The Origin of Arthur O. Lovejoy’s “Great Chain of Being” and Its Influence on The Western TraditionAsım Kaya
The great chain of being is an ontological description that has long affected the history of philosophy. This conception though, which is known in the history of ideas as a “notion”, was systematized by Arthur Lovejoy in 1936. While the idea has deep roots in philosophy, its effects were more easily traced following Lovejoy’s work. The great chain of being can be described as “the ranking of beings in a chain that rises from inanimate world into the plants, animals, humans and then through angels or immaterial beings towards the ultimate degree which is The God.” The aforementioned hierarchical scheme consists of three main principles, which are the principle of plenitude, the principle of gradation and the principle of continuity. It is worth mention that the same hierarchy was dealt with some different nuances by thinkers in the history of ideas. It has been used effectively by thinkers in many contexts, such as philosophy, theology, and even literature, to solve problems peculiar to their discipline. In this context, we will examine the effect of the great chain of being on Western culture, through the ancient period, Middle Ages, Renaissance era, Age of Enlightenment, and the modern period, following the roots of the chain in the manner forwarded by Lovejoy. In this sense, since dealing with the whole effects of the chain would outstrip the scope of this article, we will confine ourselves to mention just one philosopher’s opinion from every period and their usages of that scheme to demonstrate the importance of the great chain of being on the history of ideas within the Western tradition.
Arthur O. Lovejoy’un “Büyük Varlık Zinciri”nin Kökeni ve Batı Düşüncesindeki İzdüşümleriAsım Kaya
Büyük varlık zinciri felsefe tarihinde özellikle ontolojik bir tasvir olarak karşımıza çıkmaktadır. Bu kavram her ne kadar düşünce tarihinde bir “mefhum” olarak yer alsa da 1936’da Arthur Lovejoy tarafından kökenlerine inilmek suretiyle sistematize edilmiş ve düşünce tarihindeki izi Lovejoy’un çalışmasından itibaren daha detaylı olarak sürülebilmiştir. Her düşünürde farklı nüanslarla ele alındığını müşahede ettiğimiz büyük varlık zinciri ana hatlarıyla; cansızlıktan bitkilere oradan sırasıyla hayvanlar ve insanlar alemine daha sonra ise melekler, gayr-ı maddi varlıklar alemi ve nihayetinde ana gaye olan Tanrı’ya değin varlıkları en düşük mertebeden en yüksek mertebeye değin hiyerarşik bir düzene tabi tutan ontolojik bir sistem olarak tanımlanabilir. Çokluk, mertebeleşme ve devamlılık ilkelerinden müteşekkil hiyerarşik bir şema olarak karşımıza çıkan büyük varlık zinciri felsefi, teolojik ve hatta edebi bağlamlarda pek çok filozof ve düşünür tarafından epistemik düzeyde çeşitli problemlere cevap üretebilmek adına etkili bir şekilde kullanılmıştır. Bu bağlamda hakkında Türkçe literatürde çok fazla çalışma olmadığını müşahede ettiğimiz büyük varlık zincirinin, Lovejoy’un ortaya koyduğu prensiplerden hareketle ilk olarak kökenlerini tespit edecek akabinde ise ilgili hiyerarşinin; Antik Dönem, Orta Çağ, Rönesans Dönemi, Aydınlanma Dönemi ve modern zamanda Batı düşüncesindeki etkilerinin izini sürmeye çalışacağız. Bu açıdan bahsi geçen dönemlerde ilgili hiyerarşinin tüm etkilerini ele almak bir makalenin sınırlarını aşacağı için her
The great chain of being is an ontological conception in which all beings, from inanimate things to God, are ranked on a scale according to their perfectness. This hierarchical scheme, though widely known in the history of ideas, was systematically addressed by Arthur Lovejoy in 1936. The great chain of being as formulated by Lovejoy is composed of three main principles, whose roots can be found in Plato and Aristotle’s philosophies. These principles are “the principle of plenitude”, “the principle of gradation” and “the principle of continuity.” The first principle, the principle of plenitude, was pointed out in Plato’s philosophy and the latter two, the principle of gradation and the principle of continuity, were addressed in Aristotle’s philosophy. According to Lovejoy, these three principles were systematically addressed in Plotinus’s philosophy and became an essential part of Neo-Platonic cosmology. Platon explains the abundance of beings with reference to the absolute goodness of the God in his famous book Timaios. Accordingly, God has absolute goodness and this attribution has given rise to an abundance of beings as goodness requires the existence of things. The other two principles, the principle of gradation and the principle of continuity, were forwarded by Aristotle and through his works affected Western thought. While the principle of gradation refers to the ranking of beings in a chain based on the criteria of their perfection, the principle of continuity is the natural consequence of that ranking in that all beings share at least a minimum level of similarity. Plotinus synthesized and systematized those three principles as an expression of ranked beings specific to emanation theory and added three hypostasis -One, Nous, and Soul- in addition to the natural world addressed in Aristotle’s works. Therefore, we see that beings were ranked from inanimate things to God in Plotinus’s works. This concept of hierarchical order of beings, the great chain of being, affected many cultures and philosophical ideas from Classical Islamic philosophy to the Western tradition. In this article, we confine our subject to only Western thought, including Medieval Christian theology and philosophy, the Renaissance period, and the Age of Enlightenment as well as a peculiar implication and interpretation of the great chain of being specific to modern times. In every period we will deal with just one thinker and their ideas to demonstrate the effect of the great chain of being on those thinkers’ philosophies and systems. In this context, we examined how Thomas Aquinas used the great chain of being to justify some theological and philosophical matters and tried to show how he utilized the principle of continuity effectively to explain the relationship between matter and soul. Marcilio Ficino, a Neo-Platonist philosopher of the Renaissance period, also used the great chain of being to explain the hierarchical order of beings and their ontological relationship to the perfect being, which is God, placing them in a rising line according to their closeness to God. On the other hand, when we come to the Age of Enlightenment we see that the great chain of being continues to be apparent in some philosophical works. One example is John Locke’s famous book An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Here Locke tries to make sense of the existence of many species of spirits with reference to the great chain of being, especially by using the principle of continuity. This attempt of justification shows us that the great chain of being, as an old philosophical and ontological concept, was still used even in the Enlightenment. Finally, it would be beneficial to address how the chain of being in question was presented and understood in modern times. Unlike the justification of some philosophical or theological subjects, in modern times the hierarchical structure of the great chain of being has been anachronistically read into the theory of evolution with reference to some medieval Muslim philosophers’ works. This approach, however, springs from the figural similarities between the great chain of being and the theory of evolution, although the contents of both theories are completely different. It would be accepted easily that similarities in figure do not necessitate similarities in content. In short, the great chain of being has been very effectively used in the history of philosophy to justify different subjects in different areas such as philosophy and theology. In this article, we address the usages of the chain in question and trace its effects specific to the Western tradition from the ancient period to modern times.