chapter  35
The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an
ByIdea (Arthur O. Lovejoy, 1873–1962)
Pages 6

Lovejoy was born in Berlin, Germany. His mother died of a pill overdose when he was 18 months old. His father responded by giving up medicine to become a minister. The son was encouraged to follow his example but preferred philosophy and comparative religion, which he studied at the University of California. On the side of religion, he leaned toward Unitarianism. He taught briefly at Stanford University, was turned down by Harvard because the president suspected he was a campus agitator, and ended up at Johns Hopkins

University in 1910, where he stayed on for the next 28 years as a preeminent student of ideas. He never married and lived in modest bachelor quarters, a second floor apartment, whose chief distinction was a horde of books. He was known for vast learning, analytical power, and a prickly

style of criticism that could arouse discomfort in the unwary and deliver a serious sting. He believed ideas have layers of meaning accumulated across time and require excavation. His method was to cut through the layers in search of a rock bottom unit idea upon which all its variations depended. A public demonstration occurred when he was questioned by the Maryland State Senate for a position on the state’s educational board of regents. When asked if he believed in God, Lovejoy expounded 33 meanings of “God,” while smoking 15 or so cigarettes, and asked the legislator which meaning he intended. There were no further questions and his nomination was confirmed. Lovejoy’s approach to ideas in The Great Chain of Being has three

premises. First, history of ideas is not just one of many disciplines. Multiple fields of knowledge are needed to isolate and extract unit ideas from their historical developments and uses. Ideas are indifferent to disciplinary compartments and may overlap with science, theology, philosophy, art, and literature. Lovejoy’s writings are a major illustration and model for interdisciplinary inquiry: “The history of ideas is therefore no subject for highly departmentalized minds; and it is pursued with some difficulty in an age of departmentalized minds” (22). Second, with ideas, a point in history is reached where little that is

fundamentally new has been said. What may appear to be a novel idea is merely a recombination and reworking of older ideas: “But the truth is that the number of essentially distinct philosophical ideas … is … decidedly limited … The seeming novelty of many a system is due solely to the novelty of the application or arrangement of the old elements which enter into it. When this is realized, the history as whole should look a much more manageable thing” (4). Third, ideas assembled in history by recombination are reducible to

their basic units. While units undergo transformations in larger-scale ideas, at bottom they remain the same and can be teased out. Various “isms” like Rationalism and Romanticism are not units, but rather elaborate conglomerates built up over time that can be broken down into simpler components. So it is with the Chain of Being and its three constituent parts. In classical Greece, Plato originated a distinction between an ultimate Good independent of the world which was also linked to the world and its contents, high and low, good and evil. He raised two questions: why is there a world of becoming, and

what determines the kinds of things in it and their relationships? The questions were answered with three ideas-plenitude, continuity, and gradation. The first came from Plato, the other two from Aristotle, although plenitude implied both. The three ideas were organized into a world system later by Plotinus and Neoplatonists like Augustine, and visualized still later in an astronomical framework borrowed from the Greeks. A model of the creation extended from God in the Empyrean to the center of the earth, with fixed stars, seven planets, and the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) arranged in betweenthe familiar three-tiered universe of heaven, earth, and hell. Plenitude means the otherworldly Good must overflow into the

sensible world to complete itself. Continuity means there can be no gaps in the universe, that all possibilities must be realized. The world must be full to the brim or the goodness of its author would be doubtful. Gradation means all existing beings and things are not the same and are arranged in a cosmic hierarchy of relative potentiality to assure maximum diversity.