Book Review and Reflection: Arthur Lovejoy’s “The Great Chain of Being”

Arthur O. Lovejoy is one of the more iconoclastic figures in the history of American academic philosophy. Writing in the early 20th century, when American intellectuals were open to “big idea” narratives written by popular authors like Will Durant,  Lovejoy managed to steer between the twin errors of shallow generalization and academic obscurantism. His magum opus, The Great Chain of Being, is at once bold and scholarly, and should serve as a model for all those who wish to overcome the artificial division between academic depth and general relevance. 

The goal of this work is grand — to offer a genealogy of Platonism stretching back from antiquity into the then recently concluded Romantic movement of the 19th century.  At first glance, this project seems somewhat dubious. Surely Lovejoy was too influenced by his contemporary Alfred North Whitehead, who famously suggested that all philosophy is simply a series of footnotes to Plato. Going into the work with a 21st century eye, we might assume that the philosopher’s enthusiasm for grand narratives has gotten the better of him, as, in constructing this account, he must gloss over the many strands of materialism and skepticism which have contradicted Platonic tendencies. 

Yet, counteracting our disbelief from the beginning, The Great Chain defines an approach to intellectual history capable of overcoming these objections. Lovejoy, often credited with founding intellectual history as a modern discipline, will not investigate “Platonism” as a historical school of thought, but rather as a structure, or “unit-idea”, underlying diverse and seemingly conflicting intellectual assumptions. A truly fundamental thinker like Plato introduces an entire template of thought which other thinkers frequently edit, but rarely abandon. In an image Plato himself would appreciate, the job of the intellectual historian is to see past the mirage of rhetorical emphasis in order to find the unifying threads across intellectual movements. 

Through this method, Lovejoy offers a clever interpretation of Plato and lays the foundation for his wider claims. Plato’s most famous metaphors, such as the Ladder of Love and Allegory of the Cave, emphasize the metaphysical “height” of immaterial ideals, which must be reached through intellectual and moral “ascent”. Yet this account of Plato, familiar in centuries of Christian ideology, does not capture the full range of Plato’s metaphysics. Far from remaining dim shadows on a wall of obscured perfection, the material world also meaningfully participates in a fuller picture of the Platonic vision. As Lovejoy expresses the notion in Chapter 2, “Genesis of the Idea”,

Now if Plato had stopped here, the subsequent history of Western thought would, it can hardly be doubted, have been profoundly different from what it has been. But the most notable — and the less noted — fact about his historical influence is that he did not merely give to European otherworldliness its characteristic form and phraseology and dialectic, but that he also gave the characteristic form and phraseology and dialectic to precisely the opposite tendency — to a peculiarly exuberant kind of this-worldliness. For his philosophy no sooner reaches its climax in what we may call the otherworldly direction than it reverses its course. 

pp. 45 GCB

After some discussion of this quiet but apparent tendency in the Republic and Timaeus, Lovejoy summarizes his interpretation,

And thus Plato, tacitly making the critical assumption that the existence of many entities not eternal, not supersensible, and far from perfect, was inherently desirable, finds in the otherworldly Absolute, the Idea of the Good Itself, the reason why that Absolute cannot exist alone. The concept of Self-Sufficing Perfection, by a bold logical inversion was — without losing any of its original implications — converted into a concept of Self-Transcending Fecundity. A timeless and incorporeal One became the logical ground as well as the dynamic source of the existence of a temporal and material and extremely multiple and variegated universe. 

pp. 49 GCB

For Lovejoy, it is this unique tension in Plato, this “descent” back into the cave, which makes Western intellectual history distinct from the thought of India and China, as Hindu and Buddhist idealism also teaches the transcendence of an illusory material world. While the philosopher in the Allegory of the Cave finds a higher truth outside that realm of illusion, he nonetheless has a duty to return to the city and rule justly, and should even be compelled to do so. 

SOCRATES: We [the founders] must not allow what is now permitted… that they should linger there, and refuse to go down again among those bondsmen and share their labors and honors, whether they are of less or of greater worth.

Republic 7.519

Lovejoy’s reading brings passages like these to the foreground, so that the apparently transcendent and theoretical Plato becomes equally a passionate activist, whose concern for the reform of worldly affairs can be seen in the Western belief in progress. There are in fact two ultimate versions of the Good under Platonism, one otherworldly, accessible through philosophical practice, and the other intensely worldly,  demonstrated in the arduous application of higher ideals to the lower realm of the senses.

And while we tend to focus on the ascending aspect of Plato’s work, particularly emphasized in its Christian reception, this familiar Platonism alone, so often criticized by many more worldly thinkers, does not yield a continuous intellectual genealogy. However, when we take Plato as a whole, the notions of ascent and descent combine in a single unit-idea, evident across intellectual history. Embracing the journey upwards toward divine unity as well as the return down into multiplicity, Western thought has been an expression of the Chain of Being, a hierarchical yet interdependent structure unifying the One and the Many. Plato, as it were, articulated a spectrum of Being, ranging from the immaterial to the material, from the diverse to the singular, from the temporal to the eternal.

Some applications of this concept should be immediately obvious.  The Christian religion asserts that human beings are made in the image of God, while, conversely, God also became fully human — sliding up and down the Chain of Being in both directions. Indeed, when I finished the third chapter, which discusses parallel problems in medieval thought, I feared that the thesis was verging on a truism, as the problems of medieval metaphysics are quite obviously related to their Platonic heritage. 

But Lovejoy’s special insight really shines in the ensuing chapters, where he demonstrates that many unrelated figures in varied disciplines have also relied upon the assumption of a Chain of Being. The 17th century philosopher Leibniz’s “principle of sufficient reason”, summarized as the idea that everything in existence has some reason for being, can be seen a modification of the Chain of Being, as every contingent event must be seen as an emanation of the higher One. The medieval assumption of a geocentric universe was also indirectly supported by the idea of a Chain of Being, as the outer realms of the universe were held to be the higher celestial realms, while the central position of the earth actually encouraged the humility of mankind, set below the heavens. 

In a more modern and empirical spirit, scientists long assumed that the Chain of Being necessitated the existence of a full spectrum of scientific specimens in every domain, an idea Lovejoy terms the principle of plenitude. For early modern biologists, there was a Chain of all living organisms, with every possible species placed in a gradual array. The implications of this theory ranged from the comical (some serious scientists cited mermaids as a link on the spectrum between fish and humans) to the horrifying (later 19th and 20th century theorists attempted to classify “inferior races” as the link on the chain between humans and animals). Nonetheless, this view of Being as existing in gradation was the theoretical forerunner of evolutionary theory, challenging the scriptural assumption of metaphysically unique and isolated human soul. 

While the improbably wide application of the Chain of Being would be fascinating even as mere speculation, Lovely also offers substantial textual evidence to support his views. Many thinkers explicitly refer to a Chain or Scale of Being, sometimes even in poetic expressions. John Milton describes in Paradise Lost

     The scale of nature set
From center to circumference, whereon
In contemplation of created things
By steps we may ascend to God.

Book 5.509-512

In what Lovejoy seems to regard as a great irony,  Schiller employed the same language centuries later to promote a Romantic embrace of the world as a whole, disregarding such upward-looking piety while retaining a “scaled” metaphysics. Schiller writes in his Philosophical Letters

In the work of the Divine Artist, the unique value of each part is respected, and the sustaining gaze with which he honors every spark of energy in even the lowest creature manifests his glory not less than the harmony of the immeasurable whole… This higher completeness cannot be grasped by us, with our present limitations… Every step which we mount in the Scale of Being makes us more capable of this aesthetic enjoyment; but such enjoyment has value, certainly, only in so far as it rouses us to a similar activity. To wonder idly at a greatness not our own can never highly profit us. To the man of noble character there is lacking neither matter to act upon nor the power to be, in his own sphere, himself a creator.

Cited at pp. 299-300 of GCB 

Relying heavily upon these statements in Schiller, Lovejoy concludes his narrative with an examination of Romanticism, which well illustrates the inversion of the traditional Platonic hierarchy. The intensity and depth of Romantic feeling could be seen in highly particular visions and gestures, so that aesthetic pleasures, multiple and varied, remain in communion with the higher Form. In the transition between the Enlightenment and its Romantic successors, the Chain of Being turned over upon itself, as Newton’s austere, disciplined models of a pure celestial geometry poured forth into an infinite world, embraced as divine in every granular aspect. 

While Lovejoy unfortunately departs from original Platonic language in his wider discussions, there are moments when he very well ties together his vision of the new Romantic metaphysics with a more ‘traditional’ Platonism.  Time intrudes upon the static Platonic cosmos in Chapter 9, “The Temporalizing of the Chain of Being”, with the result that,

The Platonic identification of the consummate good with αὐτάρκεια and cessation of desire — “he who possesses it has always the most perfect sufficiency and is never in need of anything else” — was giving place to its opposite: no finality, no ultimate perfection, no arrest of the outreach of the will… Man is by nature insatiable, and it is the will of his Maker that he should be so… The tendency to substitute the ideal of a Streben nach dem Unendlichen, an interminable pursuit of an unattainable goal, for that of a final rest of the soul in the contemplation of Perfection, an assimilation to the “peace which makes quiet the centre” of heaven in Date’s vision of the Celestial Paradise — this tendency has usually been post-dated by historians. It was no invention of Goethe, nor of the German Romanticists, nor even of Lessing, but had been expressed repeatedly throughout the century, both by eminent philosophers and universally read men of letters; and it was closely associated in their minds with the accepted idea of the Scale of Being, which had long been more vaguely described by theologians of unimpeachable orthodoxy as the course of the mind’s ascent to God.

pp. 250 GCB

Tracing the lineage of Plato and the Chain of Being through Romanticism is the greatest achievement of this work, as it upends the common characterization of the movement as irrational. Beginning with emotions and vivid subjective impressions, the Romantics did not abandon rationality, but rather brought it into a ‘lower’ order of the scale, attempting to find unity from within the flux of experience. Lovejoy demonstrates that this project was always implicit within Platonism, and, while it achieved a strong articulation in Romanticism, it still has not nearly been fully realized. Human subjectivity is still cut off from the rational project of science, which has placed mathematical and statistical models atop the Chain of Being, where they weakly promise unitary causes and explanations for the variety of experience. 

If it seems somewhat strange to take Plato so seriously in the 20th century, the point is not lost on Lovejoy, who concludes that the history of the Chain of Being is “the history of a failure” (329). If you strip away its philosophical pedigree, the Chain suddenly seems like a crude and ugly rationalization for a nasty view of existence, suggesting that reality itself is inherently authoritarian and hierarchical. As a political notion, the Chain becomes a metaphor for a caste structure, a criticism also commonly levied against Plato’s Myth of the Metals, which places the citizens of an ideal state into a fixed metallurgical hierarchy (gold, silver, and iron). Metaphysics starts to resemble a pyramid scheme, with the lowly and unaware Many crushed beneath an overbearing One. The imagery depicting this political concept is distinctly medieval, in the most pejorative sense of the term. 

Image of the Chain of Being in the Rhetorica Christiana, Didacus Valades (1579)

This view of reality has long been challenged and rejected, then later inverted, and now it has finally been discarded, yet who could deny that many Western institutions still share the same structure as Valade’s hierarchy? Lovejoy has demonstrated that intellectual premises endure for centuries, long after they have been explicitly abandoned. It seems to me that the author had two motivations in writing this book — first, to conclude the intellectual legacy of the Chain of Being, realizing its full importance just as the chain is broken — and second, to maintain the memory of such metaphysical structures in a 20th century increasingly inclined toward formlessness. The intellectual advances he describes, which relied upon confidence in a metaphysically coherent world, today seem less attainable, as there is little accepted metaphysical doctrine to accept, critique, or adapt.

Not surprisingly, Lovejoy was also known as an early critic of the emerging philosophy of pragmatism, and we must wonder how this purely intellectual accomplishment can still play a role in our times, decidedly still more pragmatic and anti-metaphysical. As the Great Chain comes tumbling down all around us, this incredible work may give us confidence in the lasting power of ideas, and guide us towards a more lateral awe at the wonderful order of all Being.  

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