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The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (1936)

por Arthur O. Lovejoy

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This is arguably the seminal work in historical and philosophical analysis of the twentieth century. Originally delivered for the William James lecture series at Harvard University in 1932-33, it remains the cornerstone of the history of ideas. Lovejoy sees philosophy's history as one of confusion of ideas, a prime example of which is the idea of a "great chain of being"--a universe linked in theology, science and values by pre-determined stages in all phases of life. Lovejoy's view is one of dualities in nature and society, with both error and truth as part of the natural order of things. The past reminds us that the ruling modes of thought of our own age, which we may view as clear, coherent and firmly grounded, are unlikely to be seen with such certainty by posterity. The Great Chain of Being is an excursion into the past, with a clear mission--to discourage the assumption that all is known, or that what is known is not subject to modifi cation at a later time. Lovejoy reaffirms the "intrinsic worth of diversity," as a caution against certitude. By this he does not mean toleration of indiff erence, or relativity for its own sake, but an appreciation of mental and physical process of human beings. As Peter Stanlis notes in his introduction: "Faith in the great chain of being was fi nally largely extinguished by the combined infl uences of Romantic idealism, Darwin's theory of evolution, and Einstein's theory of relativity." Few books remain as alive to prospects for the future by reconsidering follies of the past as does Lovejoy's stunning work.… (mais)
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Great chain of being is one of those phrases that one had heard frequently enough to form part of one's mental furniture without being fully aware of the details. This book, based on a series of lectures given at Harvard University in the 1930s, although Lovejoy was a professor at John Hopkins. The author traces the idea of the chain of being from Platonic thought in which the One extends itself into the universe because it is supremely good and generosity is an aspect of good. Lovejoy observes that Platonism, Neo-Platonism and the Christian philosophy and theology based on it have always suffered from the juncture between the supreme good, which needs nothing and belief in which encourages a turn away from the world to contemplate union with the good and the creator, who overflows into creation, filling it with every possible type of being and belief in which encourages involvement in and study of the natural world. One thing that modern readers must remember is that humans are not at the top of the chain of being. We are only at the top of the physical beings--very distant from plants and tiny animals but equally distant from the incorporeal beings between us and the one (or the Christian God). It is the removal of this non-physical layer that makes the 'chain' seem like a demonstration of human ego.

I was interested to learn that the concept of a 'missing link' did not enter European thought with Darwin's theory. I already knew that Darwin did not originate the idea of evolution, but merely suggested a physical mechanism for it. The theory of plentitude, as elaborated in the 18th century, required that God create every possible type of being, so that there would be no gaps between the levels of existence. Such a gap, as the one that seemed to exist between the higher apes and the human race led some to try to fit remote races such as the Hottentots or Australians between apes and the fully human. For others, the missing link threatened the entire theory.

Lovejoy also explains that the concept of the 'best of all possible worlds' was not as fatuous as Voltaire notoriously made it seem in his character of Dr. Pangloss. The concept assumes that given the constraints of physical matter, free-will, etc. some worlds are not possible. Of the ones that are possible, this must be the best, because a good God, or Plato's 'the Good" cannot create less than the best. This does not mean that the world is a paradise, obviously a world that contains lions, because they are worthy of existence, and gazelles because they are also worthy of existence cannot be the best for both lions and gazelles at all times.

In any case, the book is worth reading since it examines and explains concepts that produced or influenced a great deal of philosophy and art within Western culture. My only complaint is of the amount of material that is left untranslated. There are ample examples in English, but the German, much of the French and the Latin are wasted on me. ( )
  ritaer | Aug 3, 2020 |
The William James Lectures, delivered in 1929, explores the history of ideas from Greek philosophy, medieval thought, Liebnitz and Spinosa through the 18th century and the romantic era, indeed through the life cycle of birth, growth, trials, transformations, senility and perhaps death.
  PendleHillLibrary | Jun 9, 2016 |
A wonderful illuminating book that can reconstitute your mind and stay with you as a companion in your life of the mind. ( )
  Pauntley | Sep 26, 2012 |
Substance: Lovejoy's purpose is to trace the philosophical idea known as "The Great Chain of Being" from its Platonic and neo-Platonic sources through the writings of the "great philosophers" up to the 19th century. He identifies three principles (necessity, plenitude, and continuity) assumed to be "attributes of God" that "required" the creation of a continuous "chain" of beings (including inanimate ones) leading from some lowest level up to creatures nearly (but not quite) the same as God. This idea undergirds most philosophical and religious thought in the West up through the 19th century before it is discredited and abandoned. Lovejoy details, exhaustively, the influence of the idea on the writings of the most significant Western thinkers, including its implications for the evolutionists. Lovejoy particularly stresses the existence of two mutually incompatible conceptions of the nature of God inherent in the Platonic substrate, which eventually rupture the surface of Western philosophy.
Style: Adapted from a series of lectures delivered at Harvard in 1833 and faithful to the academic style of the period, Lovejoy can pack more subordinate clauses into one sentence than most. He specializes in claiming that there are two or three or four "principles" and then failing to identify when he shifts from one to the next, leaving the reader to dig the principles out of the prose like the proverbial needle.
Reaction: The course of this idea illustrates how and why philosophers and scientists readily accepted the transition from "God made everything" to "there is no God". ( )
2 vote librisissimo | Jul 19, 2009 |
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These lectures are primarily an attempt to offer a contribution to the history of ideas;  and since the term is often used in a vaguer sense than that which I have in mind, it seems necessary, before proceeding to the main business in hand, to give some brief account of the province, purpose, and method of the general sort of inquiry for which I should wish to reserve that designation,
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This is arguably the seminal work in historical and philosophical analysis of the twentieth century. Originally delivered for the William James lecture series at Harvard University in 1932-33, it remains the cornerstone of the history of ideas. Lovejoy sees philosophy's history as one of confusion of ideas, a prime example of which is the idea of a "great chain of being"--a universe linked in theology, science and values by pre-determined stages in all phases of life. Lovejoy's view is one of dualities in nature and society, with both error and truth as part of the natural order of things. The past reminds us that the ruling modes of thought of our own age, which we may view as clear, coherent and firmly grounded, are unlikely to be seen with such certainty by posterity. The Great Chain of Being is an excursion into the past, with a clear mission--to discourage the assumption that all is known, or that what is known is not subject to modifi cation at a later time. Lovejoy reaffirms the "intrinsic worth of diversity," as a caution against certitude. By this he does not mean toleration of indiff erence, or relativity for its own sake, but an appreciation of mental and physical process of human beings. As Peter Stanlis notes in his introduction: "Faith in the great chain of being was fi nally largely extinguished by the combined infl uences of Romantic idealism, Darwin's theory of evolution, and Einstein's theory of relativity." Few books remain as alive to prospects for the future by reconsidering follies of the past as does Lovejoy's stunning work.

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