Chain of Being (Review)

Arthur Lovejoy analyzes a powerful if flawed concept’s “control” over Western mind since Plato. The chain of being is the continuum of “substance/essence/stuff” beginning with God (or Plato’s Good) and ending with either inorganic life or nothingness itself. The chain of being hinges around three concepts: plenitude, continuity, and gradation.

chain-of-being-multicolor
(photo courtesy of Christianciv.com)

Summary of the Idea

At the top of the chain is pure Being. At the bottom is pure nothingness. Further, Good is coterminous with Being. Thirdly, good is self-diffusive. So far this isn’t too bad. It becomes tricky when it becomes “ontologized.” a) the line between Creator and creature is fuzzy; b) if something is lower on the chain, is it less good? What’s the difference between less good and bad?

If there is an infinite distance between God and not-God, and all of this is placed on a “scale” or chain, then is there not an infinite distance between each link in the scale? This was Dr Samuel Johnson’s critique, and it highlighted the problem of the chain of being: reality had to be static and exist all at once. This called creation into question, since if the Good is necessarily self-diffusive, then it had to diffuse into creation. God had no freedom to do otherwise. Ironically, this Idea also called evolution into question: if there is an infinite distance between the links, then there is no changing from one link to another.

Analysis

This book’s value lies in its being a prime example of clear, penetrating thinking. In each chapter Lovejoy presents a new difficulty with the idea of a chain of being and the force is cumulative. The chain functions as a snapshot of the God-world relationship. Since God is perfect, and the chain is a diffusion of his goodness, and since God is eternally perfect, then we must see this eternal perfection. If not, we have to find “the missing link” (and is not evolution a mere temporalizing of the chain?)

Self-Love and Augustine: Analytical Outline

This is an outline of Oliver O’Donovan’s The Problem of Self-Love in St Augustine.
Thomas Aquinas identified three different froms of self-love: friendly, hostile, neutral.

      1. Augustine’s own use of it identifies with the eudaimonist tradition (O’Donovan 2).
    1. Four Aspects of Love
      1. Dilectio and caritas are words better-suited than amor.
        1. There is no caritas about evil things; only cupiditas.
      2. The loving subject stands in a complex relation to the reality he confronts.
        1. “Order” is a teleological notion.
        2. The subject discovers this order.
      3. The final good.
        1. Augustine initially thought this meant happiness.
        2. The supreme Good can’t be below or equal to man; it is above him.
        3. Using language like finis bonum introduces a positivist note (17).
      4. Cosmic love
        1. Metaphysical/ethical realism.
        2. The love of God is a metaphysical movement of the human will towards its final cause.
          1. But this doesn’t really account for deviations.
          2. Augustine then said that the movement of each thing is “proper” in that it occurs without any exterior force as an intervening cause.
        3. Augustine’s “Neo-Platonism.”
          1. The good of each degree is identified with the degree above it.
          2. Yet Augustine the metaphysician had to admit that only one object of love was permissible.
      5. Positive Love
        1. For the early Augustine “use” was opposite of love.
        2. Distinction between things and signs
          1. Things are subdivided
            1. Objects of enjoyment: you cleave to something for its own sake.
            2. Objects of use: not all use of temporal things is love.
        3. This is classical eudaimonism: the end is something one posits (28).
      6. Rational Love
        1. Love is estimation, appreciation, approval, not appetite or movement.
        2. The lover’s response to the object of his admiration is dilectatio.
          1. The basis of this delight is rational.
          2. Love’s order is given by its comprehending conformity to the order of reality.

 

  • Self-Love and the Love of God

 

      1. The pyramidal ordo amoris supposes that every subordinate good derives its value from its final orientation to God.
      2. Knowledge: We require God’s merciful self-communication
        1. The human mind
          1. We also need subjective criteria: the mind loves itself.

 

  • Self-Love and Self-Knowledge

 

      1. Love follows knowledge.
      2. Matter and Mind
        1. To be in matter is to be in space.
        2. The intelligible realm is “in itself.”
      3. Soul and Presence
        1. Self-presence: the soul detached from the world of matter
        2. Distance-from-self: the soul in matter.
        3. Augustine identifies the inner self with conscience (71).
      4. There is a gulf between self-knowledge and knowledge of God.
      5. Commentary on De Trinitate
        1. First three-fold division
        2. Amans, amata, amor
          1. This was the Trinity of external love.
          2. The subject-object-copula only yielded two terms.
          3. New triad can yield three: mens, notitia, amor.
        3. Memoria, intelligentia, voluntas

 

  • The Primal Destruction

 

      1. Self-love is to reject the good common to all, God himself, in favor of some limited personal good.
      2. Platonic echoes: Augustine sees the soul of man occupied in the middle place of the universe.
        1. We must view the soul as expanding (reaching towards God) and contracting (sin).
      3. Your private interests should not clash with another’s, for the only true interests have to be communal because the only true goodness was God, who gives himself freely to all (103).
        1. Neglecting the common good is neglecting the transcendent good common to all.

 

  • Suum has become an ontological category (104).

 

Thesis: Self-love is notorious to define, be it pagan or Christian.  And it isn’t always clear what Augustine means by it.  O’Donovan, however, does point the way through the morass and gives us something like the following: Augustine takes classical eudaimonianism and gives a “communal” and eschatological cast to it:  self-love finds its true expression in love to God, which orders my love to others (138).

O’Donovan ends with an outstanding presentation of Christian Eudaimonism.  Such a view will have to take a positivist view of the finis bonum.

But in some ways more important than the above is O’Donovan’s wise, judicious handling of the history of ethics in the ancient world.  Among other things, he gives us an outstanding commentary on the latter half of De Trinitate.

Call him not Pseudo-Dionysius

In terms of the developing Christian-Platonic tradition, this book is Plato at his near-finest. It marks a watershed in Christian reflection and will dominate Christian metaphysics for the next thousand years. In terms of authorship, it is certainly not Paul’s traveling companion, given that he quotes Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote after the turn of the century. Further, his discussion of monasticism reflects a reality that wouldn’t have been established until much later.

pseudo dionysius

Argument of book: whatever transcends being must transcend knowledge (593A).

The whole is reflected in the part: “Within its total unity it contains part and whole, and it transcends these too and is antecedent to them” (648C). Every part of the universe reflects God’s oneness. He is replicated and differentiated in the energies (is this the same as saying the Logos is replicated in the logoi?).

The Good shows forth the processions of God (680B). If we say the processions “go out” from God, we are speaking analogically, for the Trinity isn’t in a place, per se. The Good isn’t a being but excess of being. The Good returns (reditus) all things to itself (700A). All things desire it.

The source of every duality is a monad (721D). Every number preexists in the monad (821A). Every number is differentiated as it goes forth from the Monad. Every being derives from the Pre-existent. Being precedes the entities which participate in it. God is not a facet of being, but being is a facet of him (824A). The exemplars of everything pre-exist as a transcendent unity within God.

Mystical Theology

A negation is not simply the opposite of an affirmation, but that which is prior to affirmation (1000B).

Hierarchy = sacred order, activity or understanding (164D). Because the divine realities are invisible, they must be communicated and mediated through symbols.

Conclusion:

As is usually the case with Platonic and Neo-Platonic literature, it is often soaring in terms of beauty. Ps. Dionysius’s discussion of the priest-as-hierarch needs to be seen as hyperbole. Few people are at that level of Being.

Further, his discussion of monks, not only reflecting situation that wouldn’t have arisen some centuries later than 70 AD, places the monk at the highest level of being.  But when you read Paul’s comments on the equality of believers and table fellowship, it’s hard to square the two.