Lovejoy, Curti & the History of Ideas

written June 30, 2009


Arthur Lovejoy presents the history of ideas in his seminal work, The Great Chain of Being, as a continuous copying of old mantras in which rarely an original, “distinct” thought surfaces (4). Much of this derives from the confusion of world’s “isms” that must be broken apart and dissected into discernible “units.” The history of ideas, as Lovejoy lays out, have often relied on assumed beliefs or simplistic answers, as well as the emotional need we gain from thinking eternally or in terms of “oneness” (11-13). A historian must yet be mindful of sliding definitions that imperil definitions and thus beliefs. Intellectual history is global as well, as “the same idea often appears sometimes considerably disguised, in the most diverse regions” (15). Further, ideas of history are best seen through the  literature and arts of an era, which in his view are better than studying languages or races (18).

Lovejoy attempts to explain the evolution of ideas in Western world through the Occidental conception of the “Great Chain of Being.” The Great Chain of Being, as an eighteenth-century structure to universally explain the universe as well as humanity’s proper place in it. On its face it is concerned with and formulating a picture of the world in a naturalistic manner, just as John Locke’s Enlightenment movement. The Great Chain of Being, generally, was thought of as complete, a world without “chasms or gaps,” according to Leibniz. Everything was created by God as intended and for a purpose- but what is each creature’s purpose? Lovejoy turns to this question by showing the vanity of the age by men such as Francis Bacon, who believed, “the whole world together works for the service of man” (187), while others fretted over a perceived lowered on the Chain, as with Locke’s humility. This issue of pride soon lent itself to other problems, such as “disastrous illusions of man about himself” (200), new theories stated that just as man are above some animals, some men are above others as well. At the same time, “man’s duty was to keep his place” (202). And, the principles of plenitude and gradation gave license to acting as baser beings: “Since men are not and were not meant to be angels, let us cease to expect them to behave as if they were” (204). These ingredients concocted a strange sense of “order” from the Great Chain of Being, which was not its original intention. Alexander Pope’s view of order is a world in which the “more rich, more wise” rule over their subordinates. Evil, as evolved from the Great Chain of Being, was a necessary, perpetual tool that not only proved a good world, but proved for it (210-213). These ideas of pride, progress, and an assumed order worked in tandem with concepts of social Darwinism, and can be seen clearly in the totalitarian tactics of the 1930s, and the basis for conclusions of racial superiority, not just in Europe, but in Asia and around the globe.

John Locke’s simple assurance on natural law and reason would also have long lasting effects, according to Merle Curti in The Growth of American Thought, and thus was not as easily dispensed with as some nineteenth century thought. Central to Locke’s many ideas of “natural philosophy” was the emphasis for experience and training, private education, and rationalized religion (Curti, 70). The Utopian, practical, and deistic ideas of Locke stressed that answers were available to humanity without much effort, as it was allowed already by nature. Locke’s symbolic use of natural was easily transformable and reinterpreted in succeeding decades. This deterministic attitude, according to critic Sampson Reed, did not take into account “the science of the human soul” that “must change with the subject” (88). For this reason such groups as abolitionists turned to “innate ideas” (87), not satisfied that Locke’s views took slaves wants for freedom into account. And in fact Locke would not have, as minority (smaller) groups and factions in his view did not have the right to revolt. Rejection of Locke began soon after the French Revolution, many Americans ill at ease that another popular uprising might take place if Locke were to be followed. Suddenly his natural-rights philosophy was declining in stature, so much so that by 1861 that the South spoke only of the “right of secession” while the North branded them revolutionaries (115).

Both Curti and Lovejoy’s history of ideas highlight the malleability of ideas, often to whatever end an individual or group desires. Especially when dealing with vague “plastic” terms as Locke’s natural rights and the Great Chain of Being’s structure that was ripe for corruption, until they often take on opposing stances of their originators. Both systems could easily be exploited in the 1930s by a world racked by economic ruin and leadership ready to redefine “natural” to their own ends. “Natural” is again and again redefined to fit the times, as Lovejoy and Curti argue, and historians must guard against falling into the familiar trap. Consequently, Lovejoy explicitly adds a warning of ideas , that “ruling models of thought of our own age, which some among us are prone to regard as clear and coherent… are unlikely to appear in the eyes of posterity to have any of those attributes” (Lovejoy, 23). Similarly, Curti forewarns that ideas do not disappear; rather, they become “dissipated,” being remolded and remade in each successive generation’s eyes (Curti, 71)

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