on May 10, 1999
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. The chain was God's thought concretely expressed.
This is not a book for someone who is a neophyte to philosophy. However it is an important book, particularly for understanding the intellectual foundations of much scientific and philosophical speculation of the past several hundred years. Lovejoy succeeds in showing how the Great Chain of Being lead to a number of surprising intellectual developments including Romanticism's appreciation for diversity. His writing is very clear. At times the book is amusing and it is always pleasurable to read.
on December 4, 2002
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.
on February 28, 2007
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!
on December 2, 2006
_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. In providing a history of this central concept, Lovejoy traces the development of Western philosophy from the ancient Greeks (Plato and Aristotle), through the medieval period, to the rationalists (Leibniz and Spinoza), through some Eighteenth Century attempts to understand the universe, to the Romantic period (the German romantics and the metaphysical poets), to the modern day (in which the "great chain of being" was overturned and temporality came to play a unique role in the philosophies of individuals such as Bergson, Whitehead, and James). Lovejoy's lectures are very learned and show an incredible depth of philosophical understanding, as he traces the history of this idea. At the end, Lovejoy is to maintain that the idea eventually was overcome because it involved a static picture of the universe, and new philosophical systems (mentioning those of Schelling and Whitehead for example) came to allow for a temporal understanding of the universe and a God that evolves with it. (While his rejection of the notion of the "great chain of being" is perhaps over-hasty, particularly in light of what we now know about the "Big Bang" and the creation of the universe, these lectures nevertheless provide an enlightening tour through the history of ideas.)
Lovejoy begins his lectures by defining what he means by the "history of ideas" (the framework which he will use in his presentation of this particular concept). Lovejoy maintains that the "history of ideas" is both more specific and less restricted than the history of philosophy. Lovejoy suggests that the "history of ideas" is much like analytical chemistry and that "Though it deals in great part with the same material as the other branches of the history of thought and depends greatly upon their prior labors, it divides that material in a special way, brings the parts of it into new groupings and relations, views it from the standpoint of a distinctive purpose." Lovejoy then proceeds to further explicate what he means by the "history of ideas" and the role that the concept of the "great chain of being" plays in that history. In his next lecture, Lovejoy focuses on the genesis of the idea in ancient Greek philosophy. Lovejoy begins by noting that Whitehead regarded Western philosophy as "consist[ing] of a series of footnotes to Plato", and thus he begins by explaining the role of "otherworldiness" in Western philosophy and the philosophy of Plato and the Platonists. Lovejoy mentions Plato's _Dialogues_, Plato's notion of "the Good" and "Absolute Being" (comparing this to the Vedanta), and the NeoPlatonists such as Plotinus. Lovejoy also examines the thought of Aristotle and explains the development of the principles of plenitude and continuity from his philosophy in the _Metaphysics_. Lovejoy also explains the role of "the One" in Plotinus, and then turns his attention to the medieval thought in the subsequent lecture. Here, Lovejoy mentions the writings of the Pseudo-Dionysius, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. Lovejoy explains the role of the principle of plenitude in the thought of Saint Thomas (noting the tendency of Thomism towards "illusionism" or otherworldliness, similar to the Vedanta) and the other Schoolmen. Lovejoy also mentions Jewish sources, the philosophy of Robert Fludd, and the role of Christian heresies (Gnosticism and Manicheanism). Lovejoy's next lecture deals with plenitude and the new cosmography. Here, Lovejoy explains the Copernican hypothesis (and how it would lead to subsequent attempts to rectify the notion of the "great chain of being"), the beginnings of modern science in Roger Bacon, and mentions Bruno and Galileo. Lovejoy also mentions the philosophies of Descartes and Pascal and the beginning of the modern era. Lovejoy next turns his attention to the principle of plenitude and the "principle of sufficient reason". The principle of sufficient reason (which was to play a role in both the philosophies of Spinoza and Leibniz) states that everything that happens does so for a definite reason. Lovejoy expounds upon the philosophies of Spinoza (mentioning his pantheism) and Leibniz (mentioning his _Theodicy_ and attempt to solve the problem of evil). The next lecture consists of Lovejoy's reflections on the "great chain of being" in Eighteenth Century thought. Lovejoy explains the subsequent attempts to maintain the concept of the "great chain of being" among the philosophers of the Eighteenth Century, noting attempts to rectify religion with science, the philosophy of optimism (that this is the best of all possible worlds), and the role of Eighteenth Century biology (mentioning the concept of design as seen in the writings of Paley for example and contrasting this to Darwinism). Lovejoy next turns his attention to temporalizing the chain of being. Here, Lovejoy mentions the thinking of Kant, Bergson, and others and their attempts to provide a temporal understanding for this concept. Lovejoy next turns his attention to Romanticism and the priniciple of plenitude. Lovejoy notes the role of this concept in the Romantic poets as well as in the philosophy of German idealism. Finally Lovejoy ends by noting the culmination of this concept and its eventual overcoming by modern philosophers. Lovejoy mentions for example the concept of God (as evolving) as seen by thinkers such as Schelling and Whitehead.
This book provides an excellent introduction to an important concept in the history of ideas in Western thought. Lovejoy was to found this study and his thinking is both profound and unique. Lovejoy's learning is very impressive and his references are sure to provide much source material for further reading in philosophy.
on February 21, 2015
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. It's a somewhat peculiar study of the development of certain philosophical ideas derived from Plato and Plotinus. Lovejoy uses the expression “Great Chain of Being” to denote a Platonist view of the world as a strictly rational order emanated by a God identical to the Idea of the Good. The principle of “plenitude” dictates that every potential creature must be actualized. Therefore we get a long “chain” of creatures, from the smallest worms (or microbes, when these were discovered) to the most powerful angels. Since God is The Good and his handiwork is strictly rational, the world as we know it is the best possible world. From this follows the idea that evil is a necessary part of the whole, and cannot be dispensed with.
Lovejoy's traces the development of this idea (he calls it “a series of footnotes to Plato”, with a nod to Whitehead) during the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period, stopping at the Romantics circa 1800. Tracing the evolution of a single idea is difficult, and the author often digresses into discussions about other aspects of philosophy, or the history of science. I didn't know Leibniz (17th century) speculated about the old age of the Earth and biological evolution! Nor did I know that Locke believed in essences. I *did* know that medieval man didn't consider the central position of the Earth to be privileged. (C S Lewis must have borrowed from Lovejoy's work for his own “The Discarded Image”.)
Lovejoy describes how the Great Chain of Being was “temporalized” during the Enlightenment, being turned from a static concept to a more evolutionary perspective, where the chain was seen as a ladder, with many possibilities yet untested. (Both these versions of the “chain” are still with us in the religious-spiritual milieux, the Traditionalists insisting on the static version, while the Theosophists and their many off-shots support the latter perspective.) Eventually, the whole chain began to unravel, as philosophers and scientists realized that the fossils were remains of extinct creatures. Perhaps the world wasn't strictly rational, after all? Had Lovejoy followed the story through the 19th century, he could have pointed out that the progressive-evolutionary perspective was rather seamlessly combined with the extinction perspective, since (of course) the extinctions could be seen as necessary evils á la Plotinus in a cosmos forever evolving forward (a 20th century example rather late in the game would be Teilhard).
The author spends much time analyzing the real or perceived contradictions in Platonism. This can occasionally be somewhat annoying, as when Lovejoy claims that Plato and Plotinus really believed in two gods: the self-sufficient and aloof “One”, and the overflowing, ever-active god of emanations, often personalized as a craftsman or demiurge (a bit like the Biblical creator-god). Lovejoy gravely tells us that these two gods are logically incompatible. Perhaps they are, but Lovejoy also admits that Plato was a mystic who often used allegory when words failed him. What if the “two gods” (they would be three in Christianity!) are an attempt to communicate a mystical insight?
I'm not sure who might be interested in this work, which is rather hard to read and somewhat narrow. I read some chapters, and skimmed others. My edition also comes with a very strange introduction by Peter Stanlis, who exposits on the influence of Lovejoy's book on the poet Robert Frost! As a sidepoint, Integral Theory writer Ken Wilber highly recommends “The Great Chain of Being” (his idea of Plato as a “Descender” is inspired by it), so a future edition with a blurb by Mr Wilber might boost the sales… I doubt the average Integralist would find it useful, however! Arthur O Lovejoy's book is probably best suited for theology students, since it contains material pertinent to the question of “panentheism” (pan-en-theism).
Arthur Oncken Lovejoy (1873-1962) was an influential American philosopher and intellectual historian, who founded the discipline known as the history of ideas. This book comprises the William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1933.
He wrote in the Preface, "The title of this book... was long one of the most famous in the vocabulary of occidental philosophy, science, and reflective poetry; and the conception which in modern times came to be expressed by this ... has been one of the half-dozen most potent and persistent presuppositions in Western thought. It was, in fact, until not much more than a century ago, probably the most widely used familiar conception of the general SCHEME of things, of the constitutive pattern of the universe... The real oddity, then, is that its history has not previously been written and its meaning and implications analyzed... this idea... provided the chief basis for most of the more serious attempts to solve the problem of evil and to show that the scheme of things is an intelligible and rational one; and... [the] same belief about the structure of nature lay in the background of much early modern science..."
He states in the first chapter, "While the history of ideas... is thus an attempt at historical synthesis, this does not mean that it is a mere conglomerate, still less that it aspires to be a comprehensive unification, of other historical disciplines. It is concerned only with a certain group of factors in history, and with these only in so far as they can be seen at work in what are commonly considered separate divisions of the intellectual world; and it is especially interested in the processes by which influences pass over from one province to another." (Pg. 16)
He explains, "This vague notion of an ontological scale was to be combined with the more intelligible conceptions of zoological and psychological hierarchies which Aristotle had suggested... The result was the conception of the plan an 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 ... number of links ranging in hierarchical order from the meagerest kind of existents.. through 'every possible' grade up 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." (Pg. 59)
Later, he says that the "essence of the cosmological Chain of Being" was "The notion of infinitesimal gradation." (Pg. 90) He says, "it is not mere quantity of numbers that Nature is thus insatiably avid; it is essentially the maximization of diversity that she seeks, the multiplication of species and sub-species and differing individuals to the limit of logical possibility." (Pg. 182) The cosmological version of the theory "tended chiefly... to make man not unbecomingly sensible of his littleness in the scheme of things, and to promote a not wholly unsalutary modesty and self-distrust." (Pg. 200)
For those interested in the historical development of scientific and philosophical ideas, this book will be of great interest.
With this book Lovejoy invented the area of study called ' The History of Ideas'. His tracing of a single idea through all its historical transformations gave a new interpretation to the concept of ' idea itself'. Ideas were not 'eternal unchanging concepts' but were evolving forms who took on new meanings in new situations.
on November 4, 2015
In Lovejoy's homage to the history of Occidental thought, the twin principles of plenitude and continuity play a pivotal role. These two concepts represent man's original conflict with himself. Man inherits, along with self-reflection and an expressive imagination, a conceit to substantiate his reflections in language. It is in this conceit of man that these two opposing aspects of his existence reveal themselves; one immutable and beyond description, the other extensive, dynamic, and upon thorough observation, systematic. (And man, with his modes of rationality and self-reflection, was possessed by the incommensurate perception of his nature and that of the world. This aporia in ancient man served as a commencement to his search (and ours) for a rational understanding of the world. Some of humanity's earlier productions, as exemplified by Plato, appear more allegorical than system. It is likely that Plato's productions were descriptions of the world through feelings rather than worldly facts.)
Lovejoy uses the twin principles of Platonic origin to guide him through the philosophic heritage of the Occident. While these principles function both as tools for the author and guides for the reader, we also discover that they function as a kind of philosophic archetype, each subtly influencing the systems of thinkers as extensive and influential as Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, and Shelling.
From Plato to Schelling, we become witnesses to the twin principles as they exert influence in the background of the history of Occidental discourse. Lovejoy expertly traces the philosophical dialectic as it moves side to side, making novel expositions on all the transitions with a mind of intimidating erudition. It is within this context, and through Lovejoy's intellectual dexterity, that the "Great Chain" becomes thematically enthralling for the reader.
With "The Great Chain of Being", Arthur Lovejoy disseminates a sublime concoction for the thirsty intellectual. He is perhaps at his most brilliant and comprehensive when dilating in his first two chapters on the history and genesis of ideas. Accepting the invitation of an 'historian of ideas' to explore the history and genesis of ideas couldn't be more exciting, as it carries with it the aura of a rite of passage. As an excursus into the caverns of philosophy, this book is about as good as it gets!
on October 18, 2016
Arthur Lovejoy analyzes a powerful if flawed concept’s “control” over Western mind since Plato. The chain of being is the continuum of “substance/essence/stuff” beginning with God (or Plato’s Good) and ending with either inorganic life or nothingness itself. The chain of being hinges around three concepts: plenitude, continuity, and gradation.
Summary of the Idea
At the top of the chain is pure Being. At the bottom is pure nothingness. Further, Good is coterminous with Being. Thirdly, good is self-diffusive. So far this isn’t too bad. It becomes tricky when it becomes “ontologized.” a) the line between Creator and creature is fuzzy; b) if something is lower on the chain, is it less good? What’s the difference between less good and bad?
If there is an infinite distance between God and not-God, and all of this is placed on a “scale” or chain, then is there not an infinite distance between each link in the scale? This was Dr Samuel Johnson’s critique, and it highlighted the problem of the chain of being: reality had to be static and exist all at once. This called creation into question, since if the Good is necessarily self-diffusive, then it had to diffuse into creation. God had no freedom to do otherwise. Ironically, this Idea also called evolution into question: if there is an infinite distance between the links, then there is no changing from one link to another.
This book’s value lies in its being a prime example of clear, penetrating thinking. In each chapter Lovejoy presents a new difficulty with the idea of a chain of being and the force is cumulative. The chain functions as a snapshot of the God-world relationship. Since God is perfect, and the chain is a diffusion of his goodness, and since God is eternally perfect, then we must see this eternal perfection. If not, we have to find “the missing link” (and is not evolution a mere temporalizing of the chain?)
on June 16, 2014
Not an easy read; but for the student or specialist in Western philosophy, provides a brilliant overview of an essential and influential idea. Written in what is now an obsolete and verbose style; but the book rightly remains an illuminating classic.