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Hierarchy and Order


Hierarchy (Greek hierarchia ; from hieros, sacred archein, rule) is a kind of order, supposing existence of higher (or more sacred) and lower (less sacred) levels of reality. Order, in its turn, is a linkage of fundamentally different elements by means of general laws, so that the whole is greater than a simple arithmetical sum of its parts. Since order presupposes difference, it often takes the form of hierarchy. The place of an element in the hierarchical order is determined by the same laws of the whole, which are constitutive of the order itself.

Uncreated Cosmos

The understanding of the universe as a hierarchical order came into being in early antiquity and is reflected in mythological conceptions. Ancient Greek mythology and philosophy put forth this idea in the conception of Cosmos as being opposite to Chaos. The Cosmos (meaning "beautiful" in its most ancient definition) is sculpturally organized by the laws of beauty and as such is similar to that of a beautiful human body. So, according to Platonic thought, the order of the Cosmos is similar to the order of the human being. The Cosmos is not created by any god, which means there is both a complex dialectic of Cosmos and Chaos and the idea of hierarchical primacy of the Cosmos over all other things, including gods and human beings. The last idea is expressed in mythology by the concept of destiny, which defines the exact place of any thing in the order of the Cosmos. Neither god nor man can escape from destiny, which is why, for example, Oedipus is doomed to be blinded and Juno, the wife and sister of the supreme Roman god Jupiter, cannot affect the life of Aeneas, who was destined to be the founder of Rome.

The dialectic of Cosmos and Chaos is one of the most puzzling questions in Greek philosophy. In mythology this dialectic is described as a birth of the hierarchy of gods out of primitive Chaos. According to Hesiod's Theogony, "Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all" (line 116). This "coming to be," however, is described in pre-Socratic philosophy as a complex process of the circulation of Chaos and Cosmos. According to the Greek philosopher Heracleitus (c. 540c. 480 b.c.e.), fire, which is the basis of the world, flares up and dies out at times. The extinction of fire is interpreted as the birth of the world order and the worldwide conflagration is the death of the Cosmos. According to Empedocles (c. 490430 b.c.e.), another pre-Socratic philosopher, the Cosmos is organized through the struggle of two constitutive forces, Love (Philia ) and Strife (Oikos ). This struggle gives birth to four stages of the world's development, the first of which is Chaos (constituted by the absolute predominance of Strife) and the last being absolute unity of everything in the form of a sphere (which is organized by predominant Love).

In the Platonic tradition, the material Cosmos is just a shadow of the order of ideas (kosmos noēticos ). Ideas, being hierarchically primary to material thingsunderstood by Plato as forms (eidoi ), reasons (logoi ), and exemplars (paradeigmai ) of thingsare themselves organized in hierarchical order. The idea of the Good (ta kalon ), being the most general of all ideas (eidos tōn eidōn ), is on the very top of this hierarchy. Things are striving for their prototypes and this striving, by the same token, is responsible for the maintenance of the world's order. However, the very nature of the relations between the realm of ideas, which is situated in some beyond-celestial place (hyprauranios topos ), and the world of things is problematic in the context of Platonic doctrine and was described differently in variants of Platonism. For Plato, a Master (Demiourgos ) was responsible for creating the world, and the nature of the striving of things to their ideas is described as an activity of the World's Soul. The Roman philosopher Plotinus (205270 c.e.), the father of Neoplatonism, described the creation of the world order as the process of emanation of the One (to hen ), and the Cosmos is meant to be a reference point for the self-conscious existence of the Soul. However, another problem arises in both Platonic traditions: the question of obvious defects in the world's order. Namely, if the ideal Cosmos is good (because the most general idea is the idea of the Good), who is responsible for the origin of evil? According to Plato, it is a result of imperfect reflection of ideas in matter. Matter is described as a pure potency of existence. As such, it is actually nothing (mēon ), while it has potential to be something. It follows that if evil is a result of the materiality of things, it can be described as nothing as well, that is, as a defect of reflection. Influenced by the Gnostics of the second century c.e., who had explained existence of evil by the imperfection or even wickedness of God the Creator (Demiourgos ), Plotinus described the origin of evil as a result of the error made by the Soul in valuing its expressions in physical Cosmos over the contemplation of the divine Forms.

Created Order

Christian thought shares the Neoplatonic understanding of order as two actual orders: the lower one is the order of the material world and higher one is the structure of the ideal Cosmos. The difference, however, is that the order of material things was now considered a created one. The realm of the Forms or ideas transforms into the content of Divine Logos, the Word of God, pre-existing the world. The origin of the universal order is described as creation out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo ). However, the understanding of this formula in Christian thought is quite different. Some philosophers consider the process of creation as the creation out of some existing nothing (so, according to Russian philosopher Sergey Nikolaevich Bulgakov (18711944), the levels of the order should range from nothingness to the highest hierarchy of Trinity). Others understand it as the assertion that God did not need anything for the creation of the world (Anselm of Canterbury, 1033 or 10341109). Finally, some thinkers believe that creation out of nothing means creation of the world out of God's nature. Thus, for John Scotus Erigena (c. 810c. 877) uncreated and creating nature (God) descends through created and creating nature (the ideas or primordial causes) into created and not creating nature (numeric things). These three natures, forming the order of the Universe, will be united in the end of the world into the form of uncreated and not creating nature.

This shift from emanation to creation meant that: (1) neither God, nor matter created by God can be responsible for the existence of the evil. Evil is described as a result of man's free will; (2) God is understood as both immanent to the world (because God is present in it) and transcendent (because God exists in eternity and the world is created); (3) God is a guarantee for the maintenance of the world's order; and (4) that a human being is able to overcome the laws of the Cosmos and be united with God again in deification (Gk. theosis, Lat. deificatio ).

One of the teachings of order, transitional from the ancient to the Christian understanding, was a doctrine of Origen of Alexandria (185?254?), a near contemporary of Plotinus (205270). In De Principiis he describes the world's order as a set of parallel worlds, which are the places for the fallen souls, created by God in eternity. Being eternal, the souls can proceed from one world to another and, thus, with the lapse of time, all of them (including the soul of Satan) will be united with God. The present world's order will come to an end, and the condition of apokatastasis (restoration of all things) will be established. However, in eternity, some souls will misuse their free will again, a new Fall will ensue, and a new world will be created. This conception obviously has some elements of ancient teaching on the circulation of Cosmos and Chaos.

In the fifth century, St. Augustine of Hippo (354430) in the West and Dionysius the Areopagite (Pseudo-Dionysius) in the Christian East constructed the foundations for mature Christian doctrine of order and hierarchy. Augustine in his early treatise De ordine (On order) asserted that nothing could be out of the order of created things. What seems to us to be evil also exists in the framework of order. So, if there were no hangmen, robbery would fill the earth, and if there were no prostitutes, debauchery would flourish. The origin of evil lies in the free will of the human being, but God uses what is worst in the best possible way. Once evil has been created, God included it in God's order, which is good as a whole. This means that nothing is absolutely evil and God does not leave the world unattended after its creation. Rather the process of creation can be described as a continuous holding of things into being (creatio continua ). Ideas became the content of God's Logos (Word), by which God has created all things. These ideas are exemplars for material things and were also created by God in God's Word. Thus, the problem of the relations between ideas and material things has been solved through the conception of creation, and the problem of evil has been solved both through the notion of the Fall, which had been caused by the misuse of free will, given by God to human beings, and through the notion of continuous creation of the world. The last notion became the main basis of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's (16461716) theodicy, interpreting the world as the best of all possible worlds. Indeed, according to Leibniz, this world is the best exactly because God uses the worst things in the best possible way.

Pseudo-Dionysius considered evil things as belonging to the realm of non-being. Indeed, according to him, everything that is connected with God, who is the Being and the Good, exists and is a good thing. That means that everything which exists is good. Evil is privation and lack of goodness in good things, and, thus, exists in the good as in its substance. In other words, evil things are evil only because they are less good than the others. This conception is quite Neoplatonic, but it does not constitute Docetism, that is, a heresy based upon the doctrine of the fundamental evilness of the matter. The connection of all things with God is described in Pseudo-Dionysius's doctrine as the presence of God in all things, described as theophanias (God's appearances). That means, in its turn, that the universe is united with God by virtue of the presence of God's energies (dynames ) in this world. This conception was implemented in Pseudo-Dionysius's well-known ideas of celestial and ecclesiastical hierarchies. In The Celestial Hierarchy, Pseudo-Dionysius distinguishes three groups of three angelic orders (taksis ). The first consists of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones, the second of Dominions, Virtues, and Powers, and the third of Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. Those nine angelic orders deliver information from God to human beings. The higher orders are responsible for purification (Gk. katharsis, Lat. purificatio ), illumination (Gk. phōtismos, Lat. illuminatio ) and deification (Gk. theosis, Lat. deificatio ) of the lower ones. Purification, illumination, and deification are also the stages of human mystical experience. Ecclesiastical hierarchy (described by Pseudo-Dionysius in his Ecclesiastical Hierarchy ) consists of two triple groups, reflecting the structure of celestial hierarchy. One group is of hierarchs, priests, and deacons and the other consists of monks, believers, and catechumens. The place of the highest order is occupied not by human beings, but by sacraments, uniting heaven and earth. This is the order of Eucharist, Baptism, and Anointing. By means of these two hierarchies, according to Dionysius, God communicates with human beings and enables them also to be purified, illuminated, and perfected.

Ideally, the order of the society in medieval thought corresponded with the order of the universe. God was considered to be the single source of power both in theocratic society and in the universe as a whole. This picture, however, was complicated first by struggle between spiritual and temporal powers and secondly by opposition between the aspiration for one great Christian empire and the complex system of feudal rights. The theories of political order in the middle ages ranged from ideas of the bull unam sanctam of Pope Boniface VIII (12351303), asserting absolute power of the pope, to Marsilius of Padua's (c. 1275c. 1342) functionalist doctrine of an autonomous and independent state.

Human society, existing in history, represents a developing image of the eternal divine order and follows God's providential plan. This plan was often described as a divinely ordered sequence of four world empires, engaged in a conflict that would eventually lead to the last great empire. According to St. Augustine's De civitate dei, this fifth kingdom is a spiritual one, constituted by love for God. An idea still present in some millenarist doctrines can be found in the thoughts of Joachim of Fiore (c. 1132-1202) who saw the whole world history as a tripartite process, the successive ages of God representing God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Platonic, Aristotelian, and Christian concepts of hierarchy and order were fused in a theory known as the Great Chain of Being, which dominated cosmology from the Middle Ages to the dawn of modernity. The idea was that the universe consists of an immense or even infinite number of links, ranging hierarchically from the lowest being (or nothingness) through every possible grade to the highest, most perfect Being (ens perfectissimum ). The levels of perfection were described differently: according to a Renaissance vision, for instance, they were constituted by different proportions of matter and spirit in different things. That is why alchemists of the Renaissance believed that lower lead could be transformed to higher gold, if someone could learn the method for adding some spirit to the mix. The idea of the Great Chain of Being reached its culmination in the doctrines of Benedict de (Baruch) Spinoza (16321677) and Leibniz. For them the chain has every possible degree of perfection and, therefore, is complete. The perfection of the whole, by the same token, does suppose existence of imperfect things. This idea formed a new basis for theodicy. According to Leibniz, the differences in perfection are infinitesimal and, therefore, the universe is a continuum. Imperfect things are caused, contingent, and dependent, the most perfect God is self-caused (causa sui ). Because nothingness is on the bottom of the chain, more perfection means more being. That is why both Spinoza and Leibniz were inclined to accept Anselm of Canterbury's ontological argument for God's existence, based on the thought that the very idea of the most perfect being had to be the idea of being in existence.

Nonwestern and New Conceptions

Conceptions of order and hierarchy are by no means occidental ones. Ancient Chinese philosophers, discussing the world's order, used the term dao (way, guide). They usually spoke of three main species of dao (and, consequently, of three orders): human (social) dao, tian (natural or heavenly) dao, and great dao. The first is a way or guide for human behavior; the second is similar to the laws of nature, which cause things to happen reliably; the third comprises everything which has happened, is happening, or will happen in the world. It is obvious, therefore, that both human dao and tian dao are parts of the great dao. It is great dao that is responsible for the order of things in the world.

However, because the concept of dao is rather vague, there are different interpretations of this order, ranging from anarchist and pluralist doctrines to hierarchical and authoritarian interpretations. It is possible to say that philosophical doctrines of Daoism lean toward pluralism, skepticism, poltical equality, and freedom. Religious mysticism, on the other hand, often claims some direct access to a single correct dao, forming a basis for esoteric, hierarchical and authoritarian thought. The most prominent representatives of philosophical Daoism were Laozi (c. 604c. 531 b.c.e.), author of Dao De Jing, and Zhuangzi (c. 369c. 286 b.c.e.), who created a mature form of philosophical Daoism.

In the Indian Buddhist tradition, the main cause of the order in the world is human will, attaching human being to the world and dragging the world into an endless circle of suffering, the true essence of the world's order. The main point of Buddhist ethics is to stop the suffering through quitting the will and achieving the highest possible mental state, that of nirvana.

Scholars of African religious traditions show that African religious philosophy, such as Yoruba belief, implies a complex hierarchy in the world, created by the supreme god Oludomare, described as the omnipotent creator of all good and bad things. The numerous gods, created by Oludomare, form a hierarchy of mediators between him and the world. The most striking feature of Yoruba belief, distinguishing this religion from Judeo-Christian tradition, is that Oludomare is perceived as responsible for both good and evil, using both good and bad in the process of ensuring justice. Moreover, the world is ordered in a way that implies immediate punishment for sinful deeds of the people.

One Eastern Christian doctrine of hierarchy and order can be found in the Russian philosophy of All-Unity, which flourished at the end of the nineteenth century. The main idea of this tradition is that the world can be reunited with God through the efforts of human beings and by uniting the things with the prototypes that exist in Divine Wisdom (Sophia). For the founder of this tradition, Vladimir Solovyev (18531900), Sophia is a world in its ideal, true being and is created in eternity by eternal Logos. Sergey Bulgakov, who worked in the first half of the twentieth century, considered Sophia as God's fourth hypostasis. Sophiology enabled these philosophers to understand the order of the universe as potential all-unity, already existed in Divine Sophia.

Contemporary theories of order are not so numerous. The crisis of the idea of the Great Chain of Being, caused both by the rise of natural science and by the crisis of religious consciousness, led to nonhierarchical understandings of order. The order becomes a characteristic feature of various systems. The Brussels school in natural science (Prigogine and Stengers) considers order as a spontaneous result of the process of self-organization in open systems, exchanging energy with their environment. Society and biological systems, according to Prigogine, are such self-organizing systems and cannot be described in terms of the old mechanical paradigm of science.

Contemporary postmodern and poststructuralist authors criticize "western logocentric tradition" for its attempts to find order, hierarchy and meaning in all things. They argue for the existence of many differences, which are so chaotic in their relations to each other that they exclude any possibility of organized oppositions. As a result, the unordered chaos does not allow for the contrast of differences, and differences are no longer perceived as such. Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995), in his quest for "difference in itself," rejects the old Platonic and Hegelian tradition, which understands the difference in reference to self-identical objects, and which, in turn, makes the difference an element of hierarchical structure. Difference-in-itself, on the contrary, does not imply order at all, and various differences, remaining in "formless chaos," does not form any structure.

See also Christianity ; Cosmology ; Daoism ; Harmony ; Neoplatonism ; Platonism ; Society .


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Maxim Khomiakov

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