How is everything in the world related & what is important to me? The Great Chain of Being
How are we to rank, value and categorise everything around us – where does everything fit in relation to everything else?
At the time of British settlement of Australia the grand narrative of Christianity was beginning to accommodate the grand narrative of science that had been gathering momentum during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. However, the European settler view of the world would have been a Christian cosmology that embraced some variant of the Great Chain of Being. The Great Chain of Being was a highly influential grand narrative of European society that still has many echoes in social and scientific Western thinking. The scala naturae or Great Chain of Being, is an idea derived from antiquity, espoused by Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle (PAiv.5,681a10-15, PAiv.10,686b21-687a4, HA viii.1, 588b12-22), and later modified by the Neoplatonists and Christianity, although elements of this view occur in other cultures and religions.
In very general terms everything in existence was asssumed to be organised (and classified) into a continuous hierarchy arranged in a linear and graded order like the rungs of a ladder, but in degrees of perfection. In the material world there were rocks at the bottom, plants a little higher, followed by animals then, at its pinnacle, human beings. Each rung of the ladder (including species) was eternal and immutable as created by God (although alchemy presented the mesmerizing possibility of converting a base metal to gold). In Christianity a spiritual dimension was included called the ‘soul’ which first appears at the level of humans (animals did not have souls but angels did). The entire edifice of existence was overtopped by the creator God in heaven who was not physical but pure spirit – omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, transcendent, eternal, and perfect – while at the bottom, in a spiritual underworld, there was the devil and fires of hell.
The Ladder of Life communicated a vision of the world that was assumed to be fixed and real, not a product of the human imagination: it was a framework or structure through which to understand the messy complexity of ‘everything’. This world was organised from ‘lower’ to ‘higher’, from material to spiritual, from imperfect to perfect, from irrational to rational, from simple to complex. Everything had a fixed place in the timeless natural order. To challenge this hierarchy was futile; it was simply the way the world was structured. For most people this was the way the world had been created by God – and therefore the way it would stay. The task of humans was to become more spiritual and less material, to release the human soul from its prison of matter. On Plato’s reading in the Timaeus humans were a microcosm of the greater macrocosm, both organized under similar principles: the orderly behaviour of the heavens signalled the need to govern our individual and collective lives in a rational way.
Our everyday language is infused with the ideas of the past. One probable carry-over from Aristotle’s scala naturae is the metaphorical language that ranks ideas by altitude, to ‘levels’ that are ‘higher’ or ‘lower’. Hierarchy is deeply embedded in our language and thinking when we speak metaphorically of the ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ of nations, of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ organisms, of a ‘social ladder’, ‘glass ceiling’, ‘top dog’, ‘high achievement’, ‘low-life’, ‘middle management’. When we take the time to think about the many ways that hierarchy appears in our daily conversations then we can quickly see how it can subtly structure the way we perceive the world.
Colourful metaphors add interest to communication and we are well aware that the idea of some sort of moral or physical altitude is just a figure of speech. But hierarchical language can still carry a moral loading – an attached value. It is more informative to speak of complex and less complex organisms, rather than ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ organisms, if that is what we mean. In fact we would undoubtedly communicate more clearly without metaphorical hierarchies.
The social order
Are social hierarchies the inevitable consequence of a need to maintain social order? How are people to be ranked and organised – which people should have power and authority over others and why?
Animals develop hierarchies that are always the same within a species and therefore clearly based on biological factors. Humans, in contrast, have devised hierarchies based on many different factors. Even so, moral psychologists point out that hierarchical sentiments related to loyalty and submission may have some innate foundation. How are we to behave towards one-another when the different hierarchies of different societies meet?
Humans too have displayed strong social hierarchies with some people and races higher up the ‘social ladder’ than others. Even within particular societies the organization into different classes was not regarded as simply a practical and convenient way of ordering society, the ‘upper’ classes – priests, aristocracy, kings and rulers were generally regarded (implicitly if not explicitly) as ‘higher’ or ‘better’ in a moral or absolute sense than the lower groups or castes and occasionally, as with some Roman Emperors, humans would claim the status of gods.
The natural order?
Throughout history great philosophers and religions have acknowledged the Golden Rule Do as you would be done by as the rational recognition that no individual can reasonably privilege themselves over another. However, this principle of equality is challenged by our real-life differences. Social hierarchies are based on many factors including physical and intellectual difference, religion, race, wealth, gender, caste, occupation, blood line, role in society, or historical tradition. Hierarchies create social order and often reinforced by being considered part of a biological (natural) or religious cosmic order and therefore not to be challenged. Sometimes it is simply more convenient to interact with people according to a social category rather than as individuals on their own merit. Hoiwever, such categories can be taken as the measure of intrinsic worth. A major challenge for future generations is to establish social hierarchies that are as fair as possible and where power of one group or person over another is not abused. Part of this process involves coming to an understanding of the historical circumstances and reasons why such hierarchies arose and what justification exists for their continuation.
Racial & class arrogance
At the time when European colonization was at its peak, and while the British empire flourished, it was generally assumed that white Europeans were at the top of the human hierarchy. Following in a long tradition but derived mainly from the classicalworld, Britain was divided into classes, the landed and wealthy gentry, nobility, and royalty were the natural rulers. Representation in social decision-making (parliament) was decided by sex (males only) and wealth. Gentlemen were accustomed to servants and servant obedience. Well-to-do scientists like Banks and Darwin had manservants wherever they went, including their scientific voyages around the world.
Discipline & the law
Gentleman of the aristocracy were not necessarily oppressors, they too were locked into a system which they did not necessarily support or approve. However, the apparent injustice of such a system of privilege was a major factor in the European revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries and the need to maintain social order could give rise to terrible abuse. This was clearly exposed at sea. Sea captains (generally members of the upper classes in all European navies) would resort to extremes of physical punishment to subdue any undesirable behavior and it included: flogging, keel-hauling, walking the plank, and hanging from the yard-arm (a sail spar), all formally witnessed by the entire crew as a deterrent. The most popular of these was flogging in which the bare back was thrashed with a cat-o-nine-tails (a whip with nine lead-studded leather thongs) salt being rubbed into the lacerations when the punishment was complete. Offenders who lost consciousness were revived with a bucket of water and the process continued. Keel-hauling entailed tying the offender to a rope that looped on both sides of the ship, the offender jumping off the back or side of the ship and his crew-mates pulling on the two ropes to carry him under water along or across the ship’s keel: it was almost certain death.
The European assumption, at the time of settlement of Aboriginal Australian, was that Europeans were superior to Aborigines. This was clearly not just because Europeans had more complex technology, more effective weapons and the like – they felt themselves superior and more civilized in an absolute moral sense. They considered themselves ‘higher’ on the Great Chain of Being and they spoke of ‘moral education’ and the ‘civilizing’ influence that agriculture would have on stone age savages and how agriculture was a higher stage of being than the lowest stage – which was to be a hunter-gatherer.
Ideas that were abandoned by Western science nearly 200 years ago still cloud our judgment. The belief that humans are, in some absolute sense, superior to other organisms (speciesism), and that some humans are superior to other humans is still part of what might be called the Western grand narrative. Ideas of this broad kind underpinned the spread of Empire and the global Western society that we live in today. It was only in the early part of the twentieth century, after the Second World War that, in Britain, the ‘upstairs-downstairs’, ‘upper class, middle class, lower class’ social hierarchy began to break down.
Almost all societies, at least since the agricultural revolution, have been patriarchal, men privileged over women and dominating the economic, political and legal systems. For much of history, and across cultures, females were treated as male property to treat at will. Hence in almost all countries, up until recent times, rape of a wife was simply not possible – it was a right linked to the woman being property. Why should this apparently universal phenomenon have occurred? Has this hierarchy arisen through historical circumstance and/or biological difference?
Certainly child-bearing and child care are biologically based but the culturally sanctioned denial of a place for women in political and civic life appears culturally sanctioned since women do not lack intelligence or political skills.
Men are certainly physically stronger and dominate the economic world in a way that translates into political power. But strength is not universal and women have more stamina. More importantly there is no connection between political ability and physical attributes because social power depends on social skills, not physical strength. Traditionally it has been the physically strong that have done the manual work, not the political negotiation with its dependence on social skills.
Are males more aggressive and willing to engage in physical conflict? Are men more competitive and do they compete more for partners? Certainly there are hormonal differences between the sexes and men are indeed more violent, but again this does not translate directly to efficient use of political power when women appear to have the necessary skills.
Perhaps men are more competitive , one example maybe being their competition for women? Perhaps women needed men to care for them during and immediately after pregnancy and this resulted in submissiveness? But it is possible to depend on other women. Female social networking teaches negotiation and compromise while these male skills remain undeveloped (this occurs in bands of bonobos).
There is no clear answer.
The biological order
The Great Chain of Being (or versions of it) were increasingly challenged during the Renaissance and Enlightenment as science and secular ideas strengthened.
Botanists were among the first to accept that, although there were differing degrees of structural complexity in plants, it did not make sense to give pride of place to some over others because they were in some way more ‘perfect’ or ‘higher’ in a Great Chain of Being. During the Reformation many botanists were influenced taxonomically by the idea of giving equal weight to each individual in parallel with the view of human equality in the sight of God in a personal relationship that was not mediated by priests of the Church. Zoologists took longer to convince but when, in 1817, the internationally respected French zoologist Cuvier published his authoritative classification of animals, Le Règne Animal, he did so acknowledging Aristotle as predecessor. However, he ranked the animal kingdom on the basis of anatomy (not status within the Great Chain of Being) devising four great groups: the Vertebrata, Articulata, Mollusca and Radiata – ‘It formed no part of my design to arrange the animated tribes according to perceived superiority‘. No group was inherently superior to any other: degrees of perfection were irrelevant. Organisms were simply different – more or less complex, yes; some better adapted to their environments than others, maybe – but not ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ in some cosmic absolute, moral or religious sense. This point may seem obvious today but we can still make quick false assumptions. A chimpanzee is not a failed human, a rather pathetic animal on the evolutionary path to a better life as a human, instead it is an animal that has evolved by adapting to its own particular environment in its own particular way.
The Postmodern metanarrative & science wars – by what authority?
There are no facts, only interpretations
Post-modernism (a panchretic label) of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries questions the validity of all metanarratives but especially modernist certainty and its confidence in scientific objectivity. As a form of skepticism it challenges the claim that we can study the world in a neutral way, observing reality and truth by using the power of reason and science: it questions the notion of certain knowledge and also its value. By what authority can any interpretation take precedence over any other, whether it is an interpretation of history, literature, art or science? Science, like all other grand narratives, is perceived as an explanatory quicksand and just like all other grand narratives though seeming ‘real’ and ‘true’ right now will inevitably, in the future, be assessed correctly as simply a product of a particular time, place and circumstance. We create our own truth and our own meaning: neutral, absolute or objective knowledge is illusory. Any claims to ‘truth’ are simply ways of exerting power and influence of various kinds – truth is simply what works for us, or what we can persuade others to believe. Through most of history we have been told what to believe. Control of the societal grand narrative, once in the hands of a priestly class has passed in part across to humanists, secular scientists, and the intelligentsia of the day. Today there seems to be a mix of these – although some might claim that it is now the world view of economists that prevails.
So postmodernism regards metanarratives (statements about science, history or literature) as legitimations or prescriptions of specific versions of the ‘truth’ – simply narratives (stories or myths) that reflect the culturally embedded viewpoint or conceptual framework of the narrator. Metanarratives are created and reinforced by power structures, they may serve Utopian ideals and tend to dismiss the naturally existing chaotic variety of experience. Metanarratives may be used to reinforce dogma, examples being Marxist theory of historical development, unwarranted presumptions about the meaning of life (religions), or prescribed goals for human activity. There is no grand-narrative other than the one we happen to adopt as individuals or communities acting within a particular cultural context: the diversity of human aspiration and experience is a demonstration of the inevitable variety of grand narratives. Postmodernism as a program offers ‘deconstruction’ as a means of making underlying agendas self-evident. In the absence of an absolute truth aren’t we left with some kind of relativism where, say, accepted standards become purely relative to a particular culture or language?
Critics of postmodernism point out that postmodernism is itself a grand narrative using the tools it attacks to make its case. As a universal skepticism it must confront its own criteria as a self-refuting grand narrative – like the liar who says ‘This statement is false’. It uses logic, reason and other theoretical tools to make its case against these things themselves.
So what can we believe as having any validity or truth? We could accept living with a variety of legitimated language games – a multiplicity of interpretations each equally valid rather than a single, monolithic and all-encompassing theory.
But what if these ‘relative’ truths conflict? Our vision of reality (even the scientific vision) can only be a reflection of our subjective nature and thought processes.
For those who value the scientific and Enlightenment mode of thought both religion (God ultimately controls everything going on in the universe) and postmodernism (there can be no such thing as ‘truth’) rob people of any individual self-initiated impetus for action. When considering cases like climate change and the construction of nuclear bombs, it does not seem to be helpful to argue that scientific knowledge is a social construct. Post-modernism seems not to understand the underlying skepticism of science and to overestimate its claim to certain knowledge. Science may not be truth but regarding it as just modern myth is simply mistaken (see also The grand narrative of science and Reason & science).