The Great Chain of Being was the common philosophy of the universe during the Age of Reason (1660 – 1798). The belief, which most acknowledged as truth, is that the universe is organized into a hierarchy. This hierarchy is an unbreakable chain where there is a place for everything, and where everything has its place. The hierarchy is strict and mobility within it is rarely possible, for everything has its proper place in the universe, just as God intended.
The loose hierarchy is as follows:
Each level of the hierarchy has sub-hierarchical systems within it. For example, types of rocks are higher than others within the Earth state, such as gold or silver being of a more agreeable nature than other sediments. Likewise, within the level of man, kings are higher in rank than slaves. The levels are categorized in order of highest perfection and are built on top of each other. Vegetation lies above earth because it contains life. Animals are above vegetation because they contain life AND movement. Man lies above animals because they possess life, movement, AND reason, as well as a soul. Angels lie above man because of their immortality, and God presides at the top of the Chain as perfection.
The author perhaps most concerned with The Great Chain of Being was John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester (who we’ll further call simply Rochester). His “Satire against Reason and Mankind” attacks and criticizes reason and human nature. Rochester does this by inverting a portion of the Great Chain of Being. Rochester says:
Were I (who to my cost already am
One of those strange prodigious creatures, man)
A spirit free to choose, for my own share,
What case of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,
I’d be a dog, a monkey, or a bear;
Or anything but that vain animal
Who is so proud of being rational.
Rochester attempts to invert the chain between animals and man, saying that reason is the downfall of man and causes us to ignore our instincts. Instinct, which Rochester calls “natural reason” is what we should base our lives on, and since all humans are knaves, we shouldn’t bother acting hypocritical, but give into our impulses. Animals don’t have a pride that inflates their consciousness, but act out of survival and instincts, and simple desire, while humans “merely for safety after fame we thirst…men must be knaves, ‘tis in their own defense.” Thus, reason, that which supposedly places man above animal, is debunked according to Rochester, and animals assume the superior species.