Great chain of being

1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades, Rhetorica Christiana

The Great Chain of Being is a hierarchical structure of all matter and life, thought by medieval Christianity to have been decreed by God. The chain begins with God and descends through angels, humans, animals, and plants, to minerals.[1][2][3]

The Great Chain of Being (Latin: scala naturae, "Ladder of Being") is a concept derived from Plato, Aristotle (in his Historia Animalium), Plotinus and Proclus.[4] Further developed during the Middle Ages, it reached full expression in early modern Neoplatonism.[5][6]


The Chain of Being hierarchy has God at the top, above angels, which like him are entirely spirit, without material bodies, and hence unchangeable. Beneath them are humans, consisting both of spirit and matter; they can change and die, and are thus essentially impermanent. Lower still are animals and plants. At the bottom are the mineral materials of the earth itself; they consist only of matter. Thus, the higher the being is in the chain, the more attributes it has, including all the attributes of the beings below it. The minerals are, in the medieval mind, a possible exception to the immutability of the material beings in the chain, as alchemy promised to turn lower elements like lead into those higher up the chain, like silver or gold.[2][1]


Each link in the chain might be divided further into its component parts. In medieval secular society, for example, the king is at the top, succeeded by the aristocracy and the clergy, 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. The implied permanent state of inequality became a source of popular grievance, and led eventually to political change as in the French Revolution.[7] The hierarchy was visible in every structure of society: "In the family, the father is head of the household; below him, his wife; below her, their children."[2]

Milton's Paradise Lost ranked the angels (c.f. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite's ranking of angels), and Christian culture conceives of angels "in orders of archangels, seraphim, and cherubim, among others."[2]

The animal division is similarly subdivided, from strong, wild, and untameable lions at the top, to useful but still spirited domestic animals like dogs and horses, to merely docile farm stock like sheep. In the same way, birds could be ranked from lordly eagles high above common birds like pigeons. Below them were fish, those with bones being above the various soft sea creatures. Lower still were insects, with useful ones like bees high above nuisances like flies and beetles. The snake found itself at the bottom of the animal scale, cast down, the medieval supposed, for its wicked role in the Garden of Eden."[2]

Below animals came plants, ranging from the useful and strong oak at the top to the supposedly demonic yew tree at the bottom. Crop plants too were ranked from highest to lowest.[2]

The minerals too were graded, from useful metals (from gold down to lead), to rocks (again, from useful marble downwards), all the way down to soil.[2]

The Chain

St Thomas Aquinas classified all beings by rank.

The chain of being links God, angels, humans, animals, plants, and minerals.[3] The links of the chain are:


God has created all other beings and is therefore outside creation, time, and space. He has all the spiritual attributes found in humans and angels, and uniquely has his own attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. He is the model of perfection for all lower beings.[3]

Angelic beings

In Christian angelology, angels are immortal beings of pure spirit without physical bodies, so they require temporary bodies made of earthly materials to be able to do anything in the material world.[3][8] They were thought to have spiritual attributes such as reason, love, and imagination.[3][9] Based on mentions of types of angel in the Bible, Pseudo-Dionysios devised a hierarchy of angelic beings, which other theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas adopted:[3][10]


The mediaeval scala naturae as a staircase, implying the possibility of progress:[11] Ramon Llull's Ladder of Ascent and Descent of the Mind, 1305

Humans uniquely shared spiritual attributes with God and the angels above them, love and language, and physical attributes with the animals below them, like having material bodies that experienced emotions and sensations like lust and pain, and physical needs such as hunger and thirst.[3]

Charles Bonnet's chain of being from Traité d'insectologie, 1745


Animals have senses, are able to move, and have physical appetites. The highest animals like the lion, the king of beasts, could move vigorously, and had powerful senses such as excellent eyesight and the ability to smell their prey, while lower animals might wriggle or crawl, and the lowest like oysters were sessile, attached to the sea-bed. All, however, had the senses of touch and taste.[3]


Plants lacked sense organs and the ability to move, but they could grow and reproduce. The highest plants had attractive attributes like leaves and flowers, while the lowest plants, like mushrooms and moss, did not, and stayed low on the ground, close to the mineral earth. All the same, many plants had useful properties serving for food or medicine.[3]


At the bottom of the chain, minerals were unable to move, sense, grow, or reproduce. Their attributes were being solid and strong, while the gemstones possessed magic. The king of gems was the diamond.[3]

Natural science

From Aristotle to Linnaeus

The basic idea of a ranking of the world's organisms goes back to Aristotle's biology. In his History of Animals, where he ranked animals over plants based on their ability to move and sense, and graded the animals by their reproductive mode, live birth being "higher" than laying cold eggs, and possession of blood, warm-blooded mammals and birds again being "higher" than "bloodless" invertebrates.[12]

Aristotle's non-religious concept of higher and lower organisms was taken up by natural philosophers during the Scholastic period to form the basis of the Scala Naturae. The scala allowed for an ordering of beings, thus forming a basis for classification where each kind of mineral, plant and animal could be slotted into place. In medieval times, the great chain was seen as a God-given and unchangeable ordering. In the Northern Renaissance, the scientific focus shifted to biology; the threefold division of the chain below humans formed the basis for Carl Linnaeus's Systema Naturæ from 1737, where he divided the physical components of the world into the three familiar kingdoms of minerals, plants and animals.[13]

In alchemy

Alchemy used the great chain as the basis for its cosmology. Since all beings were linked into a chain, so that there was a fundamental unity of all matter, transformation from one place in the chain to the next might, according to alchemical reasoning, be possible. In turn, the unit of matter enabled alchemy to make another key assumption, the philosopher's stone, which somehow gathered and concentrated the universal spirit found in all matter along the chain, and which ex hypothesi might enable the alchemical transformation of one substance to another, such as the base metal lead to the noble metal gold.[14]

Scala naturae in evolution

The human pedigree recapitulating its phylogeny back to amoeba shown as a reinterpreted chain of being with living and fossil animals. From a critique of Ernst Haeckel's theories, 1873.

The set nature of species, and thus the absoluteness of creatures' places in the great chain, came into question during the 18th century. The dual nature of the chain, divided yet united, had always allowed for seeing creation as essentially one continuous whole, with the potential for overlap between the links.[1] Radical thinkers like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck saw a progression of life forms from the simplest creatures striving towards complexity and perfection, a schema accepted by zoologists like Henri de Blainville.[15] The very idea of an ordering of organisms, even if supposedly fixed, laid the basis for the idea of transmutation of species, whether progressive goal-directed orthogenesis or Charles Darwin's undirected theory of evolution.[16][17]

The Chain of Being continued to be part of metaphysics in 19th century education, and the concept was well known. The geologist Charles Lyell used it as a metaphor in his 1851 Elements of Geology description of the geological column, where he used the term "missing links" in relation to missing parts of the continuum. The term "missing link" later came to signify transitional fossils, particularly those bridging the gulf between man and beasts.[18]

The idea of the great chain as well as the derived "missing link" was abandoned in early 20th century science,[19] as the notion of modern animals representing ancestors of other modern animals was abandoned in biology.[20] The idea of a certain sequence from "lower" to "higher" however lingers on, as does the idea of progress in biology.[21]


Allenby and Garreau propose that the Catholic Church's narrative of the Great Chain of Being kept the peace in Europe for centuries.[citation needed] The very concept of rebellion simply lay outside the reality within which most people lived for to defy the King was to defy God. King James I himself wrote, "The state of monarchy is the most supreme thing upon earth: for kings are not only God's Lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself they are called Gods."[16]

The Enlightenment broke this supposed divine plan, and fought the last vestiges of feudal hierarchy, by creating secular governmental structures that vested power into the hands of ordinary citizens, rather than in those of divinely ordained monarchs.[16]

However, scholars such as Brian Tierney[22] and Michael Novak[23] have noted the medieval contribution to democracy and human rights.

Adaptations and similar concepts

The American philosopher Ken Wilber described a "Great Nest of Being" which he claims to belong to a culture-independent "perennial philosophy" traceable across 3000 years of mystical and esoteric writings. Wilber's system corresponds with other concepts of transpersonal psychology.[24] In his 1977 book A Guide for the Perplexed, the economist E. F. Schumacher described a hierarchy of beings, with humans at the top able mindfully to perceive the "eternal now".[25]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Lovejoy 1960, p. 59.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Baofu, Peter (2012). The Future of Post-Human History: A Preface to a New Theory of Universality and Relativity. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 211–212. ISBN 978-1-4438-3836-8. which in turn cites "WK 2011"
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Wheeler, L. Kip. "The Chain of Being: Tillyard in a Nutshell". Carson-Newman University. Retrieved 16 November 2019.
  4. ^ "Great Chain of Being | Definition, Origin & Facts". Britannica. Retrieved April 1, 2021.
  5. ^ "This idea of a great chain of being can be traced to Plato's division of the world into the Forms, which are full beings, and sensible things, which are imitations of the Forms and are both being and not being. Aristotle's teleology recognized a perfect being, and he also arranges all animals by a single natural scale according to the degree of perfection of their souls. The idea of the great chain of being was fully developed in Neoplatonism and in the Middle Ages.", Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy, p. 289 (2004)
  6. ^ Edward P. Mahoney, "Lovejoy and the Hierarchy of Being", Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 48, No 2, pp. 211-230.
  7. ^ Censer, Jack R.; Hunt, Lynn (2001). Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. Penn State Press. p. 21. ISBN 0-271-04013-0.
  8. ^ Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica (PDF). p. 588 – via Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
  9. ^ Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica (PDF). pp. 603–605 – via Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
  10. ^ Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica (PDF). pp. 1189–1191 – via Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
  11. ^ Ruse, Michael (1996). Monad to man: the Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology. Harvard University Press. pp. 21–23. ISBN 978-0-674-03248-4.
  12. ^ Leroi 2014, pp. 111–119.
  13. ^ Linnaeus, Carl (1758). Systema naturae (in Latin) (10th edition ed.). Stockholm: Laurentius Salvius.
  14. ^ O'Gorman, Frank; Donald, Diana (2005). Ordering the World in the Eighteenth Century. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 63–82. ISBN 978-0-230-51888-9.
  15. ^ Appel, T.A. (1980). "Henri De Blainville and the Animal Series: A Nineteenth-Century Chain of Being". Journal of the History of Biology. 13 (2): 291–319. doi:10.1007/BF00125745. JSTOR 4330767.
  16. ^ a b c Snyder, S. "The Great Chain of Being". Grandview.edu. Archived from the original on 2017-07-28. Retrieved 2017-01-05.
  17. ^ Lovejoy 1960, pp. 325-326.
  18. ^ "Why the term "missing links" is inappropriate". Hoxful Monsters. 10 June 2009. Archived from the original on 2 April 2012. Retrieved 10 September 2011.
  19. ^ Prothero, Donald R. (1 March 2008). "Evolution: What missing link?". New Scientist. 197 (2645): 35–41. doi:10.1016/s0262-4079(08)60548-5. Retrieved 4 August 2018.
  20. ^ Ehrlich, Paul R.; Holm, R. W. (1963). The process of evolution. New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-07-019130-3. OCLC 255345.
  21. ^ Ruse, Michael (1996). Monad to man: the Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology. Harvard University Press. pp. 432–433, and passim. ISBN 978-0-674-03248-4.
  22. ^ Reid, Charles J. Jr (1998). "Book Review | The Medieval Origins of the Western Natural Rights Tradition: The Achievement of Brian Tierney" (PDF). Cornell Law Review. 83: 437–463.
  23. ^ Novak, Michael (1 October 1990). "Thomas Aquinas, the First Whig: What Our Liberties Owe to a Neapolitan Mendicant". Crisis Magazine (October 1990).
  24. ^ Freeman, Anthony (2006). "A Daniel Come to Judgement? Dennett and the Revisioning of Transpersonal Theory" (PDF). Journal of Consciousness Studies. 13 (3): 95–109. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 3, 2012. Retrieved July 3, 2012.
  25. ^ Costello, Stephen (2014). Philosophy and the Flow of Presence. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 100–101. ISBN 978-1-4438-6454-1.


Further reading

  • Tillyard, E. M. W. (1942) The Elizabethan World Picture: A Study of the Idea of Order in the age of Shakespeare, Donne & Milton. New York: Random House

External links

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