Links in the Great Chain of Being

By Sarah Belle Dougherty
My sun has his sun and round him obediently wheels,
He joins with his partners a group of superior circuit,
And greater sets follow, making specks of the greatest inside them. -- Walt Whitman

Countless multitudes surround us. How can we make sense of this infinite variety and complexity? One point stands out: everywhere we look, we see that entities are formed of smaller units and at the same time are parts of larger units. We ourselves are formed of organs, cells, atoms, and subatomic particles. We are also part of the earth, solar system, galaxy, and universe. Throughout, each part is also a whole, an individual in its own right, linked to others on every scale.

Biologists, for example, speak of the universe as a "holarchy" formed of holons (from the Greek holos, "whole," "complete in all its parts"), a word coined by Arthur Koestler in 1967. Each holon is a discrete individual that forms part of a larger whole, and at the same time is itself formed of smaller holons. Individual holons join into systems, and when these systems form a supersystem, new characteristics emerge that cannot be predicted or deduced from the qualities of the original systems: human beings, though made of cells, cannot be described as supercells, nor can an ecosystem, although formed of organisms, be characterized as a superorganism. This interlocking universe represents the Chain of Being in modern guise, but as a series of three-dimensional networks rather than a single chain.

Scientific investigation opens up astonishing vistas on the workings of nature. As research continues, we feel increasing wonder in contemplating even the tiniest organisms, one-celled plants and animals, bacteria, our own cells -- their many parts and functions, their abilities and flexibility. These are not nondescript building blocks but individuals leading complex lives, acting and reacting, changing, communicating, and responding. Then again, the complexity of the earth, with its weather, geological and chemical activity, oceans, rocks, plants, animals, ecosystems, and electromagnetic fields, also demands our wonder and respect, as do the countless stars and galaxies modern telescopes reveal. As Walt Whitman sang 150 years ago:

I open my scuttle at night and see the far-sprinkled systems,
And all I see multiplied as high as I can cipher edge but the rim of the farther systems.
. . .
A few quadrillions of eras, a few octillions of cubic leagues, do not hazard the span or make it impatient,
They are but parts, any thing is but a part.
See ever so far, there is limitless space outside of that,
Count ever so much, there is limitless time around that.

As human beings we necessarily think in human terms, with descriptions that reflect the ways our minds work. Searching for expressive analogies, people have often pictured nature -- physical, psychological, and metaphysical -- in the hierarchical terms of human societies. Thus gods frequently appear as kings or lords, with a court of angelic beings, heavenly hosts, human intermediaries -- priest, ruler, pater familias -- human subjects, the animals subject to the humans. Other basically hierarchical representations employ layers, nested spheres, or chains. We see these in the many heavens and hells of theology, one above another; the Medieval crystalline spheres centered on the earth; the Hermetic Chain stretching from the highest God through the natural kingdoms to the lowest hell; and the theosophical cosmic planes, human principles, and kingdoms of nature as generally presented.

The term holarchy deliberately does not imply that one level or entity is more worthy, important, or necessary than another. It embodies the spirit of Whitman's radical egalitarianism: "I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars, / And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren, . . ."; "I do not call one greater and one smaller, / That which fills its period and place is equal to any." Unfortunately, systems that emphasize higher and lower can suggest that certain beings or levels are intrinsically better or worse. The values associated with human institutions are first ascribed to natural hierarchies, and then this view of nature is turned around to justify distinctions of class, caste, rank, privilege, wealth, and gender as natural and legitimate. Because of past abuses, some contemporary thinkers are suspicious of, even hostile to, any hierarchical representation, yet being wedded dogmatically to any stand blinds us to aspects of reality.

The most important question, however, is what does this Great Chain of Being or holarchy, however formulated, mean to us in our daily lives? When we see ourselves as intimately woven into an infinite webwork, an integral part of the earth and solar system, important but no more so than any other inhabitant of the cosmos, it awakens a feeling of universal kinship. All are linked with us and we with them, so that to injure another, to hate, dismiss, or exploit, is the product of a faulty view of ourself and our surroundings. Being a link in this cosmic chain gives a dazzling sweep to who we are, where we are, and where we are going. Whitman expresses the grandeur of our position:

This day before dawn I ascended a hill and look'd at the crowded heaven,
And I said to my spirit When we become the enfolders of those orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of every thing in them, shall we be fill'd and satisfied then?
And my spirit said No, we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond.

Our present understanding of the Great Chain of Being reflects not only the slowly evolving consciousness of humanity as a whole, but also the insights we each experience in our personal explorations of universal life and cosmic being.

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)

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