Illustration from the Judaic Tradition

Critical Retrospect

         Within the circle of Jewish symbolism, the fortieth anniversary is a most fitting time for crystalizing major insights because, according to tradition, Noah left the ark after forty days, Moses returned from God after forty days, the people left the desert after forty years, and the seed of the messianic dynasty was sown after King David’s forty-year  rule over Jerusalem. I do not think that Professor Lovejoy (or Professor James in whose honor the lectures originated) intended The Great Chain of Being, or its fortieth anniversary echo, to have eschatological import. Yet the impact of the book and the evaluation of it now in process have certainly been turning points in the intellectual history of the twentieth century. It is fitting that so many should gather to honor and to appraise this work at this symbolic juncture of its existence. In this essay, I shall recapitulate Lovejoy’s main theses, illustrate them from the Judaic tradition, and suggest a critical retrospective view of Lovejoy’s undertaking from the point of view of that tradition.


            Lovejoy, in his attempt to articulate what he called “the primary and persistent or recurrent dynamic unit” of the thought and the culture of an era (7), set forth two main principles according to which the western concept of the world could be organized. The first was the principle of the continuous, hierarchical plenum. This was well summarized as follows (59):

The result was the conception of the plan and structure of the world which, through the Middle Ages and down to the late eighteenth century, many philosophers, most men of science, and, indeed, most educated men, were to accept without question—the conception of the universe as a “Great Chain of Being,” composed of an immense, or—by the strict but seldom rigorously applied logic of the principle of continuity—of an infinite, number of links ranging in hierarchical order from the meagerest kind of existence, which barely escapes nonexistence, through “every possible” grade up to the ens perfectissimum—or, in a somewhat more orthodox version, to the highest possible kind of creature, between which and the Absolute Being the disparity was assumed to be infinite—every one of them differing from that immediately above and that immediately below it by the “least possible” degree of difference.

            The second main principle set forth by Lovejoy was the principle of the dialectic tension between the “self-sufficient good” and the “self-extending good.” This, too, was well summarized as follows (49):

The concept of Self-Sufficing Perfection, by a bold logical inversion, was—without losing any of its original implications—converted into the concept of a Self-Transcending Fecundity. A timeless and incorporeal One became the logical ground as well as the dynamic source of the existence of a temporal and material and extremely multiple and variegated universe.

            This second principle, the principle of dialectic tension, had a very important corollary which Lovejoy also clearly articulated: namely, that, in the context of the divine, there is a certain theological dualism and that, given this dualism, a self-sufficient God requires a different kind of piety than a self-extending God. This, too, was lucidly summarized as follows (82-83):

But the God in whom man has thus to find his own fulfillment was, as has been pointed out, not one God but two. He was the idea of the Good, but he was also the idea of Goodness; and though the second attribute was nominally deduced dialectically from the first, no two notions could be more antithetic. The one was an apotheosis of unity, self-sufficiency, and quietude, the other of diversity, self transcendence, and fecundity… The one God was the goal of the ‘way up,’ of that ascending process by which the finite soul, turning from all created things, took its way back to the immutable Perfection in which alone it could find rest. The other God was the source and the informing energy of that descending process by which being flows through all the levels of possibility down to the very lowest. 

And again (315-16):

The two were, indeed, identified as one being with two aspects. But the ideas corresponding to the ‘aspects’ were ideas of two antithetic kinds of being. The one was the Absolute of otherworldliness, self-sufficient, out of time, alien to the categories of ordinary human thought and experience, needing no world of lesser beings to supplement or enhance his own eternal self-contained perfection. The other was a God who emphatically was not self-sufficient nor, in any philosophical sense, ‘absolute’: one whose essential nature required the existence of other beings, and not of one kind of these only, but of all kinds which could find a place in the descending scale of the possibilities of reality—a God whose prime attribute was generativeness, whose manifestation was to be found in the diversity of creatures and therefore in the temporal order and the manifold spectacle of nature’s process…

With this theological dualism—since the idea of God was taken to be also the definition of the highest good—there ran, as we have likewise seen, a dualism of values, the one otherworldly (though often in a half-hearted way), the other this-worldly. If the good for man was the contemplation or the imitation of God, this required, on the one hand, a transcendence and suppression of the merely ‘natural’ interests and desires, a withdrawal of the soul from ‘the world’ the better to prepare it for the beatific vision of the divine perfection; and it required, on the other hand, a piety towards the God of things as they are, an adoring delight in the sensible universe in all its variety, an endeavor on man’s part to know and understand it ever more fully, and a conscious participation in the divine activity of creation.

Illustration from the Judaic Tradition


          A study of the Judaic materials for the talmudic and medieval periods—i.e., for that continuous culture called “Rabbinic Judaism”[2]—confirms Lovejoy’s hypothesis that these two principles and the corollary, were “primary and persistent or recurrent dynamic units” of thought (7).

            The principle of the continuous, hierarchical plenum -- the Great Chain of Being—unfolded first in the talmudic period.[3] In this literature, God was conceived as a King, seated in God’s throne room, hidden behind the protective screen of the wings of God’s chief archangels. Between this divine realm and the mundane world of the rabbi-mystic was the plenum which was filled with the seven heavenly palaces, each of which had guards. These guards were the lowest form of heavenly being, and they were outranked by the higher angels, the heavenly “Beasts” and “Wheels,” the archangels, and by the divine Names. These Names, when inscribed on seals and shown to the guards, neutralized the power of even the most ferocious guards, thus assuring the rabbi-mystic safe passage through the plenum. The following brief citation from the “Chapters on the Ascent” illustrates dramatically the hierarchical, continuous nature of this plenum and its powers:[4]

Rabbi Ishmael said: When you come and stand at the gate of the first palace, take two seals, one in each hand—[the seals] of Tootrusea-YHVH, Lord of Israel, and of Surya, the Angel of the Presence. Show the seal of Tootrusea-YHVH, Lord of Israel, to those who stand on the right and [the seal] of Surya to those on the left. Then, Bahbiel—the angel who is in charge of the gate of the first palace, is appointed over the palace [itself], and who stands on the right—and Tofhiel—the angel who stands to the left of the threshold—grab you [the initiate], give you peace, and send you forth with radiance to Tagriel, the angel who is in charge of the gate of the second palace and who stands to the right of its threshold and to Metpiel who stands with him to the left of its threshold.

Show them, then, two seals—one of Adriharon-YHVH, Lord of Israel, and one of Ouzia, the Angel of the Presence. Show the one of Adriharon to the [guards] standing on the right and the one of Ouzia, the Angel of the Presence, show to those [guards] standing on on the left. Immediately, they grab you—one on your right and one on your left—as they accompany you, hand you over, give you peace, and send you forth with radiance to Shevooriel, the angel who is in charge of the gate to the third palace and who stands on its right threshold and Retzutziel, the angel who stands with him on its left threshold.

            This conception of the plenum had, and still has, a definite allure and attraction. It generates what Lovejoy called (11) “the pathos of the esoteric” and even the modern reader has a sense of being seduced by a world of powers beyond one’s own. As Lovejoy commented somewhat sarcastically (11), “How exciting and how welcome is the sense of initiation into hidden mysteries!” This world-view, however, modeled as it was on the pattern of a royal court with its careful pecking order of countries, had no systematic philosophic or metaphysical roots. It was not a closely-knit ontological chain of being. It was not even a hierarchy, except in the political sense of the word. In the course of time, it passed from the stage of history and was supplanted by a new and more elegant conception of the Great Chain of Being.

            The principle of the continuous, hierarchical plenum unfolded for the second time in the realm of medieval Jewish philosophy. There it found its most authoritative expression in Maimonides who envisioned the Great Chain of Being as two parallel chains—a spiritual one and a material one.[5] The spiritual continuum was composed of the Ten Intelligences, the intellect of man, and the soul, which was the principle of movement and existence in each lower being, while the material continuum was composed of the nine supernal spheres, the four elements, and the sublunar bodies compounded of those elements. Along the spiritual chain flowed the divine emanation which was, at once, ontological and intellectualist. Being ontologically fructifying, it conveyed existence, as a predicate, to all spiritual and material beings and, being intellectualist in quality, it provided the means of communication between God and humankind. Insofar as the direction of this flow was from God to humanity, Maimonides called it revelation, prophecy, and providence. Insofar as the direction of the communication was from humankind to God, Maimonides called it study and prayer in which humanity’s communication formed itself into a pattern of illuminationist piety.[6] The following brief citations, from the Guide of the Perplexed illustrate clearly the double hierarchy and its application to the concept of providence:[7]

…it follows necessarily that the Deity, may He be exalted, has brought into existence the first Intelligence, who is the mover of the first sphere in the way that we have explained. Again the Intelligence that causes the second sphere to move has as its cause and principle the first Intelligence, and so on, so that the Intelligence that causes the sphere that is contiguous with us to move is the cause and principle of the Active Intellect. With the latter, the separate Intelligences come to an end, just as bodies begin with the highest sphere and come to an end with the elements and what is composed of them…

The providence of God, may He be exalted, is constantly watching over those who have obtained this emanation, which is permitted to everyone who makes efforts with a view to obtaining it. If a man’s thought is free from distraction, if he apprehends Him, may He be exalted, in the right way and rejoices in what he apprehends, that individual can never be afflicted with evil of any kind. For he is with God and God is with him. When however, he abandons Him, may He be exalted, and is thus separated from God and God separated from him, he becomes in consequence of this a target for every evil that may happen to befall him. For the thing that necessarily brings about providence and deliverance from the sea of chance consists in that intellectual emanation.

            This second conception of the plenum was far more elegant than the first -- so much so that Maimonides, in an act of considerable courage, declared the talmudic plenum to be only a metaphor in need of philosophic esoteric reinterpretation which he, then, supplied.[8] The new world-view provided a more elegant hierarchy and a more continuous plenum. It allowed for an even flow of being through the supernal and sublunar realms. Further, because of its intellectualist quality, the new plenum could account for a very broad range of religious phenomena, including several distinct types of intellectualist mysticism.[9]

However, the medieval Jewish philosophic conception of the Great Chain of Being removed God, the source of the chain, to the outermost recesses of the human effort to understand God. Philosophy clothed God in negative attributes and wrapped around God the mantle of hypostatic emanations and supernal spheres. Where was God Godself? How could one reach out and engage God, not just touch or “taste” God mystically? Where was the personal aspect of God? These were the questions people began to ask. In the course of time, the philosophic world-view, too, passed from the stage of history and was supplanted by a new, more engage conception of the Great Chain of Being.

            The principle of continuous, hierarchical plenum unfolded for the third time in the realm of medieval Jewish theosophy. There it found its most authoritative expression in the Zohar.[10] In this conception of the Great Chain of Being, Jewish thought tried to account for the links within the personhood of God; that is, an attempt was made to account for the primal unfolding of the divine within the divine—an unfolding which preceded the development of extradeical reality. In accomplishing this, the Zohar presupposed an unknowable, ineffable core within the divine. From this core, there flowed forth aspects of God such as His Wisdom, His Understanding, His Grace, His Power, His Transcendent Beauty, His Majesty, and so on. These aspects are called Sefirot and all of them were understood to be intradeical. Only when these Sefirot had completed their unfolding, did the rest of reality begin to come into being. This latter extradeical reality was according to the Zohar, composed of angels on the pattern of the rabbinic conception and, then, of the lower, material beings of this world.

            It was almost inevitable in the milieu of the middle ages that someone would  try to harmonize these three chains of being: the talmudic chain of angels, the philosophic chain of Intelligences, and the zoharic chain of Sefirot, thereby complexifying the whole plenum one more degree. And so it happened. Judah al-Botini, a refugee from the Portuguese Inquisition, deftly placed Maimonides’ Intelligences between the zoharic Sefirot and talmudic angels thus expanding and rendering more complete the Great Chain of Being:[11]

Indeed, our holy rabbis, peace be upon them, the prophets, the son of the prophets, the tana’im, and the ’amora’im, who had in their hands the true tradition from Moses, our Rabbi, peace be upon him, together with the wise men of the kabbala of recent generations and even the ancient wise men of research of the nations [of the world] who inclined toward the wisdom of the Sages of Israel in [these] matters—all agree that the worlds which encompass all created beings are three [in number]: the world of the separated Intelligences with its ten steps and hosts; second, the world of the spheres with its ten heavens, the stars, the constellations, and their hosts; [and] third, the world of the lower beings with its four elements; inanimate, vegetable, living, and human beings and their progeny. And the Master of all rules over all of them as David, King of Israel, peace be upon him, said,…

But, all those whose wisdom has been exalted [and who have] seen the luminescent and the non-luminescent glass agree that, between the Cause of the causes, may His Name be praised, and the world of the separated Intelligences, there is an intelligent, spiritual existent being [which is] subtler than the subtlest, very much exalted above the world of the separated Intelligences as light is exalted above darkness. This intelligent existent being was emanated from the Ein Sof (the infinite), may He be praised, from the depths of the hiddenness of the Tetragrammaton, and they called this intelligent, spiritual being “the world of the Emanation”… And the wise men of the kabbala, the author of Sefer Yetsira which is ascribed to Abraham, our father, peace be upon him, at their head, have agreed that this intelligent existent being is the ten holy, spiritual steps from which the levels of the angels and the separated Intelligences are emanated and the kabbalists (hamekubbālīm) call these ten holy steps “the ten Sefirot”… indicating that they are ten [in number], holy, “sefirotic,” pure, luminescent, and the subtlest of the subtle; [that] their radiance, “sefirocity,” subtlety, and intelligence is greater than [that of] the “Holy Beasts” which are the highest of the ten ranks of the angels; [and that] they are immeasurably above [these] “Holy Beasts.”

        As Lovejoy points out, however, the Great Chain of Being always contains room for one more sub-division, and just such a thing occurred in sixteenth Safed, producing the fifth unfolding of the principle of the continuous, hierarchical plenum within Jewish tradition. In Safed, Rabbi Issac Luria[12] expanded the zoharic view of the plenum and taught that, in the beginning, there was God—only God—and God occupied all space. God, then, contracted part of God’s being—created a hole within Godself as it were—and, into this empty space, God caused God’s aspects, the Sefirot, to penetrate. In the process of acquiring form, these Sefirot shattered, generating fragmented primal matter on the one hand and loose sparks of the divine on the other. Slowly, a second intradeical plenum evolved and, even more slowly it generated an extradeical plenum of angels. Luria also taught, however, that the universe this produced was only the highest of the universes and that, actually, there were four such universes. Only at the last stage of the fourth universe, the physical world, as we know it, came into being.

            The logic of the continuity of the Great Chain of Being as well as the logic of harmonization led to yet another expansion, this time of the Lurianic view, such that it would include the philosophic Intelligences.[13] This sixth and last expansion yielded a Great Chain of Being that: began, intradeically, with the space generated by the contraction of the divine; proceeded to the generation of the Sefirot; then proceeded to the generation of the extradeical, yet supernal, four universes comprising Intelligences and angels; and finally, proceeded to the generation of physical reality as we know it. With this, the principle of the continuous, hierarchical plenum reached its fullest expression. With this, the complexification of the Great Chain of Being within Jewish tradition reached its ultimate.

            Before proceeding to comment upon Lovejoy’s second principle and its corollary, it is instructive to note that Lovejoy, himself, characterized the entire attempt to articulate a Great Chain of Being as “the history of a failure” (329). His grounds for this were briefly: that this world of time and change is not logically reducible to a world of atemporality and immutability; that, in any case, a qualitative continuum is a contradiction; and that the laws of nature as we know them seem to have an idiosyncratic quality to them. In all of these objections, he was anticipated by Maimonides who, Lovejoy to the contrary notwithstanding, used them to indicate the reasonableness of creatio ex nihilo.[14]

            The second principle of Lovejoy—the principle of the dialectic tension between the self-sufficient good and the self-extending good—needs no special illustration. Every page of medieval Judaism is replete with the tension of that dialectic. Similarly, the corollary of the second principle—that the self-sufficient God requires a different type of piety than the self-extending God—requires no special illustration, for the conflicting models of piety—the mildly ascetic, socially withdrawn model and the rabbinic, activist model—are also visible everywhere in medieval Jewish pietism.

            One fascinating footnote, however, should be added to Lovejoy. In articulating this corollary of the different types of piety, Lovejoy wrote (84):

The one program demanded a withdrawal from all “attachment to creatures” and culminated in the ecstatic contemplation of the indivisible Divine Essence; the other, if it had been formulated, would have summoned men to participate, in some finite measure, in the creative passion of God, to collaborate consciously in the processes by which the diversity of things, the fullness of the universe, is achieved. It would have found the beatific vision in the disinterested joy of beholding the splendor of the creation or of curiously tracing out the detail of its infinite variety; it would have placed the active life above the contemplative; and it would, perhaps, have conceived of the activity of the creative artist, who at once loves, imitates, and augments the “orderly variousness” of the sensible world, as the mode of human life most like the divine.  

            Now, approximately this type of piety did develop in the Zohar[15] and in later Jewish mysticism for, according to those systems of thought, the divine energy (or light) was radiated along the Great Chain of Being but, when it reached humanity, it was reflected, it was turned around. The energy, then, returned along the chain, all the way back into God, i.e., into the intradeical realm of the Sefirot. There, if the reflection had been directed by good deeds and proper mediation, it stimulated the unification of the divine with itself. This unification, in turn, produced a yet more intense flow of energy downward which was the creative blessing. Humankind, thus, did, as Lovejoy would have had it, “participate, in some finite measure, in the creative passion of God.” He did “collaborate consciously in the process by which the diversity of things, the fullness of the universe, is achieved.” Furthermore, consistent with the logic of this corollary, the Zohar taught that, if the reflection of the divine energy had been misdirected by evil deeds and improper meditation, disorder was generated along the whole Chain of Being, intradeically and extradeically.     

Critical Retrospect


Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being is a significant contribution to the history of ideas. His principles organize a vast body of data spread over vast periods of time in very different religious traditions. However, in reflecting upon the Judaic materials, it seems to me that Lovejoy failed to articulate two other main principles which also organize the data clearly.

The first major principle overlooked by Lovejoy, perhaps because he started with the Greek philosophic tradition, is the principle of the dialectic tension between God’s transcendence and God’s accessibility. This dialectic is central, indeed definitive, to all biblical and post-biblical religious tradition. One could even say that the basic mystery of western religion lies in this tension between God’s complete otherness on the one hand and, on the other hand, God’s readiness to communicate (prophecy and revelation) and be communicated with (prayer and piety). Indeed, one could write a history of ideas tracing this dialectic tension, showing how the expression of God’s transcendence and accessibility varied from one cultural context to another. This principle seems to have eluded Lovejoy.

The second major principle overlooked by Lovejoy, again perhaps because he approached the data from the point of view of philosophy, is the principle of a harmonizing exegesis. This principle, far more than the philosophic principle of critical analysis, motivated and continues to motivate almost everyone who writes within a religious tradition.[16] Indeed, one could write a history of ideas tracing the harmonization process and showing how the process remained the same while the material to be integrated varied from one cultural context to another. This, too seems to have eluded Lovejoy.

These reservations notwithstanding, The Great of Being has been, and will continue to be, an important conceptualization of what he called “one of the most grandiose enterprises of the human intellect” (329).     






[1] This paper was originally presented at the meeting of the International Conference of Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, on the fortieth anniversary of The Great Chain of Being, 1936-1976. The symbolism of forty as a significant number in Jewish thought was preserved when this paper was published ten years later  as "The Complexification of the Pleroma in Medieval Judaism," Niv Hamidrashia (Jerusalem: 1980) 80-91; reprinted in Jacob's Ladder and the Tree of Life, ed. M. L. and P. G. Kuntz (Bern and New York: Peter Lang: 1986) 179-90. All references to Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being are taken from the first Harper Torch book edition (1960) and are included in the text of the paper in parentheses. I have made minor editorial changes, added egalitarian language, and updated the footnotes here.

[2] On this, see J. Neusner, Understanding Rabbinic Judaism (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1974) 1-26.

[3] For the Merkabah literature, see G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 3rd rev. ed. (New York, Shocken Press: 1941; reprinted many times); idem., Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism, and talmudic Tradition (Jewish Theological Seminary, N. Y.: 1965); M. Smith, “Observations on Hekhalot Rabbati,” in Biblical and Other Studies, ed. A. Altmann (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1963) 142-60; and my translation of, and commentary to, the Sefer Yetsira and the “Chapters in Ascent” of the Pirqei Heikhalot in Understanding Jewish Mysticism, 2 vols. (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1978, 1982;  = UJM) 1:13-46, 53-92.

[4] UJM, 1:66. See also my website for the commentary  to Sefer Yetsira as well as for a link to a graphic presentation of the Pirqei Heikhalot.

[5] For the Maimonidean literature, see A. Hyman, “Maimonides,” Encyclopedia Judaica, 2nd ed., 11: 768-77; J. Guttmann, Philosophies of Judaism, transl. D. Silverman (New York” Holt, Reinhart & Winston, 1964) 152-82; and, more directly, Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, I: 72; II: 4; etc.; and his Mishne Torah, “Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah.” See also UJM, 2:5-24.

[6] On this, see D. Blumenthal, Philosophic Mysticism: Essays in Rational Religion (Bar Ilan University Press, Tel Aviv: 2005) as well as the articles on my website. 

[7] Guide, 2:4 and 3:51 respectively. I have modified slightly the translation of S. Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963) 258 and 265-66.

[8] See above note 5 and Guide, “Introduction” and elsewhere where he redefines “Ma`aseh Bereshit” as physics and “Ma`aseh Merkabah” as metaphysics.

[9] In addition to the work cited in note 6, see Me’or ha-’Afeilah, ed., Y. Qafih (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1955) passim and my translation of, and commentary to, Judah al-Botini’s “Chapters on Ecstasy” in UJM, 2:42-77.

[10] For the Zohar, see G. Scholem, Major Trends, ch. 5-6 and I. Tishbi, The Wisdom of the Zohar, 3 vols. (London: Littman  Library, 1989).

[11] Al-Botini’s oeuvre is still not available in translation except in UJM, 2:42-77. See the work of Joseph ibn Waqqar in G. Vajda, Recherches sur la philosophie et la kabbale dans la pensée juive du moyen Čge (Paris: Mouton, 1962), part two, for a parallel, though slightly more complex, system.

[12] On the Lurianic Kabbala, see Scholem, Major Trends, ch. 7 and idem., On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism (New York: Schocken, 1965). See also UJM, 1:159-80.

[13] This is probably the point of view of Shneur Zalman in Igereth Hakodesh, ch. 20, English transl., J. Schochet (New York: Kehot, 1968)  183ff., esp. no. 30.

[14] See Maimonides’ Guide, 2:22-24.

[15] See, above, n. 10. These matters are very complex and the interested reader must follow them further.

[16] Much of the work the late H. A. Wolfson was devoted to just this type of history of ideas.