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Great chain of being

The Great Chain of Being is a classical[?] and western medieval conception of the order of the universe, whose chief characteristic is a strict hierarchal system.

It is a conception of the world's structure that was accepted, and unquestioned, by most educated men from the time of Lucretius until the Copernican revolution and the ultimate flowering of the Renaissance. The Chain of Being is composed of a great, almost infinite, number of hierarchal links, from the most base and foundational elements up to the very highest perfection - in other words, God, or the Prime Mover[?].

God, and beneath him the angels, both existing wholly in spirit form, sit at the top of the ladder. Earthly flesh is fallible and ever-changing: mutable. Spirit, however, is unchanging and permanant. This sense of permanance is crucial to understanding this conception of reality. One does not abandon one's place in the chain; it is not only unthinkable, but generally impossible. (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; these elements possess only the attribute existence. Moving on up the chain, each succeeding link 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. Beasts add not only motion, but appetite as well.

Man is a special instance in this conception. He is both mortal flesh, as those below him, and also spirit. 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 drag one down. The christian fall of Lucifer is especially terrible, because that angel is wholly spirit, who yet defies God, the ultimate perfection.

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Example: If one were to examine only the earthly inhabitants, and their place in the chain, this is what would be found:

Perfection (God)

Other Subdivisions

Each link in this chain might be further divided into its component parts. In terms of secular humanity, for example, the King is usually on top, followed by the aristocratic lords, and then the peasants below them. In the family, the father is head of the household; below him, his wife; below her, their children. The children might be subdivided so that the males are one link above the females.

Modern western culture maintains some of these divisions. Angels are generally classified as to rank; Just as Milton's Paradise Lost ranked the angels, so American christian culture conceives of angels in orders of archangels, seraphim, and cherubim, among others. The lion is still king of the beasts. The tree is usually thought of as ruler of the plants; the oak? is the highest of the trees. Gold is the highest of the elements, perhaps because it is reflects light well, and shines, like God, the ultimate light.


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