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Great chain of being

  The great chain of being or scala naturæ is a classical and western medieval conception of the order of the universe, whose chief characteristic is a strict hierarchical system.

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The chain of being is composed of a great number of hierarchical links, from the most basic and foundational elements up through the very highest perfection, in other words, God, or the Prime Mover.

God, and beneath him the angels, both existing wholly in spirit form, sit at the top of the chain. Earthly flesh is fallible and ever-changing: mutable. Spirit, however, is unchanging and permanent. This sense of permanence is crucial to understanding this conception of reality. One does not abandon one's place in the chain; it is not only unthinkable, but generally impossible. The hierarchy is a chain and not a ladder. (One exception might be in the realm of alchemy, where alchemists attempted to transmute base elements, such as lead, into higher elements, either silver, or more often, gold—the highest element.)

In the natural order, earth (rock) is at the bottom of the chain; these elements possess only the attribute of existence. Moving on up the chain, each succeeding link contains the positive attributes of the previous link, and adds (at least) one other. Rocks, as above, possess only existence; the next link up, plants, possess life and existence. Beasts add not only motion, but appetite as well.

Man is a special instance in this conception. He is both mortal flesh, as those below him, and also spirit. In this dichotomy, the struggle between flesh and spirit becomes a moral one. The way of the spirit is higher, more noble; it brings one closer to God. The desires of the flesh drag one down. The Christian fall of Lucifer is especially terrible, because that angel is wholly spirit, who yet defies God, the ultimate perfection.

Other subdivisions

Each link in the chain might be further divided into its component parts. In medieval secular society, for example, the king is at the top, followed by the aristocratic lords, and then the peasants below them. Solidifying the king's position at the top of humanity's social order is the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. In the family, the father is head of the household; below him, his wife; below her, their children. The children might be subdivided so that the males are one link above the females.

Modern western culture maintains some of these divisions. Just as Milton's Paradise Lost ranked the angels (c.f. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite's ranking of angels), so Christian culture conceives of angels in orders of archangels, seraphim, and cherubim, among others. The lion is still king of light.

Amongst animals, subdivisions are equally apparent. At the top of the animals are wild beasts, who were seen as superior as they defied training and domestication. Below them are domestic animals, further sub-divided so that useful animals (such as dogs and horses) are higher than docile creature such as sheep. Birds are also sub-divided, with eagles above pigeons, for example. Fish come below birds, and are sub-divided between actual fish and other sea creatures. Below them come insects, with useful insects such spiders and bees, and attractive creatures such as ladybirds and dragonflies at the top, and unpleasant insects such as flies and beetles at the bottom. At the very bottom of the animal sector are snakes, which are relegated to this position as punishment for the serpent's actions in the Garden of Eden.

Below animals comes the division for plants, which is further sub-divided. Trees are at the top, with useful trees such as oaks at the top, and the traditionally demonic yew tree at the bottom. Food-producing plants such as cereals and vegetables, further sub-divided.

At the very bottom of the chain are minerals. At the top of this section are metals (further sub-divided, with gold at the top), rocks (with granite and marble at the top), soil (sub-divided between nutrient-rich soil and low-quality types), sand, grit, dust, and, at the very bottom of the entire Great Chain, dirt. A reference to the Great Chain of Being that survives in today's English language is the insult that one is "lower than dirt," which refers to dirt's place at the bottom of the Chain.

The central concept of the chain of being is that everything imaginable fits into it somewhere, giving order and meaning to the universe.


  • Arthur Lovejoy: The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea, (1936) ISBN 0-674-36153-9
  • E. M. W. Tillyard: The Elizabethan World Picture (1942)
  • William F. Bynum, "The Great Chain of Being after Forty Years: An Appraisal", History of Science 13 (1975): 1-28

See also

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Great_chain_of_being". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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