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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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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)
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Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
In Lovejoy's homage to the history of Occidental thought, the twin principles of plenitude and continuity play a pivotal role. Read morePublished 3 months ago by Amazon Customer
Arthur Lovejoy was a “historian of ideas” (in fact, he founded the discipline) who wrote several books considered seminal. “The Great Chain of Being” is his most well-known work. Read morePublished 11 months ago by Ashtar Command
Arthur Oncken Lovejoy (1873-1962) was an influential American philosopher and intellectual historian, who founded the discipline known as the history of ideas. Read morePublished 19 months ago by Steven H Propp
Not an easy read; but for the student or specialist in Western philosophy, provides a brilliant overview of an essential and influential idea. Read morePublished 19 months ago by SDS
A classic because it enriches our world view when read today just as much as when the lectures were given to an earlier generation. Read morePublished 21 months ago by JP III
This book is old, written in the 1930s, but is a good overview of the history of a philosophical idea in terms a non-philosopher can understand.Published on November 5, 2011 by Kristen Rosser
I have a slightly different perspective than the other reviewers of "The Great Chain of Being." This book is central to understanding the debate about the origins of the... Read morePublished on March 16, 2011 by John M. Beasley
Lovejoy's classic in history of ideas is a vestige of an antiquated British classical ed tradition. This is precisely the sort of humanities that would cause John Dewey to roll... Read morePublished on November 28, 2010 by Jeffrey L. Blackwell