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Hierarchy and Order

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 (1871–1944), 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 1034–1109). 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. 810–c. 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 (205–270). 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 (354–430) 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 (1646–1716) 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 (1235–1303), asserting absolute power of the pope, to Marsilius of Padua's (c. 1275–c. 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 (1632–1677) 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.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Heterodyne to Hydrazoic acidHierarchy and Order - Uncreated Cosmos, Created Order, Nonwestern And New Conceptions, Bibliography