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The philosophy of Milton’s time focuses primarily on the idea of hierarchy. Hierarchy is necessary in thought because all the categories of being indicate how things are ordered and demonstrate degrees in all the dimensions (Kuntz 8). The ideas of Plato and Aristotle had a pervasive influence in Western thought, and both contributed greatly to the ever-evolving history of ideas. Plato’s Idea of the Good is more or less equated to the concept of God. The Good differs in its nature from everything else in that the being who possesses it always and in all respects has the most perfect sufficiency and is never wanting of any other thing. The fullness of the set properties – self-sufficiency, adequacy, and completeness – is what distinguishes the Absolute Being from all others. God eternally possesses the Good in the highest degree. Whenever anything reaches its own perfection, it cannot endure to remain in itself, but generates and produces some other thing (Lovejoy 62). We see this in Milton’s Paradise Lost as God, the summit of the hierarchy of being, creates another universe outside of Heaven. The not-so-good – not to say the bad, but not in any sense at the same level of good as God – must be perceived as derivative from the Idea of the Good. God is the ultimate and only completely satisfying object of contemplation and adoration. Therefore, he is the goal of all desire as well as the source of the creatures that desire Him (Lovejoy 42, 45).
The Great Chain of Being rests upon three foundational principles. The first principle is that of plenitude. The extent and abundance of the creation must be as great as the perfect and inexhaustible source from whence it was created, and the world is better the more things it contains. Hence, the universe that God created must be a plenum formarum in which the range of conceivable diversity of kinds of living things is exemplified (Lovejoy 52). The principle of continuity is another feature of the Great Chain of Being. This principle states simply that all quantities must be continuous. That is to say, between any two given natural species there exists an intermediate type; otherwise, there would be gaps in the universe and the universe would not be as full as it might be. This, of course, could not be so, because it implies that the Author of such a universe is not perfect. The third principle is the principle of linear gradation.
According to this principle, the infinite series of forms of which the universe is comprised range in hierarchical order from the barest type of existence to the ens perfectissimum, or God. Aristotle suggested to naturalists and philosophers of the time the idea of arranging all animals in a single graded natural scale according to their degree of perfection (Lovejoy 58). Through the Middle Ages and into the late eighteenth century many philosophers, men of science, and educated men in general accepted the structure of the universe as a Great Chain of Being. They believed that the universe was composed of an infinite number of links ranging in hierarchical order from the lowliest forms of existence (which barely escape non-existence) of every possible grade to the absolute highest kind of creature. Every creature differs from those immediately above and immediately below it by the least possible degree of difference (Lovejoy 59). The hierarchy of beings is a dominant theme in Paradise Lost. Milton implements his philosophical acceptance of the Great Chain of Being to establish a firm cosmology within his epic poem.
The most obvious, yet exquisite, application of the Great Chain of Being in Paradise Lost is seen in the character of Satan. This character physically experiences a falling from the highest link in the chain to the absolute lowest. Satan begins as one of the highest angels in Heaven. He could even be considered God’s right-hand man before the Son is created. After his fall, he is still a massive figure compared to the “sea beast / Leviathan, which God of all his works / Created hugest that swim th’ ocean stream” (1.200). Although Satan maintains his size at this point, his luster has faded. When Satan is caught trespassing on the newly created Earth, he is shocked and appalled that his former fellow angels do not recognize him. The angel Zephon replies to him:
Think not, revolted Spirit, the shape the same,
Or undiminished brightness, to be known
As when thou stood’st in Heav’n upright and pure;
That glory then, when thou no more wast good,
Departed from thee, and thou resemblest now
Thy sin and place of doom obscure and foul (4.835-40)
Satan is growing further and further away from God in a spiritual sense as well as in a literal sense. As this spiritual degradation occurs, Satan also begins to take the form of beings further and further down on the Great Chain of Being. Satan takes the form of a toad to whisper a dream into Eve’s ear. Milton emphasizes Satan’s change in form by describing him as “squat like a toad…” “Squat” implies that Satan is very close to the ground. Toads are essentially creatures of the earth, thriving in the mud and dirt and grime. In addition, Satan takes the form of a serpent. This creature is one of the lowest of animals on the Earth because it does not stand, walk, or crawl; it grovels on its belly. Satan takes this form at his lowest moment, when he goes to the Garden of Eden to tempt Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. However, there is another form, which is lower than all of these previous forms. After Satan has already been discovered by the angels guarding Paradise, he must conceal himself even better than before. Therefore, he chooses to wrap himself “in mist / Of midnight vapor…” and glides undetected in the night air. In this case, Satan takes the form of something lower than all beasts: a mere vapor. At this point, Satan is so low in the hierarchy of beings that he is barely in existence.
The relationship between God and Man is also a prominent point where the Great Chain of Being comes into play. Man is created in God’s image to rule over all the rest of God’s creations. On Earth, Man is the closest to God in reference to the hierarchical chain; therefore, he is closest to God’s image. When Satan first arrives on Earth he notes all kinds of living creatures that he has never seen before:
Two of far nobler shape erect and tall,
Godlike erect, with native honor clad
In naked majesty seemed lords of all,
And worthy seemed, for in their looks divine
The image of their glorious Maker shone… (4.288-92)
The most significant difference between God and Man is self-sufficiency. God is completely self-sufficient, and theoretically has no need for the service of others. He is not in need of affection or social life, since he is capable of living alone . Adam tells God that he cannot be happy or find true contentment in solitude. He asks for a companion “fit to participate / All rational delight, wherein the brute / Cannot be human consort…” . God does not seem to understand this concept, despite his inherent omniscience. God claims that He is alone for all eternity because He knows none second to Him, or like Him in any way, yet He is happy. Adam then replies to God in this way:
Thou in thyself art perfect, and in thee
Is no deficiency found; not so is man,
But in degree, the cause of his desire
By conversation with his like to help,
Or solace his defects. No need that thou
Shouldst propagate, already infinite,
And through all numbers absolute, though one…
Here, Adam is explaining that Man is only perfect in his station, which is one that requires a partner. God has complete and infinite parts manifested as one. Man, on the other hand, is imperfect and his unity is defective. In consequence, Man requires another being to multiply his image. In this sense, Man does not achieve the essence of Good in ordinary human experience, because he is not self-contained but instead seeks dependence upon that which is external to his individual self . Upon hearing Adam’s request, God assents to create a partner for him.
The creation of Eve provides another link in the chain. Although Adam and Eve are considered the same species, they are not made as equals. The way Eve is made from Adam’s rib resembles Adam’s creation from God. In this way, Adam acts as an intermediary between Eve and God:
Whence true authority in men; though both
Not equal, as their sex not equal seemed;
For contemplation he and valor formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace,
He for God only, she for God in him…
Adam’s role as a mediator between the heavens and Eve continues. When Raphael comes down from Heaven to answer Adam’s cosmological questions, Eve excuses herself from the discussion. She does not excuse herself because she is intellectually unfit to understand and participate in the discussion, but because “her husband the relater she preferred / Before the angel, and of him to ask / Chose rather…” .
Milton strongly suggests that the Chain of Being is full; nothing can be altered because everything is linked to everything else. In Paradise Lost, when a character attempts to alter his position on the Great Chain of Being, terrible consequences befall him. The first example follows the actions of Eve. The serpent tells Eve that if she eats the fruit of the forbidden tree, then her degree of life will increase. This appeals to Eve, since she desires to be Adam’s equal. After eating the fruit, Eve inwardly debates whether she should tell Adam of the power of the fruit:
Shall I to him make known
As yet my change, and give him to partake
Full happiness with me, or rather not,
But keep the odds of knowledge in my power
Without copartner? So to add what wants
In female sex, the more to draw his love,
And render me more equal, and perhaps,
A thing not undesirable, sometime
Superior; for inferior who is free?
Because Eve chose to disobey God so that she could move up in the hierarchy of beings, she caused the entire race of Man to fall as well. She tried to alter God’s perfect creation, and consequently allowed Death and Sin to enter the world. Nimrod is another character who sought to climb the Great Chain of Being and claim a higher link. Nimrod was not content with fair equality and hence claimed “dominion undeserved . Over his brethren…” . He did not stop at tyranny over men, but proceeded to build a tower “whose top may reach to Heav’n…” . However, because Nimrod attempted to elevate himself to the level of God, God set “upon their tongues a various spirit to raze .Quite out their native language, and instead .To sow a jangling noise of words unknown” so that Nimrod and his men could not complete the erection of the tower. Adam responds to this story of Nimrod with distaste:
O execrable son so to aspire
Above his brethren, to himself assuming
Authority usurped, from God not giv’n:
He gave us only over beast, fish, fowl
Dominion absolute; that right we hold
By his donation; but man over men
He made not lord…
God has authority over where each being falls in the Great Chain of Being. Therefore, if any being tries to alter the hierarchy of links and climb higher, God will only cause the being to fall back to his original placement, because God is perfect and every link is where it should be. God is incapable of creating an imperfect universe, since it is made in His image.
Milton defines the Great Chain of Being in Paradise Lost as three-dimensional. The first dimension encompasses the hierarchy of beings in terms of self-sufficiency and completeness. In other words, the hierarchy is set up as the fittest at the top and the least fit at the bottom. The hierarchy ranks all beings: nothingness in the inanimate world, the realm of plants, animals, humans, angels or other immaterial and intellectual beings, and God (Mahoney 1). The second dimension is in respect to a being’s physical placement in the universe. God dwells high in the Heavens, Satan is confined to the depths of Hell, and Man finds himself below the sky and above the Earth (Kuntz 5). The last dimension of the Great Chain of Being focuses on a particular being’s level of spirituality. As a character grows closer to God spiritually, he will be higher on the chain. For example, if Man had not eaten the forbidden fruit, it is thought that he would eventually have reached a more God-like state. However, if an individual breaks away from God, such as Nimrod and Eve did, he will encounter a fallen state, where he will experience degradation.
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