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The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea Paperback – January 31, 1936


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 382 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; 13th Printing edition (January 31, 1936)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674361539
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674361539
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #402,448 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

The Great Chain of Being, employed as a title, would have suggested…what was 'probably the most widely familiar conception of the general scheme of things'—the idea of a world in which every being was related to every other in a continuously graded scale, with no possible form of diversity missing. Pursuing the biography of this idea through more than two thousand years, the distinguished author of these lectures makes clear its amazing influence on the thought and history of the Western World… Intellectual vigor, critical precision and an amazing knowledge of what mankind has thought and desired in other ages distinguishes this book. No student of the history of literature, science, or philosophy may well neglect it. (Clifford Barrett New York Times Book Review)

One of the great books of our generation. (Marjorie Nicolson American Scholar)

A fascinating and moving book… Everyone interested in the larger ironies of human history should read [it]. (Ernest Nagel New Republic)

Men are galvanized by ideas and act as vehicles for them… Such a ruling idea is that of the great chain of being. Prof. Lovejoy's study records the birth, the growth, the vicissitudes, transformations, and finally the senility, and perhaps the death of this idea. The study is as fascinating as that of the rise and decay of an empire, and, in fact, it is the study of the empire of an idea over human minds throughout many centuries… Prof. Lovejoy's approach is fresh and different… The learning exhibited in this book is vast. (Raphael Demos Modern Language Notes)

About the Author

Arthur O. Lovejoy taught philosophy for nearly forty years at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of numerous works, including Essays in the History of Ideas and Revolt against Dualism.

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Customer Reviews

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The book is worth the first two exhilarating chapters alone.
Stanley Allen
This book provides an excellent introduction to an important concept in the history of ideas in Western thought.
New Age of Barbarism
With this book Lovejoy invented the area of study called ' The History of Ideas'.
Shalom Freedman

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

124 of 127 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 10, 1999
Format: Paperback
Lovejoy was a professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. This book represents an expanded version of a series of lectures given by Lovejoy at Harvard during the second half of the academic year 1932-33. The fact that this book remains in print over 60 years later is testimony to the fact that it has become a classic.
The book concerns the Great Chain of Being, a way of looking at reality that can be traced to Plato and Aristotle. We begin with the supposition that existence is superior to non-existence. A good God, Plato argues, would allow any non-contradictory being to exist. God thus created a Universe full of all possible things. This Lovejoy calls the principle of plenitude, the maximally full World. From Aristotle later writers evolved the idea that changes in Nature were continuous; that "Nature makes no leaps." This became the principle of continuity. Eventually, philsophers would postulate a vast chain of Beings stretching from the perfect (God) to the nearly non-existent (lifeless matter). Mankind was somewhere in the middle of the chain - above the animals (specifically the Ape), but below the Angels.
The principles of continuity and plenitude were integral to the thinking of many philosophers and scientists. Lovejoy traces how numerous thinkers - St. Thomas, Liebniz, and Schelling figure most prominently - wrestled with the implications of plenitude and continuity. Could plenitude explain evil? How could one account for change if God had created the chain at the beginning of History? Lovejoy also traces the fate of two contradictory Platonic conceptions of God. Plato had painted God as an Other-Worldly and self-sufficient being on one hand while also describing how God had manifested his thought in the real world.
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37 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Stanley Allen on December 4, 2002
Format: Paperback
This is the landmark book of the field Lovejoy single-handedly invented (and of which perhaps he is still the sole master): the history of ideas. He wrote some other essays about different ideas and their histories (one of my favorites is about the concept of the "fortunate fall"), but this is his magnum opus and it reads like a thrilling detective story. He's a sleuth looking underneath the various intellectual currents over a 1500 year period in western thought, finding a culprit lurking in many of the failed philosophies and fashions we think we know -- the idea of the "great chain of being" foisted on us by Plato and his heirs.
The book is worth the first two exhilarating chapters alone. After that, the book can get pretty heavy at times; and Lovejoy's long-thought-train, multi-disciplinary, multi-lingual approach can leave one a little lost in some passages. Keep going to the end, though -- the book gradually builds up to an amazing set of climaxes in the last few chapters. He shows how the various thinkers draw out all of the contradictory implications of the the original idea until the thing peters out into a strewn splatter of waste.
It's funny and thought-provoking, and it will peel your mind like an onion.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By filmnoirfan on February 28, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I'm not going to review this work as much as recommend it. They simply don't make scholars like Lovejoy anymore. I remember reading this as an undergrad in the 80s (bought to supplement my summer reading) and found it a most refreshing read compared to most of the trendy post-modernist "see-how-clever-I-am" works a la DeMan, Foucault, Derrida and their epigones that were de rigeur at the time. Read this to see how one can be a great thinker and write lucidly all at the same time. Amazing!
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By New Age of Barbarism on December 2, 2006
Format: Paperback
_The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea_ is a publication of the William James Lectures delivered at Harvard in 1933 by philosopher and historian of ideas Arthur O. Lovejoy, by Harvard University Press. Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873-1962) was a professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University who had studied under William James and Josiah Royce. He developed the study of the history of ideas, which study he outlines and explains in the first lecture presented in this volume. The lectures presented here develop the history of an idea ("the great chain of being") which played a central role in the development of Occidental philosophy. Lovejoy explains in his preface to these lectures that the use of the phrase "the great chain of being" to describe the universe was used to refer to three characteristics of the constitution of the world: that these characteristics implied a certain conception of the nature of God, that this conception was conjoined with another to which it was in latent opposition to itself, and that most of the religious thought of the West has thus been at variance with itself. Lovejoy further maintains that the "great chain of being" was used to supply the basis for resolving the problem of evil and showing that the scheme of things was both intelligent and rational. Two further principles play a central role in Lovejoy's explication of the "great chain of being": "the principle of plenitude" and "the principle of continuity". The principle of plenitude may be traced back to Aristotle and simply states that all things that are possible will be, and it lies behind the ontological proof for the existence of God of Saint Anselm. The principle of continuity maintains that the qualitative differences of things must constitute a linear or continuous series.Read more ›
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