic idea of the Good as the principle of plenitude. But as we will see in the next lecture, he does agree that the Good or God is the principle of self-sufficiency or completeness. 

Aristotle did play a pivotal part in developing the notion of the Great Chain of Being. He added to the principle of plenitude the principle of ‘continuity’ (Lovejoy, 1964, 55). Together with plenitude it formed the idea of the Great Chain of Being. Continuity was present where the limit of one thing overlapped with the limit of another. He saw this overlapping meant an ascending and descending order of forms, but he did not, unlike later thinkers, believe that this necessarily meant that higher forms were also superior. Nevertheless, continuity, or order, did eventually give rise to hierarchical thinking. Aristotle was perhaps more interested in the ways in which things which did overlap could and should be classified as two things at once. Look, for example, at the following paragraph from his History of Animals (from Lovejoy). Nature

passes so gradually from the inanimate to the animate that their continuity renders the boundary between them indistinguishable; and there is a middle kind that belongs to both orders. For plants come immediately after inanimate things; and plants differ from one another in the degree in which they appear to participate in life. For the class taken as a whole seems, in comparison with other bodies, to be clearly animate; but compared with animals to be inanimate. And the transition from plants to animals is continuous; for one might question whether some marine forms are animals or plants, since many of them are attached to the rock and perish if they are separated from it. (1964, 56) [1] 

Consider what this means for current debates on identity, in terms of race, gender, etc., and what the idea of ‘middle’ means for this. Lovejoy says here ‘Nature refuses to conform to our craving for clear cut lines of demarcation’ (1964, 56). This issue will be one of the most important in lectures as we explore the concepts of truth, freedom and nature and the part they play in carrying inequality and prejudice. 

What happens if we now put plenitude and continuity together? We get a fair universe where everything that can exist does exist, and because of this everything is connected; each type is connected to another type by an intermediate type so that there are no gaps, no imperfections, in creation. If there were gaps this would not be full plenitude. 

But what Aristotle perhaps left us with was the idea of the hierarchy of the soul, or the powers of the soul, or of intellectual substance. Plants have limited intellectual powers, man has some intellectual powers, pure intellectual substance has greater intellectual power (later, the angels), and the Good or God has supreme intellectual power. Thus, we come to another important idea. If perfection means fullness, then imperfection means lack of fullness or incompletion. That which is incomplete, or is lacking, has some measure of ‘privation’ (1964, 59), some measure of lack or imperfection. This means that the incomplete has some level of potential, and potential becomes a measure of this imperfection, or lack. 

Lovejoy is able to offer a summary of what this meant.

The result was the conception of the plan and structure of the world which, through the Middle Ages and down to the late eighteenth century, many philosophers, most men of science, and, indeed, most educated men, were to accept without question – the conception of the universe as a “Great Chain of Being,” composed of an immense, or – by the strict but seldom rigorously applied logic of the principle of continuity – of an infinite, number of links ranging in hierarchical order from the meagerest kind of existents, which barely escape non­existence, through “every possible” grade up to the ens perfectissimum – or, in a somewhat more orthodox version, to the highest possible kind of creature, between which and the Absolute Being the disparity was assumed to be infinite – every one of them differing from that immediately above and that immediately below it by the “least possible” degree of difference. (1964, 59)

Plenitude, continuity, and now hierarchy. This is the picture of the ancient universe, the universe that made logical sense. Inequality is a structural feature; a natural hierarchy of beings, and no gaps in the ordering arrangement of all things. We will see in a few lectures that lie ahead of us how, from its origins in Plato and Aristotle, Neoplatonism constructed a total world view from plenitude and continuity, a world view seen in Dante and Milton, and one perhaps challenged by Kant and post-Kantian philosophy 500 years after Dante. We will also see how the Great Chain of Being shaped the cosmos of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity up to Copernicus and at how, after Copernicus, science battled with the Great Chain of Being. 

We are beginning, I hope, to understand what is meant by the nature of things, and how inequality was defined within it. To end this lecture, we will look briefly at some of the key Neoplatonic developments of the Great Chain of Being that Lovejoy speaks about. The first comes from Plotinus, born in Egypt in 204-5 CE, who studied in Alexandria, Persia, and Rome until his death in 270-1. His most famous work is The Enneads which is a series of 54 Treatises edited and left to us by his student Porphyry. In it he addresses our question about the origin of inequality directly. ‘Is it by the mere will of the being that meted out to all their several lots that inequalities exist among them? By no means. It was necessary according to the nature of things that it should be so’ (1964, 64).[2]

The Enneads has many passages clearly describing the need for and the logic of inequality. Here is one of them.

There is, then, a Providence, which permeates the Cosmos from first to last, not everywhere equal, as in a numerical distribution, but pro­portioned, differing, according to the grades of place-just as in some one animal, linked from first to last, each member has its own function, the nobler organ the higher activity while others successively concern the lower degrees of the life, each part acting of itself, and experiencing what belongs to its own nature and what comes from its relation with every other.[3]

On reading Plotinus one can clearly see that inequality is a structural feature of a coherent, continuous full and fair universe. And given that Plotinus reasons that the best world must contain all possible evils, we arrive at the conclusion that this world is the best of all possible worlds. To read about this, try reading of Professor Pangloss and his student Candide in Voltaire’s novel Candide, which is a deeply satirical account of this idea that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. 

But before leave Plotinus let us note one final thing. In the Treatise on Providence, he argues that the Good, or God, must be multiple, for that is the principle of plenitude. But he also says that ‘the maximum of difference is contrariety.’[4] By contrariety he means opposites, or things that oppose each other. Since the plenitude that the One creates is a world of imperfect things, it is also a world of conflict. Why? Because in the plenitude it is inevitable that opposites will be created―white and black, weak and strong, reasoning and unreasoning, etc. Remember, it is fair and just that everything that can exist should exist, even if its lot in life is to be opposed by something more powerful. Lovejoy says that for Plotinus, ‘It is better that one animal should be eaten by another than that it should never have existed at all’ (1964, 65) ―although interestingly, Porphyry reports that Plotinus was a vegetarian![5]

But it leads Plotinus to the conclusion that the unity and harmony of the One expresses itself as ‘a drama torn with struggle.’[6] This opposition, he says, is the coherence of the principle of plenitude; ‘bringing about differentiation to the uttermost degree, will of necessity create contrarieties: it will be complete only by producing itself not in merely diverse things but in contrary things.’[7]

Lovejoy puts this as follows. Conflict is a necessary implication of diversity. Difference carried to its maximum―and that is the fairness of plenitude―is opposition. This is a thought that has very recently been challenged. Among others, Jacques Derrida has argued that opposition is a manifestation of difference and the erasure of difference. It is an insight such as this that has led in recent times to an interest in respecting difference and trying to see how it is deformed by its appearance as opposition. 

Before we end, two observations on the development of the idea of the Great Chain of Being according to the principle of plenitude and continuity from Lovejoy.

St Augustine (354-430), the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, asked himself why, when God made all things, he did not make them all equal, and replied to himself in Plotinian fashion. If all things were equal, all things would not be, for the multiplicity of kinds of things of which the universe is constituted―first and second and so on, down to the creatures of the lowest grades―would not exist.[8]

There was also much medieval debate about whether God could be blamed for creating evil in the world. Plenitude led to a problem. If God did not put evil into things in the world, then he was not their creator and there was irrationality in creation. If God refused to will evil things into the world, then he was unjust. How then to maintain God’s freedom of choice in the necessity of the justice and Good of plenitude?

Peter Abelard (1079-1121), a French philosopher, reaffirmed the Platonic or Neoplatonic line. Lovejoy quotes him

Hence is that most true argument of Plato’s, whereby he proves that God could not in any wise have made a better world than he has made … [and] Augustine’s, where he shows that all things in the world are pro­duced or disposed by divine providence, and nothing by chance, nothing fortuitously … God does not do this because he wills to do so, but he wills to do so because it is good. (1964, 71).

This lent its weight to the ‘best of all possible worlds’ thesis. Abelard was later accused of the heresy that God ought not to prevent evils.

St Thomas Aquinas also accepted the principle of plenitude. Says Thomas (from Lovejoy)

All possible grades of goodness would not be filled up, nor would any creature be like God in having pre-eminence over another. Thus the supreme beauty (summus decor) would be lost to the creation, if there were lacking that order by which things are dissimilar and unequal. . . . If there were a dead level of equality in things, only one kind of created good would exist, which would be a manifest derogation from the perfection of the creation. (1964, 76-7)

A universe containing angels and other things is better than one containing angels only; since the perfection of the universe is attained essentially in proportion to the diversity of natures in it. (1964, 77)

And on the principle of continuity

Albertus Magnus, writing De animalibus, had already laid it down that “nature does not make [animal] kinds separate without making something intermediate between them; for nature does not pass from extreme to extreme nisi per medium.” Thomas accordingly dwells upon the “wonderful linkage of beings (connexio rerum)” which nature “reveals to our view. The lowest member of the higher genus is always found to border upon (contingere) the highest member of the lower genus.” The stock example of the zoophytes, borrowed from Aristotle, is cited; but the principal application which Thomas gives to the conception is to the relation of mind and body. The material, the genus corporum, at its highest, namely, in man, passes over into the mental. Man’s constitution is “aequaliter complexionatum, has in equal degree the characters of both classes, since it attains to the lowest member of the class above bodies, namely, the human soul, which is at the bottom of the series of intellectual beings – and is said, therefore, to be the horizon and boundary line of things corporeal and incorporeal.” (1964, 79)

As we will come to see, there are many contradictions for the three religions in this Neoplatonism. One is, if this is the best of all possible worlds, why do religions say that man needs to escape the trappings and sins of this life and be as much like God as possible? Why is matter so reviled and intellect so revered? We will see …


Aristotle, (1984) The Complete Works of Aristotle, vol. 1, Princeton, Princeton University Press.  

Jammer, M. (1999) Einstein and Religion, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Lovejoy, A. (1964) The Great Chain of Being, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.

Plotinus, (1991) The Enneads, London, Penguin. 

St Augustine, (1982) Eighty-three Different Questions, Fathers of the Church vol 70, question 41 of 83, Catholic University of America Press. 

[1] See Aristotle, 1984, p. 922, 588b4-15.

[2] Plotinus, The Enneads, III. 3.3. 

[3] Plotinus, The Enneads, III. 3.II.5.

[4] Plotinus, The Enneads, XXX.2.

[5] He joins a long list of philosophers who have been ‘reported’ to be vegetarians; Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and later, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Rousseau, Darwin, Nietzsche… 

[6] Enneads, III.2.16.

[7] Enneads, III.2.16.

[8] St Augustine, 1982, p. 74.

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A History of Western Philosophy: Prejudice and Inequality

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