The Great Chain of Being

History of Science 333

Most of the concepts about the nature of living things in the early modern era were derived from the writings of Aristotle. Aristotle wrote about the concept of distinct types of organisms that could be distinguished from all the rest. Aristotle was interested in much more than the biological world, and attempted to build a theory of the world as a whole. As part of this theory, he believed that all of nature could be seen as a continuum of organization from lifeless matter. This matter consisted of the four embracements of water, earth, fire and air and composed everything all the way to the most complex forms of life. He thought of humans as different from the rest of animals though because of their capacity for reason and thought. Aristotle proposed a rank ordering of all living things, from the least to the highest (humans). This idea developed, during the later centuries, into the concept of the "Great Chain of Being". All living things were seen as members of unchanging types, called species, which could be ordered from the least to the highest. Each species has at least one similarity between the species above it and below it in the “ladder”. Only individuals were born and died; species themselves were eternal. The metaphor of the "chain" of being suggested that these species were linked to each other by a logical progression. This concept, in the Western tradition, is the result of the attempt to combine the Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology.

To look at this from the religious standpoint natural theologists used the great chain of being to show that God had created stability in the world and linked all life together to prove that God existed. God created species in the great chain of being in a perfect set and hierarchy. In the religious aspect, God and the angels were at the top of the ladder and gave humans the “divine right” to command over the animals on down to plants, and then earth itself.

The fixity of species was also blended over to the political aspects of humanity by showing how different social classes “mock” the natural world. The monarch was seen as the direct ruler from God and has the divine right to command his country from God and is stable at the top of the chain of being. The other aristocrats and the religious authorities would represent the other “higher” orders of the natural world and so on down the line to the peasants with each social class “stuck” in its place.

The Great Chain of Being as described by Aristotle was adapted to the religious doctrine of Christianity through time to the early modern era as describing the fixity of the natural world. The chain was later used to show how the ladder was fit into the religious aspect of hierarchy as well as the political classes of humanity.