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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Hierarchy denotes that Occidental mode of thought
which transmuted man's persistent inclination to assert
Order into a particular conception of the universe in
terms of precisely-arranged levels of existence com-
monly termed “degrees.” While this mode of thought
may well appear to remain static, even to terminate
in itself, in fact, however, it underwent dramatic
changes—each stage of its development marked by a
dynamic adjustment to contemporary views. In effect,
the history of Hierarchy is the history of Occidental
thought. But it is also a testimony to the ever-present
craving for—and indeed obsession with—Order.
Donne's remark in 1627 reverberates across the cen-
turies: “The roote of all is Order.”

The connection between Order and Hierarchy was
made explicit by numerous writers during the Renais-
sance, among them Zacheus Mountague in The Jus
Divinum of Government
(1652). In his words, “What
else is order, but unity, brancht out into all the parts
of Consociate bodies, to keep them intire and perfect”
(pp. 7-8). The usual Renaissance arrangement of these
“parts of Consociate bodies” into one comprehensive
scheme is so well-known that here we need only survey
its most fundamental assumptions, all repeatedly em-
phasized by a number of scholars (see Craig, Tillyard,
Wilson, Winny, et al.). The first assumption was that
the created order is tightly knit through an elaborate
system of interdependent “degrees” which extend ver-
tically—as Samuel Ward said in The Life of Faith
(1622)—“from the Mushrome to the Angels” (p. 2). A
generation earlier Spenser had visualized the system
as “linkt with adamantine chaines,” while earlier still
Sir Thomas Elyot in Of the Knowledge whiche maketh
a Wise Man
(1533) had seen it as an all-pervasive order
which “lyke a streyghte lyne issueth oute of prouy-
dence, and passethe directely throughe all thynges”
(folio 44). It was not difficult for imaginative writers
to lapse into rhapsodies, and many did. According to


Peter Sterry in A Discourse of the Freedome of the Will
(1675, p. 30):

Being it self, in its universal Nature, from its purest heighth,
by beautiful, harmonious, just degrees and steps, descendeth
into every Being, even to the lowest shades. All ranks and
degrees of Being, so become like the mystical steps in that
scale of Divine Harmony and Proportions, Jacobs Ladder.
Every form of Being to the lowest step, seen and understood
according to its order and proportions in its descent upon
this Ladder, seemeth as an Angel, or as a Troop of Angels
in one, full of all Angelick Musick and Beauty.

The Scale of Nature—to use Adam's phrase in Para-
dise Lost
(V, 509)—was said to have a number of rungs
which at times, for the sake of lucidity, was reduced
to four. As Gabriel Powel contended in The Resolved
(1616, p. 2):

There are foure sorts of Creatures in the world.... The
first have essence or being onely, as the earth, the water,
the fire, the aire, the Sun and the Moone. The second have
essence and life, which are called vegetative, as hearbs,
trees, and all plants. The third have essence, life, and sence,
or feeling, as fishes, foules, and all beasts. The fourth have
essence, life, sence, and reason, as Man.

The members of each of these four levels of existence
were themselves thought to observe “degree, priority
and place,” more or less in the manner argued by
Henry Peacham in The Compleat Gentleman (1622,
pp. 1-2):

If we consider arightly the Frame of the whole Vniuerse
and Method of the all-creating Wisedome in her worke;
as creating the formes of things infinitely diuers, so accord-
ing to Dignity of Essence or Vertue in effect, wee must
acknowledge the same to hold a Soueraigntie, and transcen-
dent prædominance, as well of Rule as Place each ouer
either. Among the heauenly bodies we see the Nobler Orbes,
and of greatest influence to be raised aloft, the lesse effec-
tuall, depressed. Of Elements, the Fire the most pure and
operatiue to hold the highest place; in compound bodies,
of things as well sensible as insensible, there runneth a veine
of Excellence proceeding from the Forme, ennobling (in the
same kind) some other aboue the rest.
The Lyon we say is King of Beasts, the Eagle chiefe of
Birds; the Whale and Whirle-poole among Fishes, Jupiters
Oake the Forrests King. Among Flowers, wee most admire
and esteeme the Rose: Among Fruite, the Pom-roy and
Queene-apple; among Stones, we value aboue all the Dia-

Finally, within the rung occupied by Man are a num-
ber of interlocking orders reducible—as in Johann
Gerhard's detailed exposition—to three: “The Ecclesi-
asticall, Politicall, and Oeconomicall: The First, of the
Church; the Second, of the Common-wealth; the Third
of the private familie” (Divine Aphorismes, trans. R.
Winterton [1632], Chs. XX-XXIII).

The “foure sorts of Creatures” by no means ex-
hausted the levels of existence within the Scale of
Nature. The scheme was also thought to extend up-
wards to include the angels, and often downwards to
include the devils. The angels were themselves ar-
ranged in hierarchies, traditionally said to number nine
in accordance with the system first devised by pseudo-
Dionysius the Areopagite in De coelesti hierarchia
(VII-IX) but expanded to an indeterminate number
once his authenticity was questioned and the absence
of biblical support for any precise scheme became
apparent (see Patrides). The devils, on the other hand,
were not always thought to form part of the Scale.
But the existence of “degrees” in Hell was generally
upheld, and many writers were even prepared to ac-
cept a ninefold infernal hierarchy “contrary to the nine
degrees of angels” (Sigmund Feyerabend, Theeatrum
[1569], fols. 57ff.; Heinrich Cornelius
Agrippa, Three Bookes of Occult Philosophy, trans.
J. French [1651], pp. 397ff.).

The one aspect of the Scale of Nature which its
expositors constantly emphasized was the conviction
they all shared with the Polish alchemist Michael
Sendivogius in Novum lumen chymicum (1604) that
there is “no vacuum, or vacuity in the world” (trans.
J. French [1650], p. 88). What this belief involved was
made repeatedly clear. When Bishop Godfrey Good-
man declared in The Fall of Man (1616) that all crea-
tures are “linckt and tyed together” (p. 427), he had
in mind nothing less than the sort of detailed “explana-
tion” which Sir Richard Barckley had already bor-
rowed from others and incorporated into A Discourse
of the Felicitie of Man
(1598, pp. 532-33):

The great God of nature hath tyed together all his creations,
with some meane things that agree and participate with
the extremities, and hath composed the intelligible, ethere-
all, and elementarie world, by indissoluble meanes and
boundes; as betweene plantes and liuing creatures, hee hath
made sponges and oysters, that in part resemble liuing
things, and in part plants; betweene the creatures of the
earth, and those of the water, Otters, Tortoyses, and such
like; betweene those of the water and birds of the aire,
flying fishes; betweene brute beastes, and those of a spiritu-
all essence and vnderstanding, which are the Angels, he
hath placed man, which combineth heauen and this ele-
mentarie world.

Barckley's reference to Man falls within the circumfer-
ence of the generalization by Guillaume de la Perrière
in Les considérations des quatres mondes (1552): Or
est en l'hõme
(par la resolution de tous bons autheurs)
le vray & merueilleux lien de deux Natures, spirituelles
& corporelles
(signature M3v). Man was accordingly
described by Oswald Crollius as “the bond and buckle
of the world” (Mysteries of Nature, trans. H. Pinell


[1657], p. 54), by William Drummond of Hawthornden
as “that Hymen of eternall and mortall things” (Flowers
of Sion
[1623], p. 66), and by Sir Thomas Browne as
the “amphibious piece betweene a corporall and spiri-
tuall essence” (Religi medici [1643], I, 34). But even
more persistently Man was hailed as a microcosm, a
“little world” whose very constitution was said to be
analogous to the hierarchical structure of the universe.
Dr. Helkiah Crooke in Μικποκοσμογραφία. A Descrip-
tion of the Body of Man
(1615) endeavored to explain
in precisely what sense Man may be called “a Little
world, and the paterne and epitome of the whole
universe.” The head, he wrote, resembles “that su-
preme and Angelicall part of the world,” even as the
heart corresponds to the second division of the uni-
verse, “the Middle and Cælestiall part.” The third
division, “the sublunarie part of the world,” is even
more strikingly reflected in Man, for

The terrible lightning fierce flashes and impressions, are
shewed in the bloody suffusions of our eyes when we are
in a heat and furie.... The violent and gathering rage
of blustering winds, tempestuous stormes and gusts, are not
onely exhibited, but also fore-shewed by exhaled crudities
and by the hissing, singing and ringing noyses of the eares.
The humor and moistnesse that fals like a current or streame
into the emptie spaces of the throat, the throtle and the
chest, resembleth raine and showers...

(2nd rev. ed. [1631],
pp. 6-8).

Crooke's statement may strike us as absurd, yet it
differs only in degree from countless similar affirma-
tions, among them Sir Walter Ralegh's in The History
of the World
([1614], I, ii, 5), William Jackson's in The
Celestiall Husbandrie
(1616, p. 7), and Samuel Purchas'
in Purchas his Pilgrim (1619, pp. 30ff.). Moreover, the
same conviction underlies Renaissance psychological
theory (see Bamborough, Campbell) even as it informs
Renaissance painting (see Benesch). Indeed, pictorial
representations of the Scale of Nature like that in
Didacus Valades' Rhetorica christiana (Figure 1) indi-
cate the extent to which the scheme was frequently
conceived in explicitly literal terms. The same conclu-
sion emerges from a consideration of the structure of
the Elizabethan theater, in itself a microcosmic repre-
sentation of the macrocosm, and—in one celebrated
instance at least—significantly named The Globe.
Equally relevant is the valiant effort of the “more
divine than human” Giulio Camillo to construct for
Francis I a model theater of the world, the Scale of
Nature presented as a circular structure rising in seven
tiers connected through a mass of intricate corre-
spondences (see Cirillo).

Camillo's vision of the world as a hierarchy enclosed
within a circular pattern was by no means singular.
The circle was widely venerated as the most perfect
figure and therefore as “a clear embleme of eternity”
(Fulk Bellers, Jesus Christ [1652], p. 10). Ever-present
in conceptions of the universe, it can be seen in every
schematic presentation of both the Ptolemaic cosmos
and the new-fangled world of Copernicus, witness the
diagrams in Petrus Apianus' Cosmographia (Figure 2)
and Thomas Digges' A Perfit Description of the Cæles-
tial Orbes
(Figure 3), in turn related to the persistent
visual attempts to set out the connection between the
circular universe and the microcosm of man (Figures
4 and 5). As scholars have often assured us, the
“haunting spell of circularity” (Koyré; Panofsky, p. 25)
was so much a part of traditional modes of thought
that it penetrated the innermost recesses of the “new
philosophy,” especially the writings of both Copernicus
and Galileo, and continued to affect the minds of men



long after the Renaissance (see Mahnke, Nicolson,
Panofsky, Poulet).

Renaissance expositions of Hierarchy include the
well-known affirmations by Shakespeare in Troilus and
I, iii, 83ff. (see Phillips, Spencer, Tillyard, et
al.) and Milton in Paradise Lost, V, 469ff. (see Curry,
Lewis, Patrides, et al.).

Hierarchy was also upheld in a host of other works
which at first sight do not appear to be relevant. Trea-
tises on numerology, for instance, may only seem con-
cerned with what John Selden in his Table-Talk (1696,
pp. 109f.) dismissed as “those mysterious things they
observe in Numbers,” but in reality aimed to
strengthen further the structure of the universe through
a multitude of numerical correspondences. Some
writers were accordingly partial to Four, “the roote
and beginning of all numbers” (see Heninger); others
preferred either Three or Seven (e.g., Thomas Tymme
in A Dialogue Philosophicall [1612], Part I, Chs. 4-6,
and Robert Pont in The Right Reckoning of Years
[1599]), or indeed both Three and Seven (e.g., David
Person in Varieties [1635], Book V)—while an encyclo-
pedic work, William Ingpen's The Secrets of Numbers
(1624), sweepingly maintained the validity of One
through Ten since “there is no knowledge, either
rationall, morall, physicall, or metaphysicall, which
hath not some cognation or participation with Num-
bers.” Cabbalists like Guillaume Postel were particu-
larly obsessed with numerology (see Bouwsma) but
even talented mathematicians favored the reconstruc-
tion of the Scale of Nature in terms of “Numbryng.”

Order was even more frequently asserted in terms
of the Christian view of history which posited a linear
progress through time from the Creation to the Last
Judgment (see Patrides). Formulated in the main by
Saint Augustine in De civitate Dei and Paulus Orosius
in Historia adversus paganos, this view was developed
further by Saint Bede and Otto of Freising, consoli-
dated during the Middle Ages in the colossal Speculum
of Vincent of Beauvais, and accepted by the
Protestant Reformers with marked enthusiasm, witness
the extremely popular Chronica (1532) of Johann Car-
ion and De quatuor summis imperiis (1556) of Johann
Philippson surnamed Sleidanus. Whether the scheme
was ordered by means of the Four Monarchies or the
Seven Ages (see Laneau, Rowley), it testified alike to
the existence of a horizontal unity throughout history,
precisely as the Scale of Nature upheld a vertical unity
“from the Mushrome to the Angels.”

The Christian view of history during the Renaissance
was grounded on the speculations of patristic and
medieval authorities. The concept of the Scale of Na-
ture also leaned on these authorities but depended in
addition on ideas adapted from Plato and Aristotle
(Lovejoy, Ch. II). It is instructive to observe the extent
to which one idea in particular, from Aristotle's His-
toria animalium
(VIII, 1; trans. D. W. Thompson) was
misunderstood. According to Aristotle,

Nature proceeds little by little from things lifeless to animal
life in such a way that it is impossible to determine the
exact line of demarcation, nor on which side thereof an
intermediate form should lie. Thus, next after lifeless things
in the upward scale comes the plant [μετὰ γὰρ τὸ τῶν
ἀψύχων γένος τὸ τῶν φυτῶν πρῶτόν ἐστιν
], and of plants
one will differ from another as to its amount of apparent
vitality; and, in a word, the whole genus of plants, whilst
it is devoid of life as compared with an animal, is endowed
with life as compared with other corporeal entities. Indeed,
... there is observed in plants a continuous scale of ascent
[μετάβασις, literally 'change' or 'transition'] towards the

The generalization informs the entire Historia ani-
as it does De partibus animalium and, to a
lesser extent, De generatione animalium. Its burden is
clearly the description of things as they are; no attempt
is made to propound a theory concerning either the
origins or the future development of organic forms,
much less to extend the “scale” beyond the material
world or indeed to interpret it metaphysically. Yet it
is this very passage which in time became the locus
for all expositions of the Scale of Nature,
further strengthened by Aristotle's conception of the
universe as geocentric, finite, “closed,” and sharply
divided into two realms—the terrestrial which is
changeable, and the celestial which is “eternal and not
subject to increase or diminution, but unageing and
unalterable and unmodified” (De caelo I, 3; trans.
J. L. Stocks [1930]). The “haunting spell of circularity,”
moreover, was justified philosophically through the
argument that in a finite universe the movement of
the spheres must necessarily be circular since the alter-
native—rectilinear movement—would require infinite
space (Physica VIII, 9; cf. De caelo I, 2-4; II, 4). Plato,
in the meantime, had provided the basis for what has
been called “the principle of plenitude,” which is to
say that the various levels of existence are interlocked
so as to yield a “full” universe. But while “plenitude”
afforded endless opportunities for meditation on the
“fullness” of the universe, it also contained the seeds
of an idea which would eventually undermine the
entire Scale of Nature and bring Plato into direct
conflict with Aristotle. We mean, of course, the idea of

Before the advent of Neo-Platonism in the third
century A.D., Hierarchy was rather suggested than
affirmed categorically. Cicero, for instance, argued the
existence of God by positing a gradual ascent “from
the first rudimentary orders of being to the last and


most perfect” (De natura deorum II, 33f.; trans. H.
Rackam [1933]), while the legendary Hermes Tris-
megistus claimed that the various parts of the universe
are arranged in a “straight line” extending from the
top of the natural order to its very bottom (Hermetica,
ed. W. Scott [1924], I, 512). When we reach Plotinus,
however, we sense at once that vagueness has given
way to certainty, to a distinct assurance (see Arm-
strong). The sum total of the universe, visible and
intelligible both, is now argued to be “a life, as it were,
of huge extension, a total in which each several part
differs from its next, all making a self-continuous
whole” (V, ii, 2; trans. S. McKenna [1962]). Its origin,
by a process of “emanation,” is a movement from the
unity of the One toward the multiplicity of the many;
and its ultimate destiny, the eventual return of the
many into the One. The interim history of the universe
is the history of an “unbroken whole” which is com-
prised of sharply-distinguished levels of existence “for
ever linked” (IV, viii, 6) and which depends for its
sustenance on ἔρωσ, “love” (III, v). As Proclus was to
maintain two centuries after Plotinus, “love” consti-
tutes a chain, an ἐπωτικὴ σειρὰ which links heaven and
earth (see Nygren, II, 352ff.), even as the universe is
a hierarchy of power if not of existence (see Rosán).
But it is in the light of other developments as well,
notably the emphasis placed by Porphyry and Iam-
blichus on the triadic patterns pervading the universe,
that we can best appreciate the influential synthesis
achieved near the turn of the fifth century into the
sixth by pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.

The Areopagite is of fundamental importance to the
history of Hierarchy (see Roques). Under cover of the
authoritative name of Saint Paul's convert in Athens,
he merged manifold strains of Neo-Platonism into an
imaginative scheme which affected the thought of
Christians everywhere for well over a thousand years.
In a language elevated to the height of his great argu-
ment, he did not so much dispense revelations as cele-
brate the mysteries of cosmic hierarchy in a sustained
hymn of thanksgiving like that of the order of priests
who in De ecclesiastica hierarchia appear “collected
together in hierarchical order” (III, 3:15). His insist-
ence that Hierarchy is “a kind of symbol adapted to
our condition,” a faint image of the archetypal truth
(ibid., I, 5; V, 2), was in time displaced by the wide-
spread belief that his vision was an exact description
of the universe under the “law of well-ordered regu-
larity.” But he had been rather too precise. He defined
Hierarchy in De coelesti hierarchia as “a sacred order
and science and operation, assimilated, as far as attain-
able, to the likeness of God, and conducted to the
illuminations granted it by God, according to capacity,
with a view to the Divine imitation” (III, 1). But
thereafter, with a marked fondness for details, he went
on to describe the threefold hierarchy of angels, each
hierarchy further subdivided into three orders—an
arrangement which in De ecclesiastica hierarchia is said
to be the prototype for the orders within the visible
church. The Areopagite's purpose had in any case been
accomplished: the Christian God manifest in history
was merged with the impersonal One of Plotinus to
yield a Deity at once immanent and transcendent, and
a universe whose multiple triadic levels connected into
a unified structure through myriad correspondences.

The hierarchical structure of the universe pro-
claimed by the leading Neo-Platonists and codified by
the Areopagite was bequeathed to the Middle Ages
to be “methodized” into a scheme which affected every
single aspect of the period's life and thought. Diverse
ideas, borrowed freely from a variety of sources, were
pressed into the service of Hierarchy with a breath-
taking disregard for their frequent incompatibility. Yet
the scheme did not crumble into its atomies because
the Middle Ages succeeded in cultivating a fondness
for analogical thinking which made it possible to draw
within the compass of one comprehensive scheme the
factual and the fictional, and to accept as reality what
was but an image of the ultimate verities. Thus the
analogy involving music, we have been told by many
scholars (see Abert, Gérold, Hollander, Spitzer), yielded
belief in the act of creation as a musical performance
but also certainty that the heavenly bodies emit in their
revolutions a pattern of sounds, indeed a melody,

the melodye...
That cometh of thilke speres thryes thre,
That welle is of musik and melodye
In this world here, and cause of armonye.

(The Parliament of Fowls, lines 60-63)

This particular myth, already sanctified by time when
adopted by the Middle Ages, continued to exercise a
profound influence on diverse thinkers as late as the
eighteenth century. But two other products of analogi-
cal thinking are even more relevant to our purposes.
One—already encountered in the formulation ventured
by Dr. Helkiah Crooke in 1615—was the idea of the
microcosm of man; the other was the idea that the
cosmic structure is analogous to a Scale, indeed is a
Scale. Both ideas reached the Middle Ages with im-
pressive credentials and were alike bequeathed to the
future. In the case of man's microcosmic nature it is
almost easier to enumerate the authorities who did not
uphold it than those who did (see Allers, Conger; for
visual representations: Saxl, Seznec; and for later de-
velopments, Hirst). In the case of the Scale it is hardly
possible even to detect a dissenting minority: the
weight of tradition appears to have crushed all opposi-


tion. The “sources” of this concept are ultimately two:
Jacob's vision of a Ladder which reached from heaven
to earth (Genesis 28:10-15), and the Homeric σειρὴ χρυσείη
(freely translated as aurea catena, “golden
chain”) which Zeus bade hang down from his abode
(Iliad VIII, 19-27).

Jacob's Ladder was not only accepted as biblical
endorsement of the Scale of Nature; in time it fathered
the multitude of other ladders which also populated
the medieval mind (see Nygren, II, 378ff., 403ff.). The
Homeric “chain” has had an even more spectacular
history (see Edelstein, “Eirionnach,” Wolff, esp.
Lévêque), but our interest in it must necessarily be
limited to one of its manifold applications in particular,
its use as an affirmation of the hierarchical structure
of the universe. The most famous relevant statement
was supplied by Macrobius. As he wrote in the Com
>mentariorum in somnium Scipionis
(I, xiv, 15), with
typical disregard of Homer's context and meaning,

Since all follow on in continuous succession, degenerating
step by step in their downward course, the close observer
will find that from the Supreme God even to the bottommost
dregs of the universe there is one tie, binding at every link
and never broken. This is the golden chain of Homer which,
he tells us, God ordered to hang down from the sky to the
earth (trans. W. H. Stahl, 1952).

It was to prove the most influential single statement
of the “Chain of Being.” But the celebrated phrase
itself did not gain wide currency until the eighteenth

During the Middle Ages belief in Hierarchy inevita-
bly affected theology, especially the work of Saint
Thomas Aquinas (see Wright). In addition, Hierarchy
dictated the structure of the Summae, themselves the
product of the mental habit which constructed the
Gothic cathedral and would later create Renaissance
architecture (see Panofsky, Simson; and on the Renais-
sance, Wittkower). In literature the definitive manifes-
tation of Hierarchy is of course Dante's journey
through the manifold levels of the cosmic structure (see
esp. Mazzeo). Beatrice's statement in the Paradiso (I,
103-05) echoes across the length of the Middle Ages:

le cose tutte a quante
hann'ordine tra loro; e questo è forma
che l'universo a Dio fa simigliante.

“All things whatsoever observe a mutual order; and this
is the form that maketh the universe like unto God”

P. H. Wicksteed [1899]).

Eastern Christendom had in the meantime developed
a scheme which was even more hierarchically-oriented
than the one in the West. History's linear progress ever
since the world's creation was seen to focus ultimately
on the Byzantine Empire, presently said to constitute
the final stage in God's promises to mankind. At the
same time the Empire was thought to be patterned
after the hierarchy of Heaven, the Emperor placed at
the apex of the political and ecclesiastical structure
as the icon or image of God on earth. The pattern
itself is visibly set out in all Byzantine churches (see
Demus, Michelis). The decoration in each instance
begins with the Pantocrator who is allotted the position
of central importance either in the cupola—as in the
church at Daphni (Figure 6)—or in the apse—as in
the Monreale Cathedral (Figure 7). The Theotokos is
presented next, either beneath the Pantocrator or in
a secondary apse. Thereafter the decoration descends
to angels and saints who represent Heaven, then to
prophets and other biblical personalities who intimate
the Holy Land or Paradise, and finally to the terrestrial
world, merging at last with the actual spectator within


the microcosmic representation of the universe which
is the Byzantine church.

The Byzantines may on occasion appear wrapped
in the mantle of Plato but were in fact (as Coleridge
was to say of the Cambridge Platonists) “more truly
Plotinists.” It is not so much Plato as Plotinus and his
successors who loom behind any espousal of Hierarchy,
whether by Christians like John Scotus Erigena,
Muhammadans like Avicenna and Averroës, or Jewish
philosophers like Avicebron. Later, other traditions
were to maintain Hierarchy independently of Plotinus,
as when cabbalism asserted with Moses de Leon in the
thirteenth century that “everything is linked with
everything else down to the lowest ring on the chain”
(see Scholem, p. 223). Plato, in any case, remained on
the periphery of medieval reflections on Hierarchy, the
implications of his “full” universe not comprehended
until the fifteenth century when the first discordant
note in the medieval paean to Hierarchy was struck
by Nicholas of Cusa.

Nicholas of Cusa was no less obsessed with order
than were his contemporaries. Not only did he insist
that the universe functions according to strict mathe-
matical laws; he also extended the preoccupation of
Saint Augustine, Proclus, and the Pseudo-Dionysius
with the host of triadic patterns in the universe (see
Sigmund). Accordingly, the celebration of Hierarchy
in De concordantia catholica is not necessarily “origi-
nal.” Neither is the reiteration of the commonplace
view that God is both center and circumference (De
docta ignorantia,
II, 11-12, etc.), nor even the impres-
sive ascription to God of a “coincidence of oppo-
sites”—“that coincidence where later is one with ear-
lier, where the end is one with the beginning, where
Alpha and Omega are the same” (De visione Dei, X;
trans. E. G. Salter, 1960). The novelty in the Cusan's
vision consists rather in his bold transfer of traditional
ideas into another realm altogether, the realm of the
infinite. The doctrine of coincidentia oppositorum is
not significant in itself; entirely subordinate to the
doctrine of divine infinity, it palpitates with life only
when seen in direct relation to the infinite God. It
is indeed the vision of an uncircumscribed and center-
less God which also permitted Nicholas of Cusa to
consider—in one spectacular leap of the human imag-
ination—that the created order's center and circum-
ference “coincide,” that the sum total of reality is
likewise infinite (De docta ignorantia II, 1-2, 4, 12,
etc.; see esp. Cassirer). At this point Hierarchy ceases
to be of importance. It has no place in the final
vision of Nicholas of Cusa because it has no place in
a “full” and therefore infinite universe.

Nicholas of Cusa like a colossus bestrides every
account of the transition from the closed world to the
infinite universe (see Burtt, Kuhn, but esp. Koyré).
However, though his theological ideas enabled him to
advocate the infinity of the universe, he was not im-
mediately instrumental in the reorientation of Occi-
dental philosophy. Only in retrospect, and close upon
the heels of other developments, did his originality
become apparent.

To consider every factor that paved the way for the
newly manifest world view is not necessary for our
purposes, nor indeed possible. But some of the most
important signposts pointing to the future should be
consulted, even as others should be enumerated in
passing in order to appreciate the multiplicity of by-
ways which connect with the central concept. Four
developments are apparent immediately: the socially-
and religiously-oriented revolutions of the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries; the ever-increasing disposi-
tion to question traditional assumptions; the tendency


toward diversification in every field; and the gradual
secularization of every aspect of life and thought. The
first involves the Reformation which, like the Puritan
revolution a century later, effectively undermined the
theory of the divinely-sanctioned hierarchical society
by removing its practice. Representative of the second
was the eventual rejection of any number of time-
honored traditions, among them the Areopagite's nine-
fold celestial hierarchy (noted earlier) and the manifold
Ladders of the Middle Ages which Luther sweepingly
brushed aside (see Nygren, II, 483ff.). Representative
of the third—the tendency toward diversification—was
the compartmentalization of society as dictated by
economic interests, and the consequent displacement
of the myth of unity by the reality of heterogeneity.
Representative of the fourth—the gradual seculariza-
tion—was the advent of secular theories of history as
well as of new schemes of periodization which no
longer placed the Incarnation at the center of world
history (see Mommsen, Spangenberg)—a development
which in time shattered the horizontal unity heretofore
said to have existed throughout history. But even as
these developments were taking place, several individ-
uals ventured contributions which in one way or an-
other affected the fortunes of Hierarchy decisively.
They were Marsilio Ficino and the Count Pico della
Mirandola, Copernicus and his variegated followers,
and the improbable Giordano Bruno.

The Neo-Platonists of Florence were so far from
being opposed to Hierarchy that they upheld it with
an enthusiasm which often verged on hysteria. Only
fitfully brilliant, they bent with the mighty wind of
tradition more often than they managed or even wished
to divert its path. Ficino, for instance, recast the Plo-
tinian universe into a new mold (see Kristeller). Col-
lecting “all Being into five degrees,” he placed “God
and Angel in nature's highest place, Body and Quality
in the lowest, and Soul right in the middle between
these highest and lowest degrees,” so that Soul became
“the mirror of divine things, the life of mortal things,
and the connection between the two” (Theologia pla-
III, 2). The sum total of existence, moreover,
was said to pulsate with Love. Pico agreed, however
further afield he looked for support of his own scheme.
His Heptaplus distinguishes the “regular series of
ranks” into three levels of hierarchy: the elemental
world, the celestial world, and the invisible world. Man
could be said to constitute a fourth world were it not
that “he is the bond and union of the three already
described” (V, 6; trans. D. Carmichael, 1965). On the
other hand, as Pico makes clear in his celebrated ora-
tion De hominis dignitate, Man might also be looked
upon as a world entirely unto himself, independent
of the rest of creation.

Pico's panegyric on Man is not in itself unique. It
had been preceded by several eulogies from other pens,
notably Giannozzo Manetti's De dignitate et excellentia
(see Gentile); moreover, Pico's subject had
been anticipated by patristic writers, especially the
Greek Fathers who so insistently celebrated the deifi-
cation of Man (see Garin, Lot-Borodine). Ficino, too,
was no less favorably inclined. His universe is decidedly
anthropocentric, for Soul is expressly designated “the
center of nature, the middle point of all that is, the
chain of the world, the face of all, and the knot and
bond of the universe” (Theologia platonica III, 2).
Ficino's Man is already beginning to soar aloft: homo
quidem terrena est circumfusa nube
(Opera [1576],
I, 659). But only Pico's Man is “confined by no bounds,”
being rather detached from the Scale of Nature al-
together (see Kristeller). Significantly, Pico even
eschewed the traditional designation of man as a mi-
crocosm; for a microcosm is necessarily earthbound,
while Pico's Man has potentiality of attaining infinity.

Copernicus is in some respects less important than
his enthusiastic disciples. He argued the theory of a
heliocentric universe in an attempt to emphasize cos-
mic order, not to deny it; and he retained, we observe,
both the finitude and the circularity of the traditional
world view. His disciples, on the other hand, promptly
seized on several implications latent in his theory and
developed them in directions which Copernicus would
not have endorsed. His emphasis on the mathematical
order of the universe led in time to the displacement
of the concrete older world-scheme by the abstract
spatio-mathematical scheme of the “new philosophy.”
His removal of the fixed stars to an enormous distance
from the center of the universe raised the problem of
the interim “empty” space and started an avalanche
which overwhelmed the “principle of plenitude” once
Tycho Brahe rejected the material shells of the planets
and Kepler their circular orbits (see Rosen). Above all,
Copernicus' disciples burst through the bounds of his
“closed” universe. The first sign of this development
appeared in England in 1576 (see Johnson, Kocher).
A diagram of the Copernican universe in Thomas
Digges' A Perfit Description of the Cælestiall Orbes
(Figure 3) places several stars outside the traditionally
circular world, and as simply heralds the advent of
cosmic infinity.

Thomas Digges as a scientist was content to intimate
cosmic infinity; Giordano Bruno as an undisciplined
thinker proclaimed it with all the emotional fervor at
his disposal. Never more respected than after he was
burned at the stake for refusing to retract his specula-
tions, he has rightly emerged as the foremost Renais-
sance exponent of the infinite universe (see Greenberg,
Michel). His vision depends on the equation of finitude
with imperfection and of infinity with perfection. A
finite universe, he thought, argues the absurd notion


that God himself is finite, imperfect. As Bruno repeat-
edly insisted in De l'infinito universo et mondi (1584),
“infinite perfection is far better presented in innumer-
able individuals than in those which are numbered and
finite”; indeed, he went on, “as [God's] active power
is infinite, so also as a necessary result, the subject
thereof is infinite” (I, II). This “subject” is nothing less
than the universe unfolding to infinity in terms of an
infinite number of worlds. Divine fecundity obliges us
to reach no other conclusion: “Why should infinite
amplitude be frustrated, the possibility of an infinity
of worlds be defrauded? Why should the excellency
of the divine image be prejudiced, which ought rather
to glow in an unrestricted mirror, infinite, immense,
according to the law of its being?” (ibid., I). Bruno
in further exercising his fertile imagination decided also
that the universe constitutes a “monad,” one “sub-
stance” which is manifested in a plurality of forms
inclusive of God and nature: eadem materia, eadem
potentia, idem spacium, idem efficiens æqué ubique
potens Deus & natura
(De immenso et innumerabilis

IX; in De monade... [1591], p. 181). Bruno was in
consequence propelled toward a scheme which has
been rather grandly termed “pantheistic immanen-
tism.” He was at any rate inclined to merge God with
nature, and especially the celestial with the sublunar.

Hierarchy suffered. In De immenso man is invited
to raise himself to the contemplation of universal
beauty “per scalam pro specierũ gradibus” (De monade
[1591], p. 149), but in De l'infinito (III) the “lovely
scale of nature” is dismissed without hesitation:

The famous and received order of the elements and of the
heavenly bodies is a dream and vainest fantasy [un sogno,
et una vanissima phantasia
], since it can neither be verified
by observation of nature nor proved by reason or argued,
nor is it either convenient or possible to conceive that it
exists in such fashion. But we know that there is an infinite
field, a containing space which doth embrace and interpen-
etrate the whole. It is an infinity of bodies similar to our
own.... Thus there is not merely one world, one earth,
one sun, but as many worlds as we see bright lights around
us, which are neither more nor less in one heaven, one space,
one containing sphere than is this our world in one contain-
ing universe, one space or one heaven; trans. D. W. Singer,

Bruno's world view was not calculated to appeal to
theologians, whatever their affiliation. But it did not
even attract the “new philosophers”: Kepler looked
on Bruno's infinite universe with “horror” (De stella
nova serpentarii
[1606], p. 105; see Koyré, Ch. III).
On the other hand, the activities of Bruno and the
astronomers converge in at least one significant point,
their joint enthusiasm for Plato at the expense of
Aristotle; Kepler's geometrical universe was also in-
spired by a Being who in the harmonice mundi is said
to be “Geometriæ fons ipsissimus, et, ut PLATO scrip-
sit, æternam exercens Geometriam” (Werke, ed. M.
Caspar [1940], VI, 299). Aristotle, once “the Philoso-
pher,” was now mentioned only to be dismissed, as
in John Wilkins' militant statement of 1638, that “'tis
not Aristotle, but truth that should be the rule of our
opinions” (The Discovery of a World in the Moone, p.
30). The nature of this “truth” had been defined over
six decades earlier on the appearance of the great nova
of 1572. John Stow accurately reported that the nova
appeared “Northward very bright and cleare in the
constellation of Cassiopeia,” remaining visible for al-
most sixteen months. But as he added (Annales, rev.
ed. [1631], p. 673): “... it was found to have been
in place celestiall farre above the Moone,”—in the very
region, that is to say, which Aristotle had claimed was
“unageing and unalterable and unmodified.” The Cre-
ator was not, apparently, disciple of Aristotle after all.

The seventeenth century marked the total eclipse
of Aristotle's “closed” world. Individuals like Donne
may have initially hovered on the brink of despair, but
others were soon able to accommodate themselves to
the emerging infinite universe, even to glory in it.
Thomas Traherne, for instance, was ecstatic before a
world “surrounded with infinit and Eternal Space”
because it proclaimed the boundless goodness of the
Creator: “Infinit Lov cannot be Expressed in finit
Room: but must hav infinit Places wherin to utter and
shew it self” (Centuries of Meditation, I, 19; II, 80).

But even while Plato was influencing the thesis con-
cerning the potentialities of “Infinit Lov,” he was
dictating the marked partiality to mathematics already
shown by Nicholas of Cusa and Copernicus and even
more fully demonstrated during the seventeenth cen-
tury by Kepler, Galileo, and Newton (see Burtt, Koyré).
Hierarchy was affected most adversely by the precision
of mathematics as well as by the resultant conception of
the universe in terms of a vast machine. Kepler's view
of the cosmic machine was much qualified by an almost
mystical belief in “harmony” which again terminated
in Hierarchy (see Pauli). But Descartes, unable to
bridge the gap between matter and spirit, lapsed in-
to dualism and thereby severed the universe asunder.
Hobbes even more alarmingly rejected the spiritual
dimension altogether and posited a universe permeated
by matter (Leviathan [1651], Chapter XLVI):

The World (I mean not the Earth onely... but the Uni-
that is, the whole masse of all things that are) is
Corporeall, that is to say, Body; and hath the dimensions
of Magnitude, namely, Length, Bredth, and Depth: also
every part of Body, is likewise Budy, and hath the like
dimensions; and consequently every part of the Universe,
is Body; and that which is not Body, is no part of the


The orthodox were of course scandalized. In the hunt-
ing of “Leviathan” which ensued (see Mintz) perhaps
only the Cambridge Platonists managed to shun scur-
rility. In opposition to the materialism of Hobbes no
less than to the dualism of Descartes, they reiterated
the ethical legacy of Greece and Rome even as they
reasserted the Scale of Nature. Belief in what Cud-
worth described as “a Scale or Ladder of Perfections
in Nature, one above the other, as of Living and Ani-
mate Things,
above Senseless and Inanimate; of Ra-
things above Sensitive” (The True Intellectual
System of the Universe
[1678], p. 648), afforded oppor-
tunities to emphasize cosmic unity by means of an
all-pervasive “plastic nature” (Cudworth, ibid., I, iii,
37) or “spirit of nature” (Henry More, The Immortality
of the Soul
[1659], I, iii). The Cambridge Platonists
were to this extent “more truly Plotinists,” yet they
also partook of that traditional disposition toward ana-
logical thinking so evident in affirmations such as Cud-
worth's that

there is [an] Interiour Symmetry and Harmony in the Rela-
tions, Proportions, Aptitudes and Correspondencies of
Things to one another in the Great Mundane System, or
Vital Machine of the Universe, which is all Musically and
Harmonically composed

(A Treatise concerning Eternal and
Immutable Morality,
posthumous ed. [1731], pp. 183-84).

The Cambridge Platonists notwithstanding, the “new
philosophers,” even when not under the spell of Car-
tesianism, were increasingly obliged to separate spirit
from matter and finally to reduce God to the level of
an impersonal First Cause. Descartes himself, as Pascal
sagely noted, “would gladly have left God out of his
whole philosophy. But he could not help making Him
give one flip to set the world in motion. After that
he had no more use for God” (Pensées, §194; trans.
J. M. Cohen, 1961). Scientists like Newton did not
ostracize God quite to the same extent. They hoped
that somehow the study of “the Mechanism of the
World” would lead them to “the very first Cause”
which—Newton rather anxiously remarked—“cer-
tainly is not mechanical” (Opticks, 3rd rev. ed. [1721],
p. 344). In fact, however, not only did Newton re-
duce the Scale of Nature to a hierarchical system of
particles within matter (see Vavilov; cf. Gregory) but
argued that the First Cause intervenes only when re-
quired to mend the clock-like machine of the universe.
The implications of this argument did not escape

Sir Isaac Newton, and his followers, have also a very odd
opinion concerning the work of God. According to their
doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from
time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had
not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual
motion. Nay, the machine of God's making is so imperfect,
according to these gentlemen, that he is obliged to clean
it now and then by an extraordinary concourse, and even
to mend it, as a clockmaker mends his work

(The Leibniz-
Clarke Correspondence,
ed. H. G. Alexander [1956], pp.

Leibniz' statement constitutes a warning of the perils
inherent in any halfhearted attempt to “save appear-
ances.” What then were the alternatives? To agree with
Hobbes that the universe is “Body”? But this would
be extreme, unwarranted by experience. To insist with
the Cambridge Platonists that the Scale of Nature in
its traditional form is a reality after all? But this would
be equally impossible, especially because analogical
thinking declined once the “new philosophy” de-
manded that “all the amplifications, digressions, and
swellings of style” be replaced by “a close, naked,
natural way of speaking,... bringing all things as near
the Mathematical plainness as they can” (Thomas
Sprat, The History of the Royal-Society [1667], I, §20).
In the event, the concept of Hierarchy was retained
during the eighteenth century in name if not in sub-
stance until dissenting voices undermined its founda-
tions and necessitated its reconstruction in line with
other developments. In advance, however, Spinoza and
Leibniz endeavored to impose order on the threatening
chaos by erecting edifices which remain formidable
landmarks in the history of Hierarchy.

Spinoza's contemporaries would have been surprised
to find him mentioned in connection with Hierarchy,
and amazed to discover that he was anything more
than what Henry More described him as being, “a Jew
first, after a Cartesian, and now an atheist.” But this
judgment was wild and can no longer be sustained (see
Colie, Hampshire, Roth). Spinoza was indeed excom-
municated by his co-religionists of Amsterdam but he
did not deviate from the uncompromising emphasis of
the great prophets on holiness. Moreover, though he
was favorably inclined toward Cartesianism at the
outset, he soon inverted it by deploying an equally
relentless logic which bridged Descartes' dichotomy
between body and spirit. Nor can the charge of
“atheism” be entertained, unless we believe with his
contemporaries that the celebrated phrase Deus sive
(“God or nature”) undermines the imperative
distinction between God and nature, confounding both.
Spinoza certainly did reject the distinction as in itself
pernicious, no less pernicious indeed than the Cartesian
distinction between thought and extension. He main-
tained instead that the world, the sum total of existence
including God, constitutes a unity, one infinite and
all-inclusive “Substance” which at the outset of his
Ethica (1667) is defined as “that which is in itself and
is conceived through itself: I mean that, the conception
of which does not depend on the conception of another


thing from which it must be formed.” God and nature,
the entities traditionally distinguished as natura
(nature “naturing” or creative) and natura
(nature “natured” or created), are accordingly
merged (Eth., I, Prop. 29, Note; cf. I, Prop. 8 and 14,
Proof). Even terms like “Creator” and “creation,” or
“Spirit” and “matter,” are consistently eschewed, since
both import a division in the universe which Spinoza
found unacceptable in the light of his vision of a cosmic
unity which is “always the same and one everywhere”
(Eth., III, Pref.). Hence the appropriateness of pro-
posing as an alternative to the term Substance the con-
troversial phrase “God or nature.” The studied in-
difference of “or” is itself significant, for it too argued
the coherence of “all being,” as when Spinoza in De
intellectus emendatione
(1677) formally asserted that
Deus sive natura is “a being unique, infinite, that
is, all being, and that beyond which nothing can be
granted” (§76; trans. A. Boyle [1959]).

One fundamental consequence of this scheme went
totally unobserved by Spinoza's contemporaries, else
they would have been obliged to welcome their
“atheist” with open arms. “God or nature” appears to
intimate pantheism; in effect, however, it is a procla-
mation that the phenomenal world is not so much
under God as in God, totally divine. This conviction,
sustained by belief in God as “the indwelling and not
the transient cause of all things” (Eth., I, Prop. 18),
was never more forcefully phrased by Spinoza than
in the remarkable statement, “Whatever is, is in God”
(Eth., I, Prop. 15). Spinoza's universe is more, not less,
spiritual than its counterpart in the thought of the
Cambridge Platonists. The Scale of Nature was not
retained, largely because Spinoza's mathematically-
oriented methodology directed him away from meta-
phorical thinking toward “the essence and properties
of things” (Eth., I, App.), but also because the aggregate
he terms “God or nature” could not accommodate a
scheme rising by distinct steps from the material to
the immaterial. On the other hand, Spinoza was so
disinclined to eschew Hierarchy that he envisaged “all
things from the highest grade to the the lowest” in
a definite line of order (Eth., I, App.; see Hampshire,
Ch. II; Lasbax; Roth, Ch. II, sec. ii). The infinite and
all-inclusive Substance—“God or nature”—is differen-
tiated to infinity, “varies in infinite modes, yet remains
always the same” (Letter to G. H. Schuller, 29 July
1675). Basically, then, we have Substance: “A substance
is prior in its nature to its modifications” (Eth., I, Prop.
1). Thereafter we obtain “infinite things in infinite
modes” (Eth., I, Prop. 16) which range from the Attri-
butes of God—“infinite attributes, each of which ex-
presses eternal and infinite essence” (Eth., I, Def. 6)—to
the infinity of “particular things” which are said to
be “nothing else than modifications of attributes of
God, or modes by which attributes of God are ex-
pressed in a certain and determined manner” (Eth., I,
Prop. 25, Coroll.).

It is of course obvious that Spinoza's Hierarchy of
Modes cannot possibly be severed from his overriding
concern to assert cosmic unity in terms of One Sub-
stance. Priority belongs to the latter, not the former;
for it is the latter which so effectively dispenses with
Cartesian dualism in that it enables us to see that
“extension and thought are either attributes of God
or modifications of attributes of God” (Eth., I, Prop.
15, Coroll. 2)—or, better still, that “thinking substance
and extended substance are one and the same sub-
stance” (Eth., II, Prop. 7, Note). Was Spinoza's “Sub-
stance” anticipated by Bruno? It is doubtful. For what
possible relationship can be said to exist between a
term which in the maelstrom of Bruno's ideas surfaces
almost accidentally, and that which in the severely
ordered thought of Spinoza forms the groundwork of
one of the greatest philosophical systems ever con-
structed? Suffice it that Bruno can rarely be understood
without the assistance of his imaginative commen-
tators. But the only commentary required to under-
stand Spinoza's Ethics is Spinoza's Ethics.

The occasional claim that Bruno influenced Spinoza
is no less improbable than the claim that he influenced
Leibniz. Here the crucial term is the “monad,” its basic
meaning clearly defined by Leibniz in the opening
section of his Principes de la nature et de la grâce
fondés en raison
(1718): “Monas is a Greek word which
signifies unity or that which is one.” Thus far at least
Bruno might have agreed. But was he likely to have
recognized the term within the context of Leibniz'
eminently rational philosophy? For Leibniz the
“monad” represented something quite specific which
he repeatedly elucidated in several treatises but espe-
cially in la Monadologie (German trans., 1720; Latin
trans., 1721; 1st ed. of the French original, 1840). The
“monad,” he tells us, is “a simple substance which
enters into compounds; simple, that is to say, without
parts” (Monad., trans. Mary Morris [1934], §1). Inde-
structible and indivisible, it is unaffected by external
factors yet subject to continual “natural changes
[which] come from an internal principle” so that “the
present state of it is big with the future” (ibid., §§11,
22). Moreover, each monad varies in quality and per-
fection from the next to such an extent that their
confluence to form various pluralities—“compounds”—
has resulted in an infinitely varied universe, a unity-
in-diversity which is ever augmented as new monads
are produced, “born, so to speak, by continual fulgura-
tions of the Divinity from moment to moment” (ibid.,
§47). There are consequently no vacuities in the uni-


verse. “All nature is a plenum” “which means that the
whole of matter is connected”—a connection “of all
created things with each, and of each with all the rest”
(Princ., §3; Monad., §§61, 56). In the phrase so often
quoted by Leibniz—as in the Preface to his answer
to Locke, the Nouveaux essais sur l'entendement
(1765)—“all things conspire” (σύμπνοια πάντα),
as Hippocrates said. They conspire, moreover, in strict
obedience to the Law of Continuity, so that the infinite
monads which constitute the universe are arranged
hierarchically in a sequence which reaches up to God,
“the dominant Unity of the universe,” the Monas
or “original simple substance,” expressly set
“outside the series” (De rerum originatione radicali, 1st
ed. [1840]; Monad., §47; and letter of 6 Feb. 1706 to
the Electress Sophia of Hanover). Given this “gradual
connection of species,” Leibniz remarked (N. Ess., IV,
xvi, 12; cf. Preface, and III, vi, 13), it must be thought

Everything goes by degrees in nature, and nothing by leaps,
and this rule regarding changes is part of my law of con-
tinuity. But the beauty of nature, which requires distinct
perceptions, demands the appearance of leaps, and so to
speak musical cadences in phenomena, and takes pleasure
in mixing the species

(trans. A. G. Langley, 1949).

Leibniz' Hierarchy of Monads is best set forth in
another treatise, the Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté
de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme, et l'origine du mal

(1710). Appropriately enough, the concept is “accom-
modated” to our understanding in a dream within a
fable. A dazzled Theodorus is enabled by the Goddess
Pallas to see the universe in the form of “a pyramid,
becoming ever more beautiful as one mounted towards
the apex, and representing more beautiful worlds”
(Théod., trans. E. M. Huggard [1951], §§413-17).
Leibniz' argument is not that the universe is beautiful
and therefore perfect but that it is perfect and there-
fore beautiful. The “continual fulgurations of the Di-
vinity,” he thought, are never divorced from harmony,
“the harmony pre-established from all time” (Princ.,
§15). The idea is so basic to Leibniz' philosophy that
he often described himself as “the author of the system
of pre-established harmony.” This system, he argued
time and again, is a logical deduction from the funda-
mental truth which is the existence of God. A perfect
God must necessarily have formed a perfect world; to
deny the latter is to deny the former, since “one acts
imperfectly if he acts with less perfection than he is
capable of” (Discours de métaphysique [1st ed., 1846],
trans. G. Montgomery, 1960). Hence Leibniz' constant
reference of all his arguments to the nature of God—
“the first reason of things” (Théod., §7)—as in the
typical assertion that “everything is regulated in things
once for all in as much order and agreement as possible,
since supreme wisdom and goodness cannot act without
perfect harmony” (Princ., §13).

Leibniz did not hesitate to draw the conclusion
which later was to be so ferociously attacked by

It follows from the supreme perfection of God that in
producing the universe He chose the best possible plan,
containing the greatest variety together with the greatest
order; the best arranged situation, place, and time; the
greatest effect produced by the simplest means; the most
power, the most knowledge, the most happiness and good-
ness in created things of which the universe admitted. For
as all possible things have a claim to existence in the under-
standing of God in proportion to their perfections, the result
of all these claims must be the most perfect actual world
which is possible

(Leibniz, Princ., §10; cf. esp. Théod., §8,
and Monad., §§53-55).

Optimistic to the end, he remained convinced that “in
things which are eternal, though there may be no cause,
nevertheless there must be known a reason” (De rerum
originatione radicali
). Impressed, the Age of Reason
welcomed Leibniz as one of its principal spokesmen.
No one observed, and possibly no one cared, that
Leibniz had dramatically transformed the traditional
Scale of Nature by propounding a scheme which was,
all too lucidly, a-Christian.

Hierarchy entered the eighteenth century deprived
of its Christianized context, its mystery, and even—it
could be said—its poetry. The entry was by way of
Locke's indifferent assertion of the infinite “links” in
nature which by “gentle degrees,” he wrote, “ascend
upward from us toward [God's] infinite perfection, as
we see they gradually descend from us downwards”
(An Essay concerning Human Understanding [1690],
III, vi, 12). The “Chain of Being”—now the most
common designation of cosmic Hierarchy—moved
outwardly from Locke to be asserted repeatedly with
a minimum of variation. Addison expounded “the little
transitions and deviations from one species to another”
which merge to form “the chain of Beings” (The Spec-
No. 519, 25 Oct. 1712); Henry Brooke celebrated
the “grand Machine” of the universe with its “endless
Links,” not to mention “Earth's prolific Entrails” (Uni-
versal Beauty,
1735); John Wesley endorsed the “chain
of beings” which he saw mounting by degrees “from
an atom of disorganised matter, to the highest of the
archangels” (see Southey); James Thomson wrote of

The mighty Chain of Beings, lessening down
From infinite Perfection to the Brink
Of dreary Nothing, desolate Abyss!

(Summer [1727], lines 284-86; 2nd version 334-36)

Edward Young was dazzled by the vision of


The chain unbroken upward, to the realms
Of incorporeal life....

(Night-Thoughts [1744], VI)

—and of course Pope exclaimed with equal fervor:

Vast chain of being, which from God began,
Natures æthereal, human angel, man,
Beast, bird, fish, insect! what no eye can see,
No glass can reach! from Infinite to thee,
From thee to Nothing!...

(An Essay on Man [1733], I, 237ff.)

But Dr. Johnson was not impressed. He thought the
Essay on Man was “certainly not the happiest of Pope's
performances”; “the poet was not sufficiently master
of his subject: metaphysical morality was to him a new
study; he was proud of his acquisitions, and, supposing
himself master of great secrets, was in haste to teach
what he had not learned.” “He tells us,” added Johnson
drily, “that there is a chain of subordinate beings 'from
infinite to nothing,' of which himself and his readers
are equally ignorant” (Works, ed. R. Lynam [1825], IV,
265-66). But Johnson's impatience was in the end
directed particularly against Soame Jenyns who in A
Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil
attempted still another exposition of Hierarchy “from
infinite perfection to absolute nothing” (see Sachs,
Willey). Johnson's review of Jenyns' work commences
on a note of skepticism: “This doctrine of the regular
subordination of beings, the scale of existence, and the
chain of nature, I have often considered, but always
left the inquiry in doubt and uncertainty.” But no
longer (Works [1825], V, 675-76):

The scale of existence from infinity to nothing, cannot
possibly have any being. The highest being not infinite must
be, as has been often observed, at an infinite distance below
infinity.... Nor is this all. In the scale, wherever it begins
or ends, are infinite vacuities. At whatever distance we
suppose the next order of beings to be above man, there
is room for an intermediate order of beings between them;
and if for one order, then for infinite orders: since every
thing that admits of more or less, and consequently all the
parts of that which admits them, may be infinitely divided.

Johnson's assault on the assumptions supporting the
Chain of Being was matched within a few years by
Voltaire's. Voltaire, ever bent on arresting the wide-
spread optimism generated by Leibniz (see Besterman,
Brooks), correctly judged that the Chain of Being ap-
peared to support the notion that the universe is “the
most perfect actual world which is possible.” Initially
“filled with admiration” for the traditional concept,
he soon found that “this great phantom could not bear
the light of careful examination.”

The imagination is at first pleased with the imperceptible
transition from brute matter to organized substance, from
plants to zoophytes, from zoophytes to animals, from ani-
mals to men, from men to genii, from genii with light,
immaterial bodies to immaterial substances, and finally to
a thousand orders of these substances which spanning the
gap between beauty and perfection, ascend to God Himself.
... But there is a greater distance between God and his
most perfect creatures than between the Holy Father and
the dean of the Sacred College. The dean may become a
pope, but the most perfect genii created by the Supreme
Being cannot become God. Between him and God lies

(Dictionnaire philosophique [1764], “Chaîne des
êtres créés,” trans. W. Baskin [1961]).

Johnson and Voltaire encountered no violent disap-
probation because their contemporaries were them-
selves aware that the static Chain of Being did not
always correspond to reality. Was not Pope's enthusi-
astic exposition of Hierarchy followed by that apoca-
lypse of imminent cataclysm, The Dunciad? Was not
Addison as convinced of “the little transitions and
deviations from one species to another,” as he was of
the cessation of the melody “that cometh of thilke
speres thryes thre”? The eloquence of Reason may not
necessarily compensate for the silence of the stars:

What though, in solemn Silence, all
Move round the dark terrestrial Ball?
What tho' nor real Voice nor Sound
Amid their radiant Orbs be found?
In Reason's Ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious Voice,
For ever singing, as they shine,
'The Hand that made us is Divine'.

(Ode, “The Spacious Firmament” [1712],
lines 17-24).

Yet the Chain of Being was still not dismantled. It
was instead adjusted to another emerging idea, cosmic
evolution. Leibniz pointed the way when he main-
tained in De rerum originatione radicali that “there is
a perpetual and a most free progress of the whole
universe in fulfilment of the universal beauty and per-
fection of the works of God, so that it is always ad-
vancing towards a greater development.” Kant in All-
gemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels

(1755) even more expansively asserted cosmic progress
in terms of a universe infinite in both time and space
(Ch. VII; trans. W. Hastie, 1900):

Creation is not the work of a moment. When it has once
made a beginning with the production of an infinity of
substances and matter, it continues in operation through
the whole succession of eternity with ever increasing de-
grees of perfection. Millions and whole myriads of millions
of centuries will flow on, during which always new worlds
and systems of worlds will be formed after each other in
the distant regions away from the centre of nature, and
will attain to perfection.


The Chain, which once extended vertically “from the
Mushrome to the Angels,” was now seen as emblematic
of the evolution of the universe toward “perfection.”

The next development was the gradual extrication
of the past from its narrow confines in biblical chronol-
ogy (see esp. Haber). The apex was reached in 1859
upon the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species.

Darwin's theory of evolution may have been an
extension of formulations already advanced by others
(see Glass, et al.; Greene), but his thesis that evolution
progresses by “natural selection” was entirely original.
It raised a storm of protests. “Natural selection” ap-
peared to endorse chance: “it is the law,” said the
astronomer J. F. W. Herschel, “of higgledy-piggledy.”
Moreover, Darwin converted the traditional Scale of
Nature into a hierarchical system which could be said
to exist only for purposes of classification, not as a
reflection of reality. His “hierarchy,” in any case, ter-
minated in man—not in emulation of Aristotle's Scale
indeed, but in accordance with a dynamic form of
evolution which should in time progress beyond its
present apex in man. Darwin's contemporaries under-
standably sped to the conclusion that the descent of
man had been placed within a thoroughly materialistic
framework. What then of the mention of “the Creator”
in the final paragraph of The Origin of Species?

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the
most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving,
namely, the production of the higher animals, directly
follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its
several powers, having been originally breathed by the
Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this
planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of
gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most
beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being,

But the phrase “by the Creator” was in fact an after-
thought. Not present in the first edition of 1859, it is
quoted here from the third revised edition of 1861.

H. G. Wells, in updating the story of Job, arranged
for Sir Eliphaz Burrows to invite a distressed Job Huss

think of the stately procession of life upon the earth, through
a myriad of forms the glorious crescendo of evolution, up
to its climax, man. What a work is man! The paragon of
creation, the microcosm of the cosmos, the ultimate birth
of time...

(The Undying Fire [1919], p. 113).

A misunderstanding of Darwin, further undercut by
the distorted echo of Hamlet's words, is not secure
foundation for optimism. Worse, it would appear that
as the Darwinian theory is now being revised in the
light of genetics, hierarchy is declining into a merely
artificial scheme, to vanish at last within the infinite
space-time continuum of our ever-expanding universe.

But not quite. For Hierarchy is only a brief sentence
within the larger paragraph which is man's constant
search for Order, indeed his refusal to concede that he
resides within a universe of chance. Science may have
destroyed Hierarchy but refuses to reject Harmony.
“Without the belief in the inner harmony of our
world,” said Einstein, “there could be no science” (see
Schneer, p. 368). Hierarchy has passed but Order lin-
gers. Still “the roote of all,” it has of late appeared
in a number of guises, notably the attempt of Teilhard
de Chardin to argue that the universe evolves from
cosmogenesis through anthropogenesis to Christogen-
esis. His ultimate aim was to look beyond “the inco-
herent multiplicity of things” toward Unity—“the vi-
sion of a universe structurally unified in its main lines
and energies.” Nor is it surprising that he also favored
the “monad”—“a Greek word,” as Leibniz said, “which
signifies unity or that which is one.”


Hermann Abert, DieMusikanschauung des Mittelalters
(Halle, 1905). Rudolf Allers, “Microcosmus: From Anaxi-
mandrus to Paracelsus,” Traditio, 2 (1944), 319-407. A. H.
Armstrong, The Architecture of the Intelligible Universe in
the Philosophy of Plotinus
(Cambridge, 1940). J. B. Bambor-
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Benesch, The Art of the Renaissance in Northern Europe
(Cambridge, Mass., 1945), esp. Ch. III. Theodore Besterman,
Voltaire Essays (London, 1962), Ch. III. William J.
Bouwsma, Concordia mundi (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), esp.
Ch. IV. Richard A. Brooks, Voltaire and Leibniz (Geneva,
1964). Edwin A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of
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(London, 1925). Lily B. Campbell,
Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion (Cambridge,
1930), esp. Ch. V. Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the
Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy,
trans. M. Domandi (New
York, 1963), esp. Chs. I-II. Albert R. Cirillo, “Giulio Camil-
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Comparative Drama, 1 (1967), 19-27. Rosalie L. Colie, Light
and Enlightenment: A Study of the Cambridge Platonists
and the Dutch Arminians
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George P. Conger, Theories of Macrocosms and Microcosms
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The Enchanted Glass: The Elizabethan Mind in Literature
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Cosmogony and Physics
(Lexington, Ky., 1957), Ch. VIII.
Otto Demus, Byzantine Mosaic Decoration (London, 1947),
Part I. Ludwig Edelstein, “The Golden Chain of Homer,”
in Studies in Intellectual History, eds. G. Boas, et al. (Balti-
more, 1953), pp. 48-66. Eirionnach, “Aurea Catena
Homeri,” Notes and Queries, 2nd Series, 3 (1857), 63-65,
81-84, 104-07, and 12 (1861), 161-63, 181-83. Eugenio
Garin, “La 'Dignitas homini' e la letteratura patristica,”
la Rinascita, 1 (1938), §4, 102-46. Giovanni Gentile, Il


pensiero italiano del Rinascimento, 3rd ed. (Florence, 1940),
Ch. III. Théodore Gérold, Les Pères de l'Église et la musique
(Strasbourg, 1931). Bentley Glass, O. Temkin, and W. L.
Straus, eds., Forerunners of Darwin: 1745-1859 (Baltimore,
1959). Sidney Greenberg, The Infinite in Giordano Bruno
(New York, 1950). John C. Greene, The Death of Adam:
Evolution and its Impact on Western Thought
(Ames, Iowa,
1959). Joshua C. Gregory, “The Newtonian Hierarchic Sys-
tem of Particles,” Archives internationales d'histoire des
33 (1954), 243-47. Francis C. Haber, The Age of
the World: Moses to Darwin
(Baltimore, 1959). Stuart
Hampshire, Spinoza (Harmondsworth, 1951). S. K. Heninger,
Jr., “Some Renaissance Versions of the Pythagorean Tetrad,”
Studies in the Renaissance, 8 (1961), 7-35. Désirée Hirst,
Hidden Riches: Traditional Symbolism from the Renaissance
to Blake
(London, 1964). John Hollander, The Untuning of
the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry, 1500-1700

(Princeton, 1961). Francis R. Johnson, Astronomical Thought
in Renaissance England
(Baltimore, 1937), Ch. VI. Paul H.
Kocher, Science and Religion in Elizabethan England (San
Marino, Calif., 1953), esp. Chs. VII-IX. Arthur Koestler, The
Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the
(London, 1959). Alexandre Koyré, From the Closed
World to the Infinite Universe
(Baltimore, 1957). Paul O.
Kristeller, The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino, trans. V. Co-
nant (New York, 1943), esp. Ch. VI; idem, “Ficino and
Pomponazzi on the Place of Man in the Universe,” Renais-
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(New York, 1965), Ch. V. Thomas S. Kuhn,
The Copernican Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1957).
Auguste Laneau, L'Histoire du Salut chez les Pères de
l'Église: La doctrine des âges du monde
(Paris, 1964). Émile
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(Paris, 1926). Pierre Lévêque, urea catena Homeri:...
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and 107 (1933), 8-55. Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain
of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea
Mass., 1936). Dietrich Mahnke, Unendliche Sphäre und
(Halle, 1937). Joseph A. Mazzeo, Medieval
Cultural Tradition in Dante's 'Comedy'
(Ithaca, N.Y., 1960),
esp. Ch. I. Paul-Henri Michel, la cosmologie de Giordano
(Paris, 1962). P. A. Michelis, An Aesthetic Approach
to Byzantine Art,
trans. S. Xydis and M. Moschona (London,
1955). Samuel I. Mintz, The Hunting of Leviathan (Cam-
bridge, 1962). Theodor E. Mommsen, “Petrarch's Concep-
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Marjorie H. Nicolson, The Breaking of the Circle, rev. ed.
(New York, 1960). Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans.
P. S. Watson (London, 1938-39), esp. Part II. Erwin Panof-
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pp. 22-31; idem, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism
(Latrobe, Pa., 1951). C. A. Patrides, Milton and the Christian
(Oxford, 1966), Ch. III; idem, “Renaissance
Thought on the Celestial Hierarchy: The Decline of a
Tradition,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 20 (1959), 155-66,
and 23 (1962), 265-67; idem, The Phoenix and the Ladder:
The Rise and Decline of the Christian View of History

(Berkeley, 1964); idem, The Cambridge Platonists (London
and Cambridge, Mass., 1969). W. Pauli, “The Influence of
Archetypal Ideas on the Scientific Theories of Kepler,”
trans. Priscilla Silz, in The Interpretation of Nature and the
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The State in Shakespeare's Greek and Roman Plays (New
York, 1940). Georges Poulet, Les Métamorphoses du cercle
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hiérarchique du monde selon le Pseudo-Denys
(Paris, 1954).
Laurence J. Rosán, The Philosophy of Proclus (New York,
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63 (1946), 213-17. Leon Roth, Spinoza (London, 1929). H.
H. Rowley, Darius the Mede and the Four World Empires
in the Book of Daniel
(Cardiff, 1959). Arieh Sachs, “Samuel
Johnson and the Cosmic Hierarchy,” in Scripta Hierosolym-
Vol. XVII: Studies in English Language and Literature,
ed. A. Shalvi and A. A. Mendilow (Jerusalem, 1966), 137-54.
Fritz Saxl, Verzeichnis astrologischer und mythologischer
illustrierter Handschriften des lateinischen Mittelalters,
II: DieHandschriften der National-Bibliothek in Wien
(Heidelberg, 1927), Ch. IV. Cecil J. Schneer, The Search
for Order
(London, 1960). Gershom G. Scholem, Major
Trends in Jewish Mysticism,
2nd rev. ed. (New York, repr.
1961). Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods, trans.
B. F. Sessions (New York, 1953), pp. 64-69. Paul E. Sigmund,
Nicholas of Cusa and Medieval Political Thought (Cam-
bridge, Mass., 1963), esp. Chs. III, V. Otto von Simson, The
Gothic Cathedral:
... (London, 1956). Robert Southey, The
Life of Wesley,
3rd ed. (London, 1846), II, 88. H. Spangen-
berg, “Die Perioden der Weltgeschichte,” historische
127 (1923), 1-49. Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare
and the Nature of Man,
2nd ed. (New York, 1951). Leo
Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony,
ed. A. G. Hatcher (Baltimore, 1963). E. M. W. Tillyard, The
Elizabethan World Picture
(London, 1943). S. I. Vavilov,
“Newton and the Atomic Theory,” in The Royal Society
Newton Tercentenary Celebrations
(Cambridge, 1947), pp.
43-55. C. F. von Weizsäcker, The History of Nature, trans.
F. D. Wieck (London, 1951); idem, The World View of
trans. M. Greene (London, 1952). Basil Willey, The
Eighteenth Century Background
(London, 1940), Ch. III.
F. P. Wilson, Elizabethan and Jacobean (Oxford, 1945), Ch.
I. James Winny, ed., The Frame of Order:... (London,
1957). Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age
of Humanism
(London, 1949). Emil Wolff, Diegoldene
... (Hamburg, 1947). John H. Wright, The Order of
the Universe in the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas

A number of relevant texts have been brought together
by Milton K. Munitz in Theories of the Universe (Glencoe,
Ill., 1957). The most comprehensive study of the background
is Pierre Duhem, le système du monde: histoire des doc-
trines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic,
10 vols. (Paris,


[See also Chain of Being; Infinity; Macrocosm...; Na-
ture; Neo-Platonism;
Perfectibility; Platonism; Renais-