In reading many of your dialectical journal responses for The Great Gatsby, I noticed that many of you made reference to the Great Chain of Being, or simply to a sense of cosmological order (even if you didn’t use that term precisely).
While I am very happy to see your burgeoning cultural knowledge, it is important to contextualize ideas-again, another reason for the importance of history. Let’s put The Great Chain in its place:
The origins of this powerful and influential idea go back, as many things do, to Plato. Plato conceived of the universe as existing on many levels, with the highest level a “world” of pure ideas known as the forms. This world was the most orderly and was totally complete. Perfect. A world extended below which was a copy of the first (and copies are always imperfect); another below that was a copy of a copy; and then a copy of a copy of a copy; ad infinitum, down to our own world which was but a mere shadow of the splendor of the original. Does anyone hear echoes of “The Allegory of the Cave”? I hope so.
Plato’s philosophies were handed down and taught throughout the Mediterranean world for centuries. When Christians got ahold of Plato they found a cosmology so wonderfully laid out, many wondered aloud if Plato had not really been a Christian. Early church fathers borrowed much of Platonism or Neo-Platonism (as we now designate the much later version of his ideas) and adapted it for Christian theology, with Christ being the transcendent connection between God (the highest, most perfect world) and man (the lowest, most imperfect). This view of the cosmos endured for over 1000 years. Not even the Protestant revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries could dislodge the Great Chain of Being from its position of preeminence. For men and women of the time, the universe was clearly rationally ordered, with the infiniteness of the Creator exhibited at every level.
It wasn’t until the 18th century, through systematic philosophical investigation and rational inquiry did the Chain begin to weaken. Newton’s mechanistic model of the physical reality opened a slight breach in the former mysteries-now formerly magical phenomenon could be explained with mathematics. The new science, one based on experimentation and observation, started showing gaps in this supposed unbroken chain. The great philosopher Immanuel Kant found that the Chain of Being had no empirical application and when it was used could only produce imaginary knowledge. The 18th century was also the century of the Encyclopedists: the French scholars who began to record every scrap of knowledge in a systematic format for reference and cross-reference. And it was the century of the dictionary. Knowledge became an organized body that could be referenced quickly and easily. It was even more profound a change than the Internet, for the Internet only helps us locate and link knowledge; the Encyclopedists, on the other hand, organized the knowledge for the very first time.
For all this the Chain of Being still clung to life. Only with the dramatic upheavals in the life sciences beginning in the 1750s that culminated in Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859) did the idea fall into disuse. People like to point to Darwin as either this great genius or great Satan, but in reality he was building on a body of research more than a century old. As he was developing his argument for the spontaneous generation of new species from existing species, others were very close on his heels. You might remember from Bio class that Lamarck was very nearly right, but just missed the mark. And if it weren’t for monks scared of Mendel’s “radical” ideas, we would have had a theory of genetic inheritance that would have undergirded Darwin’s claims. But only with this sea change in the concept of the world did the Great of Chain of Being begin its long and fitful decline. Is it any surprise that it declined at the same time the great and centuries old monarchies also begin their fitful and ignominious demises? Individualism and democracy became the new ideals-shockingly so, since only a two generations previous they were considered to be slur words against common decency.
Today, the Chain of Being is usually considered a quaint anachronism: something for a simpler time when people knew their “betters” and knew their “place.” Its vestiges still exist in the debate between evolution and “Intelligent Design.” Intelligent Design is another name for the same basic idea as the Chain of Being.
So, when reading be sure to place the story and author in their contexts (author’s can write about the distant past, too). Try to imagine the world-view the author lived within. In a sense your mission is to decipher his or her epistemology-how do they decide what is true? The Great Chain was the dominant idea for nearly two thousand years. But its time has passed, and I think we are yet to produce a name for our present one.