Sunday, 12 March 2017

Lovejoy and the hell-ocentric worldview

Arthur O. Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being (based on lectures held in 1933) tells the story of an influential idea in western thought, that of the 'Chain of Being', from Plato to Schelling. I read it to familiarize myself a bit more with pre-modern ideas of nature, prior to the establishment of the nature-culture distinction and the associated belief in the superiority of humankind as separate from and standing above nature (beliefs that, as Philippe Descola and others have pointed out, are both parochially Western and historically recent).

According to the idea of the chain of being, humankind was not separated from nature, but part of it, just one rung among others on the infinite ladder (the scala naturae) reaching up to God’s perfection. As Lovejoy points out a logical corollary of this idea was that humankind was only infinitesimally separated from other rungs. Hence there was a “consanguinity of man and the animals” (pp. 195-198, references here and below to the 2001 Harvard University Press edition).

Scala naturae, Didacus Valades (1579)
The idea, which made its first organized appearance in Neoplatonism, is defined by three principles: those of plenitude, continuity and gradation. These principles say that the world must contain all possible kinds of being (even imperfect ones) and that these must be linked in a chain of continuity and graded according to their degree of perfection. When these principles came together in Neoplatonism, the result was "the conception of the universe as a ‘Great Chain of Being’, composed of an immense... number of links ranging in hierarchical order from the meagerest kind of existents... through ‘every possible’ grade up to the ens perfectissimum” (p. 59)

One of the things I found interesting in the book was how Lovejoy conceptualized the transition from medieval to modern worldviews. He points out that the idea of the chain of being, although forming an important undercurrent in medieval thought, was prevented from becoming dominant during the middle ages since it faced competition from anti-rationalism of scholastics like Duns Scotus or William of Ockham who saw the inscrutable will of God as the sole ground of all value distinctions. What defines the arrival of the modern is not so much the triumphant rise of what most of us think of as 'modern science' as the liberation of the idea of the chain of being from its old scholastic competitor. Freed from this competitor, the idea of the chain of being blossoms to its full splendour in early modernity, above all in the 18th century when it becomes a dominant motif in Alexander Pope's poetry and forms the philosophical core of Leibnitz' "optimism".

In telling this story, Lovejoy makes an interesting digression on medieval cosmology prior to the heliocentric worldview. The aim of the digression is to show that the 'Copernican revolution' wasn't very important in establishing the modern worldview. It certainly didn't mean a shift from a worldview in which humankind was central to creation to one in which it wasn't. “It is an error", he points out, "to suppose that the medieval world was a small affair, in which the earth bulked relatively large” (p. 99). The Ptolemaic system thus saw the earth as a mere dot compared with the heavens, and so did Maimonides.
It has been shown that the distance between the centre of the earth and the summit of the sphere of Saturn is a journey of about eight thousand seven hundred years of 365 days, assuming that one walked forty leagues a day [i.e., the distance, in round numbers, is 125 million miles]... Consider this vast and terrifying distance... Consider, hten, how immense is the size of these bodies, and how numerous they are. And if earth is thus no bigger than a point relatively to the sphere of the fixed stars, what must be the ratio of the human species to the created universe as a whole? And how then can any of us think that these things exist for his sake, and that they are meant to serve his uses? (Maimonides, quoted on p. 100)
In the following striking passage, Lovejoy then points out that the tendency of the geocentric system was the opposite of giving man a high sense of his own importance.
For the centre of the world was not a position of honor; it was rather the place farthest removed from the Empyrean, the bottom of creation, to which its dregs and baser elements sank. The actual centre, indeed, was Hell; in the spatial sense the medieval world was literally diabolocentric. (p. 101f). 
To paraphrase somewhat, the medieval worldview prior to the heliocentric order was hello-centric.

L'image du monde by Gautier de Metz (1464), showing Hell in the centre of a universe made of concentric circles.
This worldview lingered on in Montaigne, who described the man's dwelling-place as "the filth and mire of the world, the worst, lowest, most lifeless part of the universe, the bottom story of the house" (quoted on p. 102) and John Wilkins who mentions as an argument against Copernicus that the earth because of its vileness "must be situated in the centre, which is the worst place, and at the greatest distance from those purer incorruptible bodies, the heavens" (quoted on p. 102). As Lovejoy concludes, "the geocentric cosmography served rather for man's humiliation than for his exaltation" (p. 102).

The Copernican hypothesis, then, wasn't important in challenging notions of humankind's centrality. More important was the growing sense that the universe might be acentric, associated with the assumption that the stars might be suns like our own, that these might be encircled by planets inhabited by rational beings like us, and so on - all ideas associated with the Chain of Being and the idea of boundless plenitude.

In Lovejoy's portrayal of early modern thought, then, there are few traces of any ideas of human superiority over nature or human centrality in the universe, and interestingly he argues that the tendency to assign a peripheral role to humankind increases in early modernity, thanks to the dominant influence of the idea of the Chain of Being.

Before ending, it is of course relevant to point out that another part of his argument is that this idea starts to wither away towards the end of the 18th century, when it collides with the idea of progress. To some extent it adapts by opening up for temporality in the realization of plenitude. The program of nature is now seen as carried out only gradually, in a slow ascent up the “ladder”. The idea of timeless fullness is replaced by that of unending progress. With this, a new era of thought begins on which the book hardly touches at all.


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