Chain of Being (Review)

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

(photo courtesy of

Summary of the Idea

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

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


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


About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
This entry was posted in Book Review, Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Chain of Being (Review)

  1. Evan says:

    Thanks for the helpful review. This topic has been on my mind a lot as of late.

    My own view is very conflicted. Personally, I am committed to the idea that God is pure act. Many of the Reformers also believed this. Many of the Reformers also, however, rejected the chain of being. But it seems that the act-potency distinction implies the chain-o-being (I remember Fr. Coppleston in his history of philosophy mentions this).

    My main problem with the chain of being is emanationism. As Christians, we cannot, as Plotinus thought, see the world as just a necessary emanation from the One (God). Creation is was obviously a free, contingent act of God. Must the chain of being imply a type of eminationism? I don’t know.

    Another real danger I see is when the chain of being ontological categories supplant biblical concepts, such as covenant. I have never seen some of these issues as an either/or, but rather a both/and. For example, some Christian theologians are trying to get rid of substance metaphysics for some “covenantal metaphysics,” which is in some cases border line unintelligible. Something to which I am sure you would heartily agree: we need both metaphysical categories and biblical categories.

    Sorry for the long rant. I have been very conflicted about the chain-o-being as of late. It has a slight intuitive pull for me.


  2. Evan says:

    Any thoughts?


    • Jacob BA says:

      Sorry, yes. I do have some. I just got back in town.


      • Jacob BA says:

        I can go with God’s being pure act. My problem is when we set up created being as a continuum between actuality and potentiality, with good/evil correlated thereto.

        You are correct on emanationism, and that also entails determinism.

        Also, good thoughts on covenant. It used to be whenever I brought up covenant, a certain EO apologist would always accuse me of being a Scotist. I’m like, “Dude, was God a Scotist in Genesis 17?”


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