A Review of
Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Harvard University Press, 1964 , 382pp. + xi.
by Stephen C. Perks
This book deals with a very important philosophical, indeed religious, idea that has had very great and significant influence in the history and development of Western thought and society, and which has not generally been given the attention it deserves in our attempts to explain that history. Its influence in the Church has been equally strong and therefore it is important that we understand the history of this idea. Unfortunately, Arthur Lovejoy’s book falls short of the important task that he set himself in two respects: first, he deals narrowly with certain philosophers and their theories, and does not broaden his analysis into how this has had practical effects on the development of Western society, and second, it is written in a difficult and affected pseudo-academic style. It abounds in long sentences with long subordinate clauses that seem calculated to throw the reader off track as often as possible rather than adding meaningfully to the information that appears to be the subject of the sentence. Now, I am not a novice reader. I understand language and how it works and I am familiar with complex grammar. I have read widely including many difficult books on theology and philosophy such as Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in translation and Dooyeweerd’s tortuous response to it, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, the English translation of which it has been claimed was translated from Dutch into Double-Dutch. But although these were difficult, they did not irritate the hell out of me like Lovejoy’s book did. There really is no reason for Lovejoy’s pretentious style of writing. It is absurd. The material does not require it, important though it is. He is not dealing with difficult concepts, and for this reason his language seems unnecessarily difficult and indeed gratuitous in its complexity. This is doubtless an intellectual subject, but it does not have to be discussed in such an affected and preposterously pseudo-intellectual style. Lovejoy gives the impression that he is as keen to display his learning as he is to explicate his subject. Most of what he has to say could have been expressed far more concisely and clearly in a more direct manner. His verbosity is superfluous. It exists for its own sake, or else for some purpose other than the clear exposition of the subject in hand. This is a pity because the subject he is dealing with is truly important. The overall impression is actually not of a man of great learning, though he may well have been such, but rather of a man who struggles to express himself clearly in the English language. This kind of thing gives genuine intellectual pursuits and learning a bad name, which is again unfortunate, since both are in decline in our age of increasingly functional illiteracy and anti-intellectualism.
The idea that Lovejoy expounds the history of in this book is a complex of three other ideas that together congeal into the idea of the Great Chain of Being.
According to Lovejoy the most fundamental of these ideas first appeared in Plato (p. 24). Plato is both other-worldly, and this-worldly, despite the apparent contradiction. He affirms the necessity not only of the ideas (his other-worldliness) but of this world corresponding to the ideas (his this-worldliness). In this perspective a perfect, supreme Good, in other words God, must create all that can possibly be created, and all forms must find their counterpart in the material world. Everything must be in its place. There can be no gaps in the material world and there must be a material counterpart to every idea. This Lovejoy calls the doctrine of plenitude. Second, although Aristotle did not hold to the doctrine of plenitude he was the originator of the two other ideas that fused together with plenitude to produce the Great Chain of Being. The first was continuity. He did not hold that all organisms can be arranged as an ascending series of forms; nevertheless, this idea eventually emerged from his doctrine of continuity. According to Lovejoy, the principle of continuity could be directly deduced from the Platonic principle of plenitude, but in fact in Plato it appears only as a “vague tendency” that is not fully worked out and articulated as a definitely formulated doctrine. The second contribution that Aristotle made that was to be combined with the doctrine of plenitude and continuity to produce the idea of the Great Chain of Being was the idea gradation. It was Aristotle who “chiefly suggested to naturalists and philosophers of later times the idea of arranging (at least) all animals in a single graded scala natura according to their degree of ‘perfection’” (p. 58). “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” and thus the principle of “unilinear gradation was added to the assumption of the fullness [plenitude—SCP] and the qualitative continuity of the series of forms of natural existence. The result was the conception of the plan and structure of the world which, through the Middle Ages and down to the late eighteenth century, many philosophers, and 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’” (p. 59).
This whole scheme of things was given a major injection of steroids—my analogy not Lovejoy’s—by Plotinus: “Though the ingredients of this complex of ideas came from Plato and Aristotle, it is in Neoplatonism that they first appear as fully organized into a coherent general scheme of things. The dialectic of the theory of emanation is essentially an elaboration and extension of the passages in the Timaeus which have been cited; it is, in short and attempt at a deduction of the necessary validity of the principle of plenitude, with which the principles of continuity and gradation are definitely fused. In Plotinus still more clearly than in Plato, it is from the properties of a rigorous otherworldly, and a completely self-sufficient, Absolute, that the necessity of the existence of this world, with all its manifoldness and its imperfections, is deduced” (p. 61–62, my italics).
Thus, from “Neoplatonism the principle of plenitude, with the group of ideas presupposed by it or derived from it [i.e. the Great Chain of Being—SCP] passed over into the complex of preconceptions which shaped the theology and the cosmology of medieval Christendom” (p. 67). Lovejoy goes on to deal with some of the internal conflicts that acceptance of this view of things caused the schoolmen of the Mediaeval Church. The schoolmen got themselves into knots trying to harmonise these principles with the Christian faith and get around the problems they created for their understanding of the faith. He deals briefly with a variety of well-known theologians including Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Origen, Peter Lombard, and then deals more at length with Abelard and Aquinas. One of the basic problems was how to account for the existence of evil if the universe is the best possible universe that could exist, which is a necessary consequence of the acceptance of these ideas. This led Aquinas to make the following argument in three sentences, the last of which negates the first: “It is to be maintained that, these things being supposed, the universe cannot be better than it is, because of the supremely fitting order which God has assigned to things, wherein the good of the universe consists. If any one of these things were [separately] better, the proportion which constitutes the order of the whole would be vitiated. . . . Nevertheless, God could make other things than he has, or could add others to the things he has made; and this other universe would be better” (p. 79). This illustrates the problems that beset not only Aquinas specifically, but the Church generally, as a result of this accommodation to pagan philosophy. Lovejoy sums up Aquinas’ position with respect to the principles of plenitude and continuity in the following words: “He employs both freely as premises . . . whenever they serve his purpose; but he evades their consequences by means of subtle but spurious and irrelevant distinction when they seem to be on the point of leading him into the heresy of admitting the complete correspondence of the realms of the possible and the actual, with the cosmic determinism which this implies. And all orthodox medieval theology, except the radically anti-rationalistic type, was in the same position” (p. 81).
Lovejoy goes on to argue that there was a more significant conflict in mediaeval thought between two irreconcilable ideas of the good that had its origin in this acceptance of the principle of plenitude along with other accepted fundamental assumptions, and this conflict lead to two irreconcilable ideas of God as the Good, i.e. he is (a) the idea of the Good but, (b) he is the idea of Goodness. Though the second was deduced from the first, these are, says Lovejoy, “antithetical,”—the other-worldly and the this-worldly. He says: “The one was an apotheosis of unity, self-sufficiency, and quietude, the other of diversity, self-transcendence, and fecundity. The one was, in the words of Peter Ramus, a Dues omnis laboris, actionis, confenctionis non modo fugiens sed fastidiens et despiciens [“a God who not only flees but shuns and disdains all labour, action and creativity”—SCP]; the other was the God of the Timaeus and of the theory of emanation. The one God was the goal of the ‘way up,’ of that ascending process by which the finite soul, turning from all created things, took its way back to the immutable Perfection in which it alone could find rest. The other was the source and the informing energy of that descending process by which being flows through all the levels of possibility down to the very lowest” (p. 82f.).
At this point I was reminded of the difference between eros religion and agape religion, and how this all fitted together with what Anders Nygren discusses in his book Apage and Eros, but Lovejoy does not go into this.
The contradiction between these two ideas did not trouble the mediaeval mind according to Lovejoy because “The notion of the coincidentia oppositorum, of the meeting of extremes in the Absolute, was an essential part of nearly all medieval theology, as it had been of Neoplatonism” (p. 83). The implication of these two different ideas, however, is that the one leads to withdrawal from the world and detachment from the creatures, in favour of ecstatic contemplation of God, while the other, had it been realised, would have “summoned men to participate, in some finite measure, in the creative passion of God, to collaborate consciously in the process by which the diversity of things, the fullness of the universe, is achieved” (p. 84).
Nevertheless, since these two ideas could not be harmonised, it was the first, the idea of the Good, that determined the Church’s ethical teachings and shaped the assumptions concerning man’s chief end, and influenced European thought down to the Renaissance and beyond it, in the Protestant as well as the Catholic Church. This is the “way up” in which man is to look for the Good—eros religion, though Lovejoy does not use this term or characterise it in this way, and his thesis does not deal with it despite the fact that the Good being sought, God, was the God whose Good leads to the “way down,” i.e. agape religion, although again Lovejoy does not use these terms. This agape/eros subject matter is not dealt with at all by Lovejoy, but I cannot get it out of my mind in considering the things he is dealing with. I feel like Lovejoy could have done to have read Nygren’s book and synthesised his subject matter with the agape/eros that he expounds, but only part of Nygren’s book was published when Lovejoy gave the lectures on which The Great Chain of Being is based (Lovejoy’s lectures were delivered in 1933 and the book was published in 1936, and while part one of Nygren’s book appeared in 1932 the other two parts were not published until after Lovejoy’s book was published).
According to Lovejoy, although the concept of God as Goodness and the principle of plenitude were undeveloped in mediaeval philosophy and theology they were nevertheless too essential a part of the received tradition to remain wholly unexpressed. At this point I am perplexed because it seems to me that the ideas of goodness and plenitude were expressed in mediaeval times more fully that Lovejoy seems to be arguing for here, but perhaps not so obviously in the rarefied philosophy and theology that Lovejoy is discussing. The problem is that Lovejoy rarely gets his head out of this narrow philosophical and somewhat blinkered perspective to look more broadly at society. He deals with some aspect of this expression: Augustine’s contradictory view of the arts, and the arts in the Renaissance; Aquinas’ problems with the two ideas in his view of the imago dei; the Platonism of John Norris of Bemerton (1657–1711), who is seen as typical of the seventeenth-century Platonists; the Jesuit Cardinal Bellarmino’s (1542–1621) treatise De ascensione mentis in Deum per scala creaturarum (“On the ascent of the mind towards God through the ladder of the creatures”—SCP). Lovejoy then notes that there is in all this an implicit temptation to escape into the idea that all plurality and individuality is an illusion as a means of overcoming the conflict (p. 92). He suggests that Bellarmino’s phraseology got very near to this. But this was not an option open to Christian theology and the conflict between the two principles developed into overt dualism. He gives Robert Fludd (1574–1637) as his example of this; and here we are nearly at the end of the chapter on the conflicts in mediaeval thought, yet the major example he gives of this dualism and deals with is hardly mediaeval, and I am somewhat frustrated that the explanation of how the Great Chain of Being impacted mediaeval thought and life has been hardly pursued in depth and that consequently much has been missed that needed to be dealt with. This may be because this period is not especially Lovejoy’s field—I don’t know, I am merely wondering, but it is frustrating, because I felt at this point that despite all the unnecessary verbiage he has only really skimmed over what really is the major period for his investigation and without really seeking to understand any of the social consequences of the idea that he is pursuing. I must admit to being disappointed at this point. His field of view has up to this point been very narrow and nowhere near detailed enough.
Shortly before the end of this chapter Lovejoy says the following: “The most important and distinctive circumstance in the history of religious and moral philosophy in the Occident is the fact that both later Platonism and the accepted philosophy of the Church combined otherworldliness with a virtual, if not usually a literal or unqualified, optimism. Both were equally committed to the two contradictory theses that ‘this’ world is an essentially evil thing to be escaped from, and that its existence, with precisely the attributes it has, is a good so great that in the production of it the divinest of all the attributes of deity was manifested” (p. 96). He then deals very briefly, and I must say unsatisfactorily, with the Gnostics and Manichaeism. This is chronologically out of order and reveals a weakness in the arrangement of his material. I really think that Lovejoy is out of his depth in the mediaeval world and yet his subject must take him there. The result is that, important as the subject is, and the need for understanding how this idea worked its way out in mediaeval times, Lovejoy is simply not up to the task. This is disappointing since I was so looking forward to learning a great deal and gaining much understanding from this book. However, as yet we are barely a third of the way through. I am very sorry to say that if I were assessing this as a thesis in a college or university I would have to say at this point “You need to go away and do your research more thoroughly because you are not on top of your material at this point—i.e. in regard the mediaeval fermentation of the idea, which is a crucial part of the argument.” This is simply not good enough for a university lecturer delivering lectures at Harvard University.
At the beginning of Chapter Four, pp. 99ff., we have a detour into cosmography, taking in mediaeval views and the emergences of the new heliocentric view. My impression of this is that we are taken on this excursus simply because the author knows about this, and since his book must be filled up with something he does know about, why not this. If it does relate to his main subject he has failed adequately to explain why. According to Lovejoy “the new conception of the world, then, owed little to any new hypotheses based upon the sort of observational grounds which we should nowadays call ‘scientific.’ They were chiefly derivative from philosophical and theological premises. They were, in short, manifest corollaries of the principle of plenitude, when that principle was applied, not to the biological question of the number of kinds of living beings, but to the astronomical questions of the magnitude of the stellar universe and of the extent of the diffusion of life and sentiency in space “ (p. 111). Eventually he gets onto the idea of the existence of other worlds in the fifteenth century and cites the views of Cardinal Nicolaus Cusanus, whom he calls “one of the subtlest though hardly one of the clearest philosophical minds of the later Middle Ages” (p. 112), and who asserted the existence of inhabitants on other globes. Lovejoy says that although the tendency of mediaeval thinkers is to reject the doctrine of plenitude in general terms they often argue from it in specific cases, and he gives Cusanus’ views on the existence of life on other planets as proof of this. According to Cusanus “it is inconceivable that ‘so many spaces of the heaven and stars should be vacant’” (p. 114). Thus: “The logical grounds of the new astronomy were thus among the many elements of the modern conception of the world which were carried in solution in medieval thought; and they were by the end of the Middle Ages already beginning to show signs of precipitation. By the early sixteenth century the theories of the plurality of solar systems and of inhabited planets, of the infinity of the number of the stars and the infinite extent of the universe in space, were already common topics of discussion” and, according to Palingenius (Marcello Stellato, c. 1500–1551) “there must be creatures in the other regions of the heavens immeasurably superior to man, since it is inconceivable that ‘the infinite power of God’ can have exhausted itself with the production of so insignificant and wretched a being” (p. 115).
But it is Giordano Bruno, says Lovejoy, that is the principal representative of the doctrine of an infinitely populated universe as a real necessity in the essence of the Divine Being: “The possible and the actual, in short, identical in God, must be coextensive in the temporal order. Hence an infinity of beings and of worlds must exist, in all possible modes. ‘We insult the infinite cause when we say that it may be the cause of a finite effect; to a finite effect it can have neither the name nor the relation of an efficient cause’” (p. 117). Of course, this whole theory is “incongruous” (contradictory) with other ideas that are equally emphasised in mediaeval thought. “The intrinsically contradictory nature of the general medieval conception of God, which is present but judiciously obscured and minimized in a writer like Thomas Aquinas, is by Bruno ostentatiously paraded; for him, in one very characteristic mood, the greater the paradox, the better the doctrine” (p. 120).
Lovejoy goes on to look at how all this affects the thinking of Descartes, Henry More, Glanville, Pascal et al. Chapter Five then deals with plenitude and sufficient reason in Leibniz and Spinoza. Of the philosophers of the seventeenth century it is in Leibniz that “the conception of the Chain of Being is most conspicuous, most determinative, and most pervasive” (p. 144). In this chapter Lovejoy is primarily concerned with three questions in relation to Leibniz’s philosophy: the relation of the principle of plenitude to sufficient reason; the scope of the principle of plenitude; and whether Leibniz escapes the absolute determinism of Spinoza’s philosophy (p. 145). According to Lovejoy the principle of plenitude is also inherent in the very substance of Spinoza’s philosophy, but the paradox of this principle is more apparent in Spinoza. Along with Spinoza various other thinkers get discussed including Milton, More et al. The idea behind all this and required by the doctrine of plenitude is that a perfect omnipotent being must necessarily also be omnificent, i.e. one who is perfect, omnipotent and omniscient, must of necessity in creating the universe create all that can be created. Lovejoy finds the Christian rejection of divine omnificence problematic, but he does not make it clear why this should be so. He considers the idea that it is sufficient to possess a power without the exercise of that power “a strange proposition, but one to which Fénelon was driven as the only escape from Spinoza’s argument that an omnipotent being must also of necessity be omnificent” (p. 162). He also discusses at this point the idea of compossibility: “Spinoza had, Leibniz observes, failed to see that existence must be limited not only to the possible, in the logical sense, but also to the compossible; i.e., that any actual world must be made up of entities which, besides being consistent with themselves, are also compatible with one another. And although, in the world of essences, all simple, positive ‘natures’ find a place without conflict, when the world of concrete existents is considered not all combinations are possible” (p. 170).
Towards the end of this chapter Lovejoy summarises the difference between Leibniz and Spinoza on this doctrine: “Where Spinoza had (ostensibly) asserted that the realization of the principle of plenitude, being necessary, cannot properly be called either good or bad, Leibniz declared that, while necessary, it is also supremely good; he thereby gave to that principle (without qualification) the status of a doctrine about value as well as (with a qualification) that of a doctrine about the constitution of reality. Spinoza, as we have seen, appears more interested in the thought of the necessity of the universe than in the thought of its plenitude. Leibniz was genuinely interested in both aspects of this dialectic; but he was also somewhat afraid of the cosmic determinism to which it led him, while in the notion of the cosmic ‘fullness’ he took, and he tended to impart to his readers, a lively imaginative and emotional satisfaction” (p. 180).
Chapter Seven deals with the eighteenth century, which, Lovejoy says, was the century in which the Chain of Being and the three foundations on which it was built—plenitude, continuity and gradation—achieved their widest acceptance (p. 183). Lovejoy deals with Locke, Addison, Edmund Law, Bolingroke, Kant et al. In a very interesting paragraph he brings up the way the whole problem of dualism relates to the Chain of Being (p. 198). His attribution of the problem to the apostle Paul however is unfortunate, since the problem is not Paul but the way the Church, under the predominating influence of the Graeco-Roman dualistic world-view, has interpreted Paul, a problem that continues to this day. Nevertheless, this is an interesting point. The pervasive influence of dualism on the Church has been catastrophic for the fulfilling of the Church’s Great Commission, and progress in it, it seems to me, now necessarily waits its exorcism from the body of Christ.
On p. 200 Lovejoy finally gets round to some of the political and social implications of the theory of the Chain of Being. Not only must man observe and be content with his station in the temporal and metaphysical order of Creation, he must also observe and be content with his social and political state. Very convenient for those who rule and use the rest of mankind for their own ends! “Since every place in the scale must be filled, and since each is what it is by virtue of the special limitations which differentiate it from any other, man’s duty was to keep his place, and not to seek to transcend it—which, nevertheless, he was characteristically prone to do. The good for a being of a given grade, it seemed evident, must consist in conformity to its type, in the expression of just that Idea which defines its position, or that of its species, in the series . . . The principles of plenitude and gradation could, in this way, among their many uses, be made to serve the purposes of a species of pessimistic and backhanded apologetic both for the political status quo and for the accepted religion. They provided a damper for the zeal of the reformer. Since men are not and were not meant to be angels, let us cease to expect them to behave as if they were; and let us avoid the error of imagining that by an alteration of the form or mechanism of government we shall put an end to those limitations of human nature which are essentially unalterable, because they are inherent in the scheme of the universe which required just such a creature, as well as all other kinds, to make it ‘complete’ ” (pp. 200, 204). Furthermore, “There was more than one way, however, in which the principles embodied in the cosmological conception of the Chain of Being could be used as weapons against social discontent and especially against all equalitarian movements. The universe, it was assumed, is the best of systems; any other system is good only in so far as it is constructed upon the same principles; and the object of the Infinite Wisdom which had fashioned it was to attain the maximum of variety by means of inequality. Clearly, then, human society is well constituted only if, within its own limits, it tends to the realization of the same desiderata. This was, of course, the point of the famous dictum of Pope’s which has so often been misapplied for the annoyance of little boys and girls:
“Order is Heav’n’s first law; and this confest,/Some are, and must be, greater than the rest,/More rich, more wise.
“This was no casual piece of Toryism on Pope’s part; that ‘Order,’ that is, hierarchic gradation, is everywhere required by the divine Reason, is a fundamental premise of the arg ment for optimism in the Essay on Man. The doctrine of the Chain of Being thus gave a metaphysical sanction to the injunction of the Anglican catechism: each should labor truly ‘to do his duty in that state of life’—whether in the cosmical or the social scale—‘to which it shall please God to call him.’ To seek to leave one’s place in society is also ‘to invert the laws of Order.’ ‘Cease, then, nor Order imperfection name.’ Any demand for equality, in short, is ‘contrary to nature’” (p. 205f.).
According to Lovejoy however, this application to society and politics was “a relatively small factor in political thought in the eighteenth century” (p. 207). I am not so sure. Lovejoy quotes many philosophers and much poetry on his book. He could have quoted also, but did not, the popular Christian hymn:
“All things bright and beautiful,/All creatures great and small,/All things wise and wonderful,/The Lord God made them all.
“The rich man in his castle,/The poor man at his gate,/God made them high and lowly,/And ordered their estate.
“All things bright and beautiful . . .”
This is the infamous verse three, which is usually left out of modern hymnals. And rightly so.
With the exception of a brief hint at this problem in a later chapter (p. 245f.), which is equally disappointingly not given due consideration nor the social and moral implications sufficiently considered Lovejoy’s treatment of the social and political implications and consequences of the idea of the Chain of Being is poor, ill-considered and superficial, and represents one of the most disappointing aspects of the book, since to my mind it is these implications and consequences that are the most interesting aspect of the idea and that merit its study. This superficial treatment by Lovejoy almost makes his book irrelevant, when in fact the idea of the Chain of Being is a highly important and relevant subject the implications of which need to be studied and understood because of their effects on society and politics. Again Lovejoy’s book is poor and disappointing and tends towards being a masterful piece of useless philosophical navel-gazing. At this point I began to despair of the book. So far these social and political consequences of the idea have only been briefly presented in one chapter dealing with only one century, but the truth is that this idea has had a great influence much wider and far-reaching than this. Unfortunately, it looks like we must await a book that gives the subject the treatment it deserves.
Chapter Seven, “The Principle of Plenitude and Eighteenth Century Optimism,”—optimism here being the idea that this world is the best possible of all conceivable worlds—gives us a good example of the kind of foolishness that arises from the attempt to conflate Christian ideas with pagan philosophy. The necessity of creating a universe that fulfils all the demands of plenitude, continuity and gradation that binds the supreme Good, the God of pagan Greek philosophy, when conflated with the Christian religion leads Soame Jenyns to say “Our difficulties arise from our forgetting how many difficulties Omnipotence has to contend with: in the present instance it is obliged either to afflict innocence or be the cause of wickedness; it has plainly no other option!” (p. 210). Of these eighteenth-century philosophical optimists Lovejoy goes on the say: “It is, of course, true that the optimistic writers were eager to show that good comes out of evil; but what it was indispensable for them to establish was that it could come in no other way. It is true, also, that they were wont, when they reached the height of their argument, to discourse with eloquence on the perfection of the Universal System as a whole; but that perfection in no way implied either the happiness or the excellence of the finite parts of the system. On the contrary, the fundamental and characteristic premise of the usual proof of optimism was the proposition that the perfection of the whole depends upon, indeed consists in, the existence of every possible degree of imperfection in the parts . . . The essence of the optimist's enterprise was to find the evidence of the ‘goodness’ of the universe not in the paucity but rather in the multiplicity of what to the unphilosophic mind appeared to be evils” (p. 211). The rest of the chapter is given over chiefly to explaining William King’s and Edmund Law’s framing of the doctrine of the Chain of Being. Further examples of the “wisdom” of men in solving this knotty problem are given by Lovejoy. Here is one of the daftest: “King assures us that there is something like a housing problem even in Heaven. ‘If you ask why God does not immediately transplant men into heaven, since ’tis plain they are capable of that happier state; or why he confines them so long . . . on the earth as in a darksome prison, . . . I answer, Because the Heavens are already furnished with inhabitants, and cannot with convenience admit of new ones, till some of the present possessors depart to a better state, or make room some other way for these to change their condition’ ” (p. 218). Here is another, again from William King: “Behold how evils spring from and multiply upon each other, while infinite Goodness still urges the Deity to do the very best. This moved him to give existence to creatures, which cannot exist without imperfections and inequality. This excited him to create matter, and to put it in motion, which is necessarily attended with separation and dissolution, generation and corruption. This persuaded him to couple souls with bodies, and to give them mutual affections, whence proceeded pain and sorrow, hatred and fear, with the rest of the passions, yet all of them . . . are necessary” (p. 218). Lovejoy concludes that “Such an argument for optimism closely resembles, and might easily be substituted for, some of the formulas in which primitive Buddhism summed up the creed of pessimism” (p. 218).
Some of the arguments and conclusions produced by this philosophical optimism are absurd and border on being comical, as Lovejoy shows: “As for the lion’s victim, if it were a rational animal it doubtless would, or at all events should, rejoice as does its Maker in the thought of the agreeable exercise which it is affording the ‘genius’ of the lion. If the victim be not endowed with reason, or be too mean-spirited to take a large philosophical view of the matter, the consoling insight into the higher meaning of its sufferings is still, through the happy ordering of things, left to be enjoyed vicariously by optimistic archbishops” (p. 220). Lovejoy then sums up the inconsistencies and absurdities of this: “Plainly this amiable and devout ecclesiastic had, in the course of his endeavor to justify God’s ways to men, been driven not only to a conception of God but also to a conception of ultimate values which came somewhat strangely from a Christian teacher. Though King would, of course, have said that his God was a God of love, the term must necessarily have had for him an unusual sense. The God of the De origine mali [‘On the origin of evil’—SCP] loved abundance and variety of life more than he loved peace and concord among his creatures and more than he desired their exemption from pain. He loved lions, in short, as well as lambs; and loving lions, he wished them to behave in accordance with the ‘nature,’ or Platonic Idea, of a lion, which implies devouring lambs and not lying down with them. And in these preferences the ‘goodness’ of God was assumed to be most clearly manifested—‘goodness’ thus meaning chiefly a delight in fullness and diversity of finite being, rather than in harmony and happiness. King and his editor seem only occasionally and confusedly aware how deeply their argument has involved them in such a radical transvaluation of values; they waver between this and the more conventional conception of ‘divine goodness,’ and for the most part touch but lightly upon the more paradoxical implications of their premises. Yet they at times betray some uneasy feeling of the incongruity between these premises and certain traditional elements of Christian belief. It was, for example, a part of that belief that in the earthly paradise before the Fall, and also in the celestial paradise which awaits the elect, most of the evils which these theologians were zealously proving to be ‘necessary,’ because required by the ‘divine goodness,’ were in fact absent. It seemed, therefore, difficult to avoid the awkward dilemma that either the paradisaical state is not good, or else a good ‘system’ does not, after all, require quite so much evil and so many degrees of imperfection as the authors of the theodicies conceived. King meets this difficulty but lamely; he is, in fact, driven to suggest that the felicity of our first parents in Eden has probably been somewhat exaggerated: ‘it doth not appear that Adam in Paradise was altogether without pain or passion,’ but rather ‘that he was only secured from such pains as might cause his death, and that for a time, till removed to a better place’ ” (p. 220f.).
There is much more that could be quoted here that shows the absurdity of this whole philosophy. Lovejoy concludes the chapter by summing up the doctrine of the philosophical optimists: “The philosophers of optimism were not, in short, as a rule of a Romantic disposition; and what they were desirous of proving was that reality is rational through and through, that every fact of existence, however unpleasant, is grounded in some reason as clear and evident as an axiom of mathematics. But in the exigencies of their argument to this ambitious conclusion, they found themselves constrained to attribute to the Divine Reason a conception of the good extremely different from that which had been most current among men, and frequently among philosophers; and they were thus led, often against their original temper and intention, to impress upon the minds of their generation a revolutionary and paradoxical theory of the criterion of all value, which may be summed up in the words of a highly Romantic and optimistic lover of paradox in our own day: ‘One thing alone is needful: Everything. The rest is vanity of vanities’ ” (p. 226).
Chapter Eight deals with how the idea of the Chain of Being influenced biology in the eighteenth century and this brings us to the whole idea of missing links between the various species, including man, which was very popular well before the appearance of Darwin’s evolutionary theories became popular. “From at least the middle of the eighteenth century to the time of Darwin this hunt for missing links continued to engage not only the interest of specialists in natural history but also the curiosity of the general public. On the last point a piece of conclusive evidence may be cited. No one was ever a better judge of what the public wanted than that eminent practical psychologist, P. T. Barnum; and it appears that one of the things that the public wanted in the early eighteen-forties—that is, nearly two decades before the publication of The Origin of Species—was missing links. For we are told that the great showman in 1842 advertised among the attractions of his Museum, in addition to the ‘preserved body of a Feejee Mermaid,’ other scientific specimens, such as ‘the Ornithorhincus, or the connecting link between the seal and the duck; two distinct species of flying fish, which undoubtedly connect the bird and the fish; the Siren, or Mud Iguana, a connecting link between the reptiles and fish . . . with other animals forming connecting links in the great chain of Animated Nature.’ We may be pretty sure that if Aristotle had been permitted to return to the sublunary scene in the eighteen-forties, he would have made haste to visit Barnum’s Museum” (p. 236).
Chapter Nine deals with the temporalising of the Chain of Being, by which is meant that the fixed nature of each part of the chain, being the best possible condition for it, and as a result for the whole, with the concomitant doctrine of optimism,—i.e. that this world is the best of all possible worlds—gave way to the idea that the Chain of Being was not fixed eternally but admitted of progress for each of the parts, so that the perfection of the whole was not conceived as static and unalterable in time, but rather was achieved over time, as each part was able to move towards a greater perfection. This was necessary if those holding to the idea of the Chain of Being were to believe in progress as well, something that was incompatible with the older conception and the optimism it implied, i.e. optimism in the sense that the world is always the best of all possible worlds, no matter what evil it entails. The whole theory came under criticism from Voltaire and Dr Johnson, who said that “this Scale of Being I have demonstrated to be raised by presumptuous Imagination, to rest on Nothing at the Bottom, to lean on Nothing at the Top, and to have Vacuities from step to step through which any Order of Being may sink into Nihility without any Inconvenience, so far as we can Judge, to the next Rank above or below it” (p. 254).
Nonetheless, we see here how the theory of the Chain of Being was being transformed into a process that prefigured later evolutionary theories. According to Lovejoy Leibniz had said in a letter of 1707 “I flatter myself that I have some ideas of these truths; but this age is not prepared to receive them” (p. 256). Lovejoy comments as follows: “What, then, were these further implications of the principle, so strange that Leibniz hesitated to make them explicit? There is reason to think that one of them, at least, was the conclusion that the world is as yet incomplete, that the Chain of Being must be construed as a process in which all forms are gradually realized in the order of time. In the Protogaea (1693) Leibniz points out that many species of organisms which existed in earlier periods of geological time have now become extinct and that many known to us were then apparently non-existent, and adds that it is a hypothesis ‘worthy of belief that in the course of the vast changes’ which have taken place in the condition of the earth's crust ‘even the species of animals have many times been transformed.’ ‘It is possible,’ he writes again, that at some previous time ‘many species which have in them something of the cat, such as the lion, the tiger, the lynx, may have been of the same race, and may now be regarded as new sub-varieties of the original cat-species’ In another writing (1710) he suggests that it is probable that the earliest animals were marine forms, and that the amphibia and land-animals are descended from these. And elsewhere Leibniz on metaphysical grounds extends this conception of gradual development to the entire universe. The significance of time and change, he declares, the reason why le changement est à propos, is that there may thereby ‘be more species or forms of perfection, even though they may be equal in degree.’ There are, he elsewhere observes, two possible hypotheses on this matter: ‘first, that nature is always equally perfect, second, that it is always increasing in perfection, . . . supposing that it was not possible to give it its full perfection all at once.’ If the latter is true, the fact might be explained in either of two ways: ‘either that there was no beginning, and the moments or states of the world have been increasing in perfection from all eternity, or that there was a beginning of the process.’ And in one of the most interesting of his shorter writings he pronounces with all possible definiteness in favor of the hypothesis of continual advance. The plenum of possibility is now, and will forever be, like a partially tilled field, out of which new and finer growths must spring without end, since a continuum can never be exhausted” (p. 256f.). Nevertheless, “the ‘physical observations’ which could be invoked in support of such a theory were, it need hardly be said, in the early eighteenth century very scanty; the considerations which led Leibniz and a number of his contemporaries and immediate successors to adopt such a theory must have chiefly consisted in those arguments ‘of metaphysics and natural theology’ already indicated which, intelligibly enough, were converting the once immutable Chain of Being into the program of an endless Becoming” (p. 259). It is clear however that this development creates a contradiction in Leibniz’s philosophy and indeed in the whole idea of the Chain of Being as originally conceived, which Lovejoy explains as follows:
“Yet this introduction of the doctrine of universal progress, at once an individual, biological, and cosmical evolution, into the philosophy of Leibniz split his system—as the historians of philosophy have seldom, if ever, observed—completely in two. It conflicted, in the first place, with the principle of sufficient reason, which he had so often declared to be the first and fundamental truth of metaphysics. That principle, as we have seen in an earlier lecture, required the actualization in the created world of all the ideal ‘possibles’ in so far as they are compossible. But if, as we have also seen, it required this at one time, it required it at all times; a ‘necessary and eternal truth’ cannot be in process of gradually becoming approximately true. And—another aspect of the same consequence—the evolutionistic version of the system played havoc with the logic of the principle of plenitude itself and with the theory of monads. It was an essential part of that theory that the whole of reality always consists of the same individuals in a fixed number. The number is fixed by the number of degrees of difference which the Eternal Reason recognizes as possibly subsisting between monads with respect to the function which is characteristic of them—that of ‘mirroring’ or representing the universe with greater or less clarity and distinctness. There will be one thinking substance corresponding to each of these nuances; if it were not so, the universe would be an utterly haphazard thing, having no reason determining its numerical range. The idea of monads as advancing to higher grades did not, as has been shown, formally contradict the assumption of the constancy of their number; but it did conflict by implication with the doctrine of the immutable identity of the ‘substances’ making up that number. For—by virtue of the principle of the identity of indiscernibles—what defines the individuality of a monad is the unique degree in which it realizes this function, its place in the Scale of Being—which, in final analysis, consists for Leibniz simply of the continuous series of monads thus minutely differentiated from one another. But if a monad changes its place in the scale by becoming capable of a more adequate representation of the rest of the universe, it loses its identity. In the case of rational souls endowed with memory it was possible for Leibniz to escape this difficulty by resorting to another way of defining the principium individuationis: a being which recalls its past experiences as its own experience has a continuing sense of personal identity which may persist through any number of changes of any degree. But there are ‘sensitive’ and ‘animal’ souls as well as rational, and to these this psychological basis of individuality is not attributed; nor, indeed, do human minds remember much of their past. We are not able to identify ourselves as having once been animalcules of such and such a kind on the first morning of creation. Consequently, the progress of all monads of lower grades, and of the monads which are now human souls, during the earlier phases of their existence, implied that the universe is not at all times composed of the same individuals; and the constancy of the number could be maintained only if it were assumed that the advance of some, or all, of the monads left gaps somewhere in the scale. If they all advanced, the lower rungs of the ladder would be left vacant. But this was irreconcilable with the principle of plenitude—and consequently with the principle of sufficient reason. Either the number of existing monads was increased with the course of time, or else there was—what Leibniz virtually denied—a vacuum formarum, and the Creator, by failing to fill up the grades which the progressive monads had vacated, was guilty of at some time denying to some possible and compossible essences in the series the grace of existence, the satisfaction of their exigentia existendi. Finally, Leibniz’s doctrine of universal and perpetual progress was obviously an abandonment of optimism (in the proper philosophical sense of the term) in favor of meliorism. This world is not now, and, indeed, never will be, ‘the best of possible worlds’; it is only a world which is in process of growing better. It is true, however, that, for Leibniz, a world thus forever falling short of perfection was better than the optimist's ‘best,’ because a finite good incapable of being transcended lacks the first essential of value. There are, then, two Leibnitian systems of philosophy, quite irreconcilable with one another—though their author was seemingly unaware of the fact” (pp. 259–261).
Lovejoy sums up Leibniz in the following way: “If we are, as Professor Montague has suggested, to classify philosophers by their characteristic ‘visions’ of the universe, Leibniz had two visions: one of them that outlined in Lecture V, the other that which we have just seen. The first is the vision of a world which is through and through rational, fashioned completely, so far as the nature of a created world permits, after the model of the eternal order of the Ideas in the Divine Reason. It was, therefore, in its essential structure, an immutable world. Temporal change, it could not be denied, is characteristic of it, but it is not a significant characteristic; in such a vision—so close akin to Spinoza’s—time is not ‘taken seriously.’ In the other vision, the time-process, conceived as a continuous augmentation of realized values, is the most significant aspect of reality—and change is the most indispensable mark of excellence” (p. 261f.).
Our author then turns to some poetic versions of evolutionism and after quoting from Edward Young’s Night Thoughts he makes an interesting comment: “What is of interest in the passage is, once more, the illustration which it affords of the fact that the appearance of the general notion of our own and other stellar systems as the scenes of an evolutionary advance long antedated the discovery of most of the scientific evidence for that hypothesis; that it was becoming familiar in very widely read writings before the middle of the eighteenth century; and that the development of it seems to have been chiefly due to the influence of the principles of plenitude and continuity, conceived as expressed in a succession and not in a ready-made cosmical order” (p. 262f.). Leaving aside Lovejoy’s comment about “scientific evidence” it is clear from all this that evolution is a philosophy,—I would say a religion, if the word religion is correctly defined—and this is clear to those who are prepared to honestly look into its origins and development, even if they ultimately accept it, although Lovejoy here describes it as nothing more than an hypothesis, leaving us rather wondering about his personal opinion.
Lovejoy next discusses Kant: “That Kant in the following decade propounded a theory of cosmic evolution is well known; what is less familiar is the fact that in doing so he too was simply giving a temporalized version of the principle of plenitude. That this principle was for him a fundamental maxim of philosophical cosmology we have already seen” (p. 265). “Thus to Kant at this time continuous development and progressive diversification is the supreme law of nature, not only for the universe as a whole but for every component of it, from solar systems to individual living beings. But in any part the latent potentialities of development have a fixed limit; and when all the ‘manifoldness’ of which it is capable has been realized, it no longer fits into the cosmic scheme. Nature has no more use for that which has ceased to grow, and, sometimes slowly, sometimes speedily and catastrophically, eliminates it. Not only is the Chain of Being as a whole perpetually self-expansive, but it will tolerate no links which do not conform to the same law” (p. 268).
Next Lovejoy quotes from Robinet’s De la Nature (1761-1768): “The activity of the Sale Cause is complete; in the product of this activity is everything that could exist. . . . The work of the Creator would have been incomplete if aught could be added to it. . . . He has filled the fossil kingdom with all possible combinations—earths and salts and oils and rock-forming substances and metals. He has made all vegetable species which could exist. All the minute gradations of animality are filled with as many beings as they can contain. The animal mind exists under all the forms fitted to receive it” (p. 270). This theory led Robinet to claim the existence of all kinds of mythical creatures, including mermaids and mermen: “There is . . . he writes, "so much authentic testimony to the existence of fish-men and fish-women (human with respect to the upper part of their bodies) that it would be obstinacy to doubt it” (p. 271). Thus Robinet says “I have formed so vast an idea of the work of the Creator that from the fact that a thing can exist I infer readily enough that it does exist” (p. 272). Lovejoy sums up this absurd position from Robinet’s own words: “can God, then, no more make anything new? . . . for he has already made everything—all possible extension, all possible matter, all possible intelligences, all possible beings” (p. 270).
Along with this the notion of perfectibility is also maintained, i.e. that man, for example, can develop and progress from a primitive to an advanced state of civilisation, but only there remain along with this, examples of all stages of this development, and this accounts for the continued existence of savage races as well as advanced civilisations. The whole notion of perfectibility however seems to me to contradict the notions of plenitude, continuity and gradation. Robinet’s answer to this was to assume that “whatever is empirically found in or associated with the more complex and highly evolved natural entities must inferentially be read back into the simpler and earlier ones” (p. 276f.). This means attributing intelligence to inanimate matter, indeed to atoms: “For myself I would rather give even intelligence to the least atom of matter—provided it were in a degree and of a quality suitable to it—than refuse organization to the fossils and make of them isolated beings, having no connection with others. It is to no purpose to tell me that this is a bizarre opinion, and that it is not possible that a stone thinks. I should deem it a sufficient reply to say that I am not responsible for consequences correctly deduced, that I have not measured the extent of what is possible, and that, if the law of continuity is admitted, we ought likewise to admit all that follows from it; while it is inexcusable to abandon so general a principle without a sufficient reason” (p. 277). Lovejoy comments thus: “Though the non-existence of mere ‘brute matter’ is thus inferrible [sic] from the principle of continuity alone, Robinet does not fail to offer further argument for the conclusion, with a prolixity which I shall not emulate. But a further (for him) important consequence of the same observation upon the logical meaning of the lex continui must be noted; for it involves a restriction by that principle of the scope of the principle of plenitude, of which it was nevertheless conceived to be a corollary. Since there is no continuous series unless all members of the series have something in common, though in differing degrees, it follows, Robinet finds, that there must be a single anatomical type-form common to all living things—which is to say, to all things. And this must, of course, be a particular form, distinct from all other possible forms; so that the ‘fullness’ of nature is limited to the realization of all possible variations upon a single ‘prototype’” (p. 277). He then quotes Robinet again: “There was only one possible plan of organic or animal existence, but this plan could be, and must be, varied in an infinity of ways. The unity of model or plan maintained in the prodigious diversity of its forms is the basis of the continuity or graduated sequence of beings. All differ from one another, but all these differences are natural variations of the prototype, which must be regarded as the element generative of all beings. . . . When I compare the stone with the plant, the plant with the insect, the insect with the reptile, the reptile with the quadruped, I perceive, through all the differences which characterize each of them, relations of analogy which persuade me that they have all been conceived and formed in accordance with a single model (dessein), of which they are variations graduated ad infinitum. They exhibit all the salient traits . . . of this original exemplar, which in realizing itself has taken on successively the infinitely numerous and diverse forms under which Being manifests itself to our eyes” (p. 278). “In the quest of these adumbrations of the human form in the lower orders of creation, Robinet was unhappily led to find similitudes of faces, as well as of arms and legs, in the radish and other plants, and to publish drawings of these vegetable anthropoids” (p. 281).
I must admit that my ability to suspend disbelief reached its ne plus ultra at this point. It was starting to become tedious to read such rubbish, and Lovejoy does not really deal with whether or to what extent this all fed into the development of evolutionary ideas in the following century. Lovejoy sums up Robinet’s philosophy by saying that “the curiously mixed historic role of Robinet may be further seen in the fact that the type of biological evolutionism which he adopted was developed by him into a general philosophy of nature of an essentially ‘Romantic’ sort; it anticipated some of the most characteristic conceptions both of the Naturphilosophie of Schelling and of Bergson’s in our own time. Robinet was one of the earlier prophets of the élan vital. The fundamental reality in nature for him is not matter but l'activé; and the pageant of evolution is the manifestation of the expansive, self-differentiating energy, the creative urge, of this puissance active. Yet (as his final volume admits) inert matter, in some sense, also must be recognized; and between it and the active principle there is an age-long struggle. At the beginning, and in the lower grades of the Scale of Being, brute matter is dominant; the tendency to spontaneous action is wholly clogged by it; but little by little the force that makes for life gains strength, and finally, in man, establishes its dominance so completely that matter becomes less an obstacle than the instrument whereby that force achieves its ends. (The principle of continuity seems here to have disappeared)” (p. 281f.).
In Chapter Ten, “Romanticism and the Principle of Plenitude,” Lovejoy gives the following definition of the Romantic movement: “It is, however, of no great consequence whether or not we apply to this transformation of current assumptions about value the name of ‘Romanticism’; what it is essential to remember is that the transformation has taken place and that it, perhaps, more than any other one thing has distinguished, both for better and worse, the prevailing assumptions of the mind of the nineteenth and of our own century from those of the preceding period in the intellectual history of the West. That change, in short, has consisted in the substitution of what may be called diversitarianism for uniformitarianism as the ruling preconception in most of the normative provinces of thought” (p. 294). He then goes on the observe that “by the late eighteenth century, we must also recall, the cosmical order was coming to be conceived not as an infinite static diversity, but as a process of increasing diversification. The Chain of Being having been temporalized, the God whose attributes it disclosed had been declared by not a few great writers to be one who manifests himself through change and becoming; nature’s incessant tendency was to the production of new kinds; and the destiny of the individual was to mount through all the spires of form, in a continual self-transcendence. Since the strain in Western thought summed up in the doctrine of the Chain of Being thus consisted in an increasing emphasis upon the conception of God as insatiably creative, it followed that the man who, as moral agent or as artist, would imitate God, must do so by being himself ‘creative.’ The word, which through much repetition has in our own day be- come a sort of tiresome cant, could still in the late eighteenth century express a very exciting, and for the arts a very stimulating, idea. Man’s high calling was to add something of his own to the creation, to enrich the sum of things, and thus, in his finite fashion, consciously to collaborate in the fulfilment of the Universal Design” (p. 296). He makes this interesting comment in which he proposes that Romanticism was at least a logical and consistent product of the Enlightenment: “If, then, we recognize in the shift from the uniformitarian to the diversitarian preconception the most significant and distinctive single feature of the Romantic revolution, it is evident that there had always been present in the Platonic tradition a principle tending towards Romanticism, and that this had been enunciated with especial clarity and insistence by the philosophers and moralists and philosophic poets of the so-called Age of Reason. And in the ideas of these philosophers and poets the young men, especially in Germany, who were, in the later decades of the eighteenth century, to be the leaders of that revolution had been reared” (p. 297).
This is of course the opposite of the way Romanticism is usually conceived, namely as a reaction against the Enlightenment, more as a counter-Enlightenment. Lovejoy seems to be suggesting here however that it was the outcome of the temporalising of the Chain of Being. No doubt the truth is that the Romantic movement was both of these, i.e. both a development of and a reaction against the Enlightenment; since pagan thought is necessarily and in principle schizoid, it must produce a schizophrenic world-view and philosophy. Lovejoy does not discount the influence of other forces on the development of Romanticism but he maintains that the “pressure of the principle of plenitude” was a major factor in its emergence (p. 298).
The rest of the chapter deals with the implications and outworkings of the doctrine of plenitude in the philosophies of Schiller, A. W. Schlegel and Schleiermacher. The consequence of this doctrine for the latter’s understanding of Christianity is made plain by the following quotation. Christianity, says Schleiermacher, does not claim “to be universal and to rule alone over mankind as the sole religion. It scorns such autocracy. . . . Not only would it produce within itself variety to infinity, but it would willingly see realized even outside of itself all that it is unable to produce from itself . . . As nothing is more irreligious than to demand general uniformity in mankind, so nothing is more unchristian than to seek uniformity in religion.” Lovejoy sums up Schleiermacher’s concept as follows: “Any man, in short, Schleiermacher concludes, may, and it is well that every man should, have a religion of his own—one, that is, which has something unique in it which corresponds to what is unique in his own personality and to his unduplicated position in the universe” (p. 311).
Chapter Eleven, the last chapter is “The Outcome of the History and its Moral.” Here Lovejoy deals with the consequences of Schelling’s philosophy for the concept of the Chain of Being. The transformation of the idea to evolutionism is again dealt with briefly: “These early manifestations of an approximation to radical evolutionism in theology were not permitted to pass unchallenged” (p. 321). The challenge offered by F. H. Jacobi to Schelling’s philosophy is considered: “Upon what grounds, in the face of Jacobi's objections, does Schelling justify this evolutionary theology? First of all on the ground that it accords with the actual character of the world of our experience, as that character is disclosed to our everyday observation and to the more comprehensive vision of natural science. On the face of it, the world is, precisely, a system in which the higher habitually develops out of the lower, fuller existence out of emptier. The child grows into a man, the ignorant become learned; ‘not to mention that nature itself, as all know who have the requisite acquaintance with the subject, has gradually risen from the production of more meagre and inchoate creatures to the production of more perfect and more finely formed ones’” (p. 323). Lovejoy sums up Schelling on the subject by saying “at last, the Platonistic scheme of the universe is turned upside down. Not only had the originally complete and immutable Chain of Being been converted into a Becoming, in which all genuine possibles are, indeed, destined to realization grade after grade, yet only through a vast, slow unfolding in time; but now God himself is placed in, or identified with, this Becoming. The World of Ideas which defines the range of diversity of possible existence has definitely been transformed into a realm of mere possibility awaiting actualization, empty and without value until it attains it; and even the Idea of Ideas is no longer exempted from this status . . . Whatever else be said of Schelling’s reasoning in this phase of his philosophy, he at least showed the ineluctability of a choice between the two strains in Platonism, by making explicit their essential incompatibility. He put before the metaphysics of the succeeding century a forced option—though many of his successors have failed to recognize it or have ingeniously sought to evade it” (p. 325f.).
Lovejoy concludes that “the history of the idea of the Chain of Being—in so far as that idea presupposed such a complete rational intelligibility of the world—is the history of a failure; more precisely and more justly, it is the record of an experiment in thought carried on for many centuries by many great and lesser minds, which can now be seen to have had an instructive negative outcome. The experiment, taken as a whole, constitutes one of the most grandiose enterprises of the human intellect. But as the consequences of this most persistent and most comprehensive of hypotheses became more and more explicit, the more apparent became its difficulties; and when they are fully drawn out, they show the hypothesis of the absolute rationality of the cosmos to be unbelievable.” (p. 329). He ends the book by implying that despite its being an erroneous hypothesis, the Great Chain of Being can still have some utility as an avenue to truth.
This book deals with an immensely important subject that has had far-reaching consequences that have left a legacy in modern thought and life, yet Lovejoy really only deals with the subject matter in terms of the theories of certain philosophers. The great failure of his treatment of this subject is his failure to see beyond this rarefied philosophical context. This, combined with the pseudo-intellectual language in which he writes makes the book much less useful than it would otherwise have been. He seems to have neither the insight nor the historical perspective to reveal the history and consequences of the idea with which he deals in its full light. Simply put, this is a truly fascinating and important subject that has been turned into an interminably dreary and tedious read. The subject appears to await a more thorough and engaging explication, since I know of no others.
In this review I have quoted from the book extensively. It is my hope that this review will provide enough information on the book and the subject it deals with to make it unnecessary for the reader of the review to read the book for himself, something I cannot in all honesty recommend as a good use of anyone’s time unless there is some overpowering reason for it that I severely doubt even the doctrine of plenitude could furnish. Had the book been better written stylistically and the subject dealt with more competently and comprehensively this would not be the case. As it stands the book amounts to a falling short of its worthy title in favour a vain and irritating display of pseudo-intellectualism that does not communicate well at all the subject with which it deals.