Important to the intellectual mindset of early modernity, the Great Chain of Being is a hierarchical model of existence that combines metaphysics and theology. This example of the concept is by Didacus Valades from his 1579 Rhetorica Christiana. Click on the tiles to explore this concept.
The site provides, first, a resource for students of early modernity with interactive tools that combine the era's art with its ideas. Period visual figures used to explain both metaphysical and physical (scientific) concepts important to the time are annotated and links will point to both encyclopedic and critical entries published on the topics. Eventually, we hope to also provide a resource for scholars as well.
Early Modern Word and Image is a collaboration between:
Jason Bengtson, MLIS, MA, AHIP is currently the Emerging Technologies/R&D Librarian for the University of New Mexico's Health Sciences Library and Informatics Center. Jason is the author of a number of peer reviewed articles in the field of Information Science, is an active web developer, and has a burgeoning interest in Digital Humanities projects. Jason's research interests include semantic processing, and complex, adaptive systems.
Bruce Carroll Jr is a PhD candidate in Renaissance Studies (English Literature) at the University of New Mexico. His dissertation locates in Elizabethan and Jacobean poetry definitively early modern changes in metaphysics, specifically the imbrication of human ontology and the ontology of art (including literature). Areas of interest: the early modern appearance of the Muse, techne and beauty, and nature and art, as well as art criticism, the philosophy of art, and theory.
Explore how other philosophers influenced Didacus Valades’s concept of being:
The scale of nature set
From center to circumference, whereon
In contemplation of created things
By steps we may ascend to God.*
*(Paradise Lost 5.509-12)
Plotinus was influential in the Renaissance through the Latin translations of his writing by Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino in 1492.
The Neoplatonic/Christian mystical works of a certain “Dionysos,” including many epistles (or letters), the Celestial Hierarchy, Divine Names, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, Mystical Theology, were attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, the convert of Paul mentioned at Acts 17:34. But the writer of these very influential tracts more likely lived in the 5th to 6th centuries CE, long after Paul’s day, and only adopted the name Dionysos to popularize his writings. Hence, we call him the Pseudo-Dionysius. Whoever he was, his work influenced every major philosopher of the Middle Ages, including Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologica, itself one of the most influential works in Western thought, drew on Dionysius’s Celestial Hierarchy, and who devoted an entire work to Dionysius, the Commentary on the Divine Names.
Pseudo-Dionysius on the chain of being: “Let us stretch ourselves prayerfully upward to the more lofty elevation of the kindly Rays of God. Imagine a great shining chain hanging downward from the heights of heaven to the world below. We grab hold of it with one hand and then another, and we seem to be pulling it down toward us. Actually it is already there on the heights and down below and instead of pulling it to us we are being lifted upward to that brilliance above, to the dazzling light of those beams.”* (Divine Names 680C, 68) (qtd in Rorem 145) Rorem, Paul.
*Pseudo-Dionysius: A Commentary on the Texts and an Introduction to Their Influence. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.
“Let a certain holy ambition invade the mind, so that we may not be content with mean things but may aspire to the highest things and strive with all our forces to attain them: for if we will to, we can. Let us spurn earthly things [represented in the figure by the animal and mineral tiers]; let us struggle toward the heavenly. Let us put in last place whatever is of the world; and let us fly beyond the chambers of the world to the chambers nearest the most lofty divinity. There, as the sacred mysteries reveal, the seraphim, the cherubim, and thrones [the highest rank of angels, depicted closest to God] occupy the first places. Ignorant of how to yield to them and unable to endure the second places, let us compete with the angels in dignity and glory. When we have willed it, we shall not be at all below them.” *
Pico argues that all the categories of being in the hierarchy, including those of the angels, are set and unchangeable—with the exception of our unique human being. Only humanity has free will, and with that freedom, we can will ourselves into lower or higher tiers in the scale.
*On the Dignity of Man, trans. Charles Glenn Wallis, Indianapolis: Bobs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1965.