_The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea_ is a publication of the William James Lectures delivered at Harvard in 1933 by philosopher and historian of ideas Arthur O. Lovejoy, by Harvard University Press. Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873-1962) was a professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University who had studied under William James and Josiah Royce. He developed the study of the history of ideas, which study he outlines and explains in the first lecture presented in this volume. The lectures presented here develop the history of an idea ("the great chain of being") which played a central role in the development of Occidental philosophy. Lovejoy explains in his preface to these lectures that the use of the phrase "the great chain of being" to describe the universe was used to refer to three characteristics of the constitution of the world: that these characteristics implied a certain conception of the nature of God, that this conception was conjoined with another to which it was in latent opposition to itself, and that most of the religious thought of the West has thus been at variance with itself. Lovejoy further maintains that the "great chain of being" was used to supply the basis for resolving the problem of evil and showing that the scheme of things was both intelligent and rational. Two further principles play a central role in Lovejoy's explication of the "great chain of being": "the principle of plenitude" and "the principle of continuity". The principle of plenitude may be traced back to Aristotle and simply states that all things that are possible will be, and it lies behind the ontological proof for the existence of God of Saint Anselm. The principle of continuity maintains that the qualitative differences of things must constitute a linear or continuous series. In providing a history of this central concept, Lovejoy traces the development of Western philosophy from the ancient Greeks (Plato and Aristotle), through the medieval period, to the rationalists (Leibniz and Spinoza), through some Eighteenth Century attempts to understand the universe, to the Romantic period (the German romantics and the metaphysical poets), to the modern day (in which the "great chain of being" was overturned and temporality came to play a unique role in the philosophies of individuals such as Bergson, Whitehead, and James). Lovejoy's lectures are very learned and show an incredible depth of philosophical understanding, as he traces the history of this idea. At the end, Lovejoy is to maintain that the idea eventually was overcome because it involved a static picture of the universe, and new philosophical systems (mentioning those of Schelling and Whitehead for example) came to allow for a temporal understanding of the universe and a God that evolves with it. (While his rejection of the notion of the "great chain of being" is perhaps over-hasty, particularly in light of what we now know about the "Big Bang" and the creation of the universe, these lectures nevertheless provide an enlightening tour through the history of ideas.)
Lovejoy begins his lectures by defining what he means by the "history of ideas" (the framework which he will use in his presentation of this particular concept). Lovejoy maintains that the "history of ideas" is both more specific and less restricted than the history of philosophy. Lovejoy suggests that the "history of ideas" is much like analytical chemistry and that "Though it deals in great part with the same material as the other branches of the history of thought and depends greatly upon their prior labors, it divides that material in a special way, brings the parts of it into new groupings and relations, views it from the standpoint of a distinctive purpose." Lovejoy then proceeds to further explicate what he means by the "history of ideas" and the role that the concept of the "great chain of being" plays in that history. In his next lecture, Lovejoy focuses on the genesis of the idea in ancient Greek philosophy. Lovejoy begins by noting that Whitehead regarded Western philosophy as "consist[ing] of a series of footnotes to Plato", and thus he begins by explaining the role of "otherworldiness" in Western philosophy and the philosophy of Plato and the Platonists. Lovejoy mentions Plato's _Dialogues_, Plato's notion of "the Good" and "Absolute Being" (comparing this to the Vedanta), and the NeoPlatonists such as Plotinus. Lovejoy also examines the thought of Aristotle and explains the development of the principles of plenitude and continuity from his philosophy in the _Metaphysics_. Lovejoy also explains the role of "the One" in Plotinus, and then turns his attention to the medieval thought in the subsequent lecture. Here, Lovejoy mentions the writings of the Pseudo-Dionysius, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. Lovejoy explains the role of the principle of plenitude in the thought of Saint Thomas (noting the tendency of Thomism towards "illusionism" or otherworldliness, similar to the Vedanta) and the other Schoolmen. Lovejoy also mentions Jewish sources, the philosophy of Robert Fludd, and the role of Christian heresies (Gnosticism and Manicheanism). Lovejoy's next lecture deals with plenitude and the new cosmography. Here, Lovejoy explains the Copernican hypothesis (and how it would lead to subsequent attempts to rectify the notion of the "great chain of being"), the beginnings of modern science in Roger Bacon, and mentions Bruno and Galileo. Lovejoy also mentions the philosophies of Descartes and Pascal and the beginning of the modern era. Lovejoy next turns his attention to the principle of plenitude and the "principle of sufficient reason". The principle of sufficient reason (which was to play a role in both the philosophies of Spinoza and Leibniz) states that everything that happens does so for a definite reason. Lovejoy expounds upon the philosophies of Spinoza (mentioning his pantheism) and Leibniz (mentioning his _Theodicy_ and attempt to solve the problem of evil). The next lecture consists of Lovejoy's reflections on the "great chain of being" in Eighteenth Century thought. Lovejoy explains the subsequent attempts to maintain the concept of the "great chain of being" among the philosophers of the Eighteenth Century, noting attempts to rectify religion with science, the philosophy of optimism (that this is the best of all possible worlds), and the role of Eighteenth Century biology (mentioning the concept of design as seen in the writings of Paley for example and contrasting this to Darwinism). Lovejoy next turns his attention to temporalizing the chain of being. Here, Lovejoy mentions the thinking of Kant, Bergson, and others and their attempts to provide a temporal understanding for this concept. Lovejoy next turns his attention to Romanticism and the priniciple of plenitude. Lovejoy notes the role of this concept in the Romantic poets as well as in the philosophy of German idealism. Finally Lovejoy ends by noting the culmination of this concept and its eventual overcoming by modern philosophers. Lovejoy mentions for example the concept of God (as evolving) as seen by thinkers such as Schelling and Whitehead.
This book provides an excellent introduction to an important concept in the history of ideas in Western thought. Lovejoy was to found this study and his thinking is both profound and unique. Lovejoy's learning is very impressive and his references are sure to provide much source material for further reading in philosophy.