The Great Chain of Being
This paper is based upon the article - ‘Great Chain of Being’ - appearing in the web site below -
with the addition by this website of the Hermetical and Theosophical concept of Sages.
The ‘Classical Period ‘- "Renaissance" literally means "rebirth." It refers especially to the rebirth of learning that began in Italy in the fourteenth century, spread to the north, including England, by the sixteenth century, and ended in the north in the mid-seventeenth century During this period, sometimes known as the Classical Period, there was an enormous renewal of interest in and study of classical antiquity.
Among the important concepts the Classical period was that of the Great Chain of Being. Its major premise was that every existing thing in the universe had its "place" in a divinely planned hierarchical order, which was pictured as a chain vertically extended.
An object's "place" depended on the relative proportion of "spirit" and "matter" it contained--the less "spirit" and the more "matter," the lower down it stood.
At the bottom, for example, stood various types of inanimate objects, such as metals, stones, and the four elements (earth, water, air, fire). Higher up were various members of the vegetative class, like trees and flowers. Then came animals; then humans; and then angels. At the very top was God.
Then within each of these large groups, there were other hierarchies. For example, among metals, gold was the noblest and stood highest; lead had less "spirit" and more matter and so stood lower. (Alchemy was based on the belief that lead could be changed to gold through an infusion of "spirit.") The various species of plants, animals, humans, and angels were similarly ranked from low to high within their respective segments. Finally, it was believed that between the segment themselves, there was continuity (shellfish were lowest among animals and shaded into the vegetative class, for example, because without locomotion, they most resembled plants).
Besides universal orderliness, there was universal interdependence. This was implicit in the doctrine of "correspondences," which held that different segments of the chain reflected other segments. For example, Renaissance thinkers viewed a human being as a microcosm that reflected the structure of the world as a whole, the macrocosm;
According to the chain of being concept, all existing things have their precise place and function in the universe, and to depart from one's proper place was to betray one's nature. Human beings, for example, were pictured as placed between the beasts and the angels.
To act against human nature by not allowing reason to rule the emotions--was to descend to the level of the beasts.
Subgroups of the Chain of Being:
God: 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," see below)
Angels: Beings of pure spirit. Angels had no physical bodies. 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.
Sages – A higher order of Humanity. Dis-incarnate Individuals who had been through the human process of incarnation and reincarnation - had developed their own understanding of the Wisdom and now made themselves available as guides to incarnate human beings
Humanity: 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.
Humans 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.
Animals: Animals, like humans higher on the Chain, were 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.
Animals were sub- divided in descending order –
broadly predators, domesticated herbivores,
Avian order, Raptors, carrion eating, worm and seed eating. 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,
Piscine - In the order - Whale or Dolphin - 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
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: 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." (
In general, trees ranked higher than shrubs, shrubs ranked higher than bushes, bushes ranked higher than cereal crops, and cereal crops ranked higher than herbs, ferns, and weeds.
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.
Minerals: 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.
Geological – First marble, then various stones, granite, sandstone, limestone, etc. At the very bottom of the mineral section, we find soil, dust, and sand, and other minute particles.