The great chain of being (Latin: scala naturae, literally “ladder or stair-way of nature”), is a Christian concept detailing a strict, religious hierarchical structure of all matter and life, believed to have been decreed by the Christian God.
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.
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. It is generally impossible to change the position of an object in the hierarchy. (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: this element possesses only the attribute of existence. Each link succeeding upward 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. Animals add not only motion, but appetite as well.
Man is both mortal flesh, as those below him, and also spirit as those above. 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 move one away from God. The Christian fall of Lucifer is thought of as especially terrible, as angels are wholly spirit, yet Lucifer defied God, the ultimate perfection.
The chain starts from God and progresses downward to angels, demons (fallen/renegade angels), stars, moon, kings, princes, nobles, men, wild animals, domesticated animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals, and other minerals.
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 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.
Just as Milton’s Paradise Lost ranked the angels (c.f. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite’s ranking of angels), so too does Christian culture conceive of angels in orders of archangels, seraphim, and cherubim, among others. Amongst animals, subdivisions are equally apparent. At the top of the animals are wild beasts (such as lions), which 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 creatures, 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 as 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 are 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 and lead at the bottom), followed by 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.
The central concept of the chain of being is that everything imaginable fits into it somewhere, giving order and meaning to the universe.
The Great Chain of Being
At once at the top of the Chain of Being, but also external to creation, God was believed to stand outside the physical limitations of time. He possessed the spiritual attributes of reason, love, and imagination, like all spiritual beings, but he alone possessed the divine attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. God serves as the model of authority for the strongest, most virtuous, most excellent type of being within a specific category (the “primate”).
Beings of pure spirit, angels had no physical bodies of their own. In order to affect the physical world, angels were thought to build temporary bodies for themselves out of particles of air. Medieval and Renaissance theologians believed angels to possess reason, love, imagination, and—like God—to stand outside the physical limitations of time. They possessed sensory awareness unbound by physical organs, and they possessed language. They lacked, however, the divine attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence of God, and they simultaneously lacked the physical passions experienced by humans and animals. Depending upon the author, the class of angels was further subdivided into three, seven, nine, or ten ranks, variously known as triads, orders or choirs. Each rank had greater power and responsibility than the entities below them. The most common classification is that of St. Thomas Aquinas:
- Angelic Primate: Seraphim
- Thrones (Ophanim)
For Medieval and Renaissance thinkers, humans occupied a unique position on the Chain of Being, straddling the world of spiritual beings and the world of physical creation. Humans were thought to possess divine powers such as reason, love, and imagination. Like angels, humans were spiritual beings, but unlike angels, human souls were “knotted” to a physical body. As such, they were subject to passions and physical sensations—pain, hunger, thirst, sexual desire—just like other animals lower on the Chain of the Being. They also possessed the powers of reproduction unlike the minerals and rocks lowest on the Chain of Being. Humans had a particularly difficult position, balancing the divine and the animalistic parts of their nature. For instance, an angel is only capable of intellectual sin such as pride (as evidenced by Lucifer’s fall from heaven in Christian belief). Humans, however, were capable of both intellectual sin and physical sins such as lust and gluttony if they let their animal appetites overrule their divine reason. Humans also possessed sensory attributes: sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell. Unlike angels, however, their sensory attributes were limited by physical organs. (They could only know things they could discern through the five senses.) The highest-ranking human being was the King.
Animals, like humans higher on the Chain, were animated (capable of independent motion). They possessed physical appetites and sensory attributes, the number depending upon their position within the Chain of Being. They had limited intelligence and awareness of their surroundings. Unlike humans, they were thought to lack spiritual and mental attributes such as immortal souls and the ability to use logic and language. The primate of all animals (the “King of Beasts”) was variously thought to be either the lion or the elephant. However, each subgroup of animals also had its own primate, an avatar superior in qualities of its type.
- Mammalian Primate: Lion or Elephant
- Wild Animals (large cats, etc.)
- “Useful” Domesticated Animals (horse, dog, etc.)
- “Tame” Domesticated Animals (housecat, etc.)
- Avian Primate: Eagle
- Birds of Prey (hawks, owls, etc.)
- Carrion Birds (vultures, crows)
- “Worm-eating” Birds (robin, etc.)
- “Seed-eating” Birds (sparrow, etc.)
Note that avian creatures, linked to the element of air, were considered superior to aquatic creatures linked to the element of water. Air naturally tended to rise and soar above the surface of water, and analogously, aerial creatures were placed higher in the Chain.
- Piscine Primate: Whale
- Aquatic Mammals (We know a whale or dolphin is not a fish; back then people did not)
- Fish of various sizes and attributes
The chart would continue to descend through various reptiles, amphibians, and insects. The higher up the chart one went, the more noble, mobile, strong, and intelligent the creature in Renaissance belief. At the very bottom of the animal section, we find sessile creatures like the oysters, clams, and barnacles. Like the plants below them, these creatures lacked mobility, and were thought to lack various sensory organs such as sight and hearing. However, they were still considered superior to plants because they had tactile and gustatory senses (touch and taste).
Plants, like other living creatures, possessed the ability to grow in size and reproduce. However, they lacked mental attributes and possessed no sensory organs. Instead, their gifts included the ability to eat soil, air, and “heat.” (Photosynthesis was a poorly understood phenomenon in medieval and Renaissance times.) Plants did have greater tolerances for heat and cold, and immunity to the pain that afflicts most animals. At the very bottom of the botanical hierarchy, the fungus and moss, lacking leaf and blossom, were so limited in form that Renaissance thinkers thought them scarcely above the level of minerals. However, each plant was also thought to be gifted with various edible or medicinal virtues unique to its own type. The primate of plants was the oak tree.
- “Crops” (corn, wheat, etc.)
Creations of the earth, the lowest of elements, all minerals lacked the plant’s basic ability to grow and reproduce. They also lacked mental attributes and sensory organs found in beings higher on the Chain. Their unique gifts, however, were typically their unusual solidity and strength. Many minerals, in fact, were thought to possess magical powers, particularly gems. The Mineral primate is the Diamond.
- Lapidarical Primate: Diamond
- Sapphires, etc.
- Metallic Primate: Gold
- Iron (and steel)
- Copper, etc.
- Geological Primate: Marble
- Limestone, etc.
- Minute Particles (gravel, sand, soil, etc.) .