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The Cosmic Chain

Well, I’ve gone and done it. In composing a brief introduction to a student’s essay, I’ve written an entire treatise myself. If you can endure this excursus, dear reader, I think there may yet be something of value to be gleaned.


C.S. Lewis is a writer well known to many, Christian or otherwise. His Narniad comprises seven books, all of which are enjoyed by children and adults the world over, and his Mere Christianity occupies an important place in popular apologetical literature. But among Lewis’ greatest and criminally underappreciated achievements are the novels Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, a science-fiction trilogy set against the backdrop of humanity’s first speculative explorations of our universe. As an 8th grade class, we began the year reading the first of these novels, Out of the Silent Planet. In that book, a protagonist called Dr. Elwin Ransom (a philologist by training, and modeled after Lewis’ dear friend J.R.R. Tolkien) finds himself marooned on a planet called Malacandra by its inhabitants (you’ll have to read the book to find out just where that might be). Dr. Ransom finds something rather astonishing about Malacandra: while three different rational species have arisen on the planet—the otter-like poet-warriors called the hrossa, the tall and slender hominid philosophers called the sorns or seroni, and the subterranean miner-craftsman called the pfifltriggi—none of them can be said to rule over one another, but rather live in a sort of hierarchy of obedience beneath the mysterious angelic figure Oyarsa, who is in turn subservient to the creator and ruler of all worlds, Maleldil. Compared to Earth with all its competitions, conflicts, and warring peoples, Malacandra is orderly, peaceful, and, most striking of all, under perfect submission and obedience to divinely ordained authority.


As an 8th grade class, we have studied the philosophical foundations of Western civilization in the thought of men such as Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, and others. We have learned how, for the pre-modern thinkers of antiquity and the Medieval era, hierarchy, authority, and the need for obedience were not seen as the negative consequences of some primordial imperfection or fallen state of nature, but as logically consistent phenomena that flow from human nature itself. God reigns as the monarch of the Kingdom of Heaven, and Man is made in the image of this monarch, made to rule and be ruled. We have also studied the ways in which modern philosophers rose to challenge this anthropology, questioning the need for a sovereign and the old forms of government. Because of the philosophical egocentrism at the heart of the Enlightenment, the democratic revolutions of the 18th century, and the ongoing legal skirmishes centered around the rights of the individual, many of us are tempted to believe that the competing claims of self-determinism are the best we can hope for, that individualism is the highest good that any government can secure, and that human “equality” is reducible to functional interchangeability, devoid of structure, duty, or behavioral demands. Within such a framework, obedience, authority, and hierarchy would seem to hinder self-realization.


In Mason’s essay on Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, reproduced here in a slightly abridged form, he contrasts the older ways of thinking about personhood and equality with the alternatives proposed by modernity. The former is an understanding tethered to the conviction that human nature is divine in origin, and therefore only truly dignified or fulfilled when in congruence with the so-called “great chain of being” ordered and established by the wisdom of God. In such a chain of contingency, Man finds his place in the cosmos not as a king unto himself, but as a servant of God and neighbor; not simply as a being possessed of “rights” owed to it by everyone else, but as an image-bearer of God with obligations and duties to others.


Of necessity, Mason’s essay does not attempt to explain every detail of the novel to the uninitiated; however, there is just enough presented here to rouse the curious reader to find the book and delve into it for him or herself. I selected this essay for publication in the Quarterly not because of its atypical brilliance or beauty, though there is much to commend it, but rather because this sort of essay is typical of the kind of thought that a real education can generate. It is a humble specimen of the synthetic analysis of which an 8th grader ought to be capable, demonstrating not only a view to things particular and small, but universal and grand. This essay begins by examining a relatively minor aspect of a 20th century novel—the natural hierarchy of three different creatures on another planet—and from there opens up a broader horizon of ideas, drawing on resources as diverse as Medieval philosophy and the French Revolution’s natural rights of Man to Marx’s critique of class structure and the Nietzschean Will to Power. These ideas are brought into contact with one another, albeit cursorily, for the purpose of seeing the present illuminated in light of the past, and this, it seems to me, is the true goal of an education.


It is sometimes unfortunate that this holistic approach to thinking and teaching is called “classical,” as opposed to the atomized and subdivided approach to education that post-postmodernity has foisted upon young people in the name of “career preparation.” I do not always like the connotations of the word classical because it gives the impression that we who employ this pedagogy are a kind of neophobic vanguard, tragi-heroically attempting to reclaim some long lost arcadian past. Our purpose as teachers is not merely to provide alternative content or curate philosophical museums. While it is true that we eschew plenty of fashionable ideas and cautiously interrogate many of the trends and conventions which promise to reward our youth in the brave new world, ours is an educational approach whose chief end is rightly seeing the current moment for what it is. We inhabit the past in order to understand precisely where our present came from so that we may wisely discern what sort of human culture we are bringing into being. In this manner, a classical education provides a far greater “preparation” for a student’s future than mere cynicism about contemporary society or of a world yet to come. By imbuing the ideas of the past with their true vitality (for every idea has its genealogy) we seek to gain prudence and self-knowledge so that we may understand what we have become and why.


The essay that follows was not intended to be read by a wide audience, only me. Despite some class-specific jargon, this paper illustrates how a real education enables an individual to interpret the present with wizened eyes, not from a vantage of objectivity or superiority, but from the posture of humility which accompanies the realization that we moderns are also subject to the same chronological snobbery and currents of zeitgeist that animate every age and civilization. This sort of humility will never occur to a people who esteem themselves masters rather than servants.


—Mr. Sieler


The Cosmic Chain


by Mason Loeffler


“There must be rule, yet how can hnau rule themselves? Beasts must be ruled by hnau and hnau by eldila and eldila by Maleldil.” So says an old sorn on the planet Malacandra in C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. In the novel, philologist Dr. Elwin Ransom is stranded on a world far different than his own. Despite the alien appearances of the planet and its inhabitants, Ransom’s experience is greatly edifying. The different peoples of Malacandra share a Premodern-Medieval view of social structure: a hierarchy that coexists with the concept of equality, and one that is very much opposed by our contemporary views of personhood, order, and prosperity.


On the planet Malacandra, the three rational species–the hrossa, seroni and the pfifiltriggi–are all rational beings with a moral conscience, collectively said to be hnau. The hnau see that harmony, discipline, and true freewill are made possible by hierarchy, as opposed to subjection, chaos, and disorder. Hnau do not rule or attempt to conquer each other. Hnau treat each other like a family, not like a modern democracy or some other political state. When Ransom first arrives on Malacandra, he asks the natives, “Which of the hnau rules?” (70). Their answer is the eldila, angelic interplanetary beings of whom Oyarsa is the highest. Curiously, eldila are described as different then hnau, but somehow more hnau. The eldila in turn answer to Maleldil, the Supreme ruler of the cosmos. Ransom is baffled by the idea of a hierarchy that somehow does not diminish equality. But on Malacandra, submitting to a social “chain” entails organization and standards that preserve individual freewill.


Egalitarianism (the belief in equal rights in political, social, and economic context, and that humans are virtually interchangeable, regardless of their physical or psychological differences) has impacted societies throughout history. In the 18th century, egalitarianism became a focus of the Enlightenment movement with its revolutionary remodeling of the ‘Rule by Divine Right’. The common man was emphasized during this time; it was decreed that humans each shared the ‘natural right’ to self-rule. Hierarchies were viewed as artificial–simply materialist structures meant to suppress freewill. In a more radical sense, hierarchies were viewed as immoral. John Locke, a prominent Enlightenment philosopher (and often referred to as the ‘founder’ of egalitarianism), concerned himself not only with equality in civic and natural law, but in matters of morality. In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke states that there is no natural hierarchy among humans, that each person is “naturally free and equal” under the law. Locke discards the notion of a royal authority granted its office by God. During the French Revolution, an Enlightenment-induced uprising, Locke’s ideas, as well as many other philosophers, were put to the test. The ancient doctrine of Divine Right, that the legitimacy of any authority comes from God, was deconstructed and remodeled. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, proposed by the French National Assembly (a governing body made-up of ordinary people) declares everyone equal under the law, and that the power of authority comes from the subjects, the people themselves. To the Enlightenment philosophers and their governments, there was no spiritual being who granted equality; the people naturally possessed equal right to self-rule. What sounded like freewill to the Enlightenment, the Malacandrians would see an abysmal hole of corruption and chaos.

For each of the three rational species of Malacandra, equality is found in difference. Hnohra, an old hross who teaches Ransom about the planet, says “...the seroni or sorns were perfectly helpless in a boat, could not fish to save their lives, and could make no poetry…but they were admittedly good at finding out things about the stars…and telling what happened in Malacandra long ago…” (70). This example shows that one hnau does not “rule” the other, but has need of the others’ skillset. On Malacandra, the sorns act as philosophers, the pfifiltriggi as craftsmen, and the hrossa as warriors and poets, all of whom work together, revealing the complementary nature of their roles. The Premoderns and Medievals saw the world in the same way. Among humans, there are roles more suited for some than others; the differences between men and women, for example, suit tasks particularly appropriate to them. Humans are not merely identical like mechanical functions. Christianity teaches that equality consists in being created in the Imago Dei, equally responsible in sin, and equally redeemed in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:22-23).


The Great Chain of Being describes a hierarchical structure of matter and life that has roots in the teachings of Plato and Aristotle and was later adopted and developed by the Medievals. Plato taught that there was a more perfect realm more beautiful than the earthly world. Aristotle, a natural philosopher, saw a hierarchy in nature. He observed that each distinct kind of thing has a nature that distinguishes it from all others. According to his system, the more animate beings found in nature were placed at the top while inanimate beings were lower on the pyramid. The Medievals later adopted and expanded this concept . They thought this “chain” had been decreed by God in Genesis, where the Lord says to humanity, “...be fruitful…and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves” (Gen. 4:8).


The Medievals structured the Great Chain with God at the top, followed by angels, humans, animals, all the way down to the mineral and inert constituents of matter. For the Medievals, the Great Chain was unmoving, a solid structure on which existence and reality was founded. In our Modern world, this is seen as heresy against the freewill bestowed by humans upon ourselves. Karl Marx, a 19th century economic and political thinker, saw hierarchy as a way to promote the bourgeois class, the wealthy people and nobility, and sought to abolish social class and usher in a utopian form of government devoid of difference. Western democracy promotes equality where individuals can “move” up or down within a social structure, determined by who they are, not where they come from. Now, the modern world has a corrupt “chain” where everyone vies for dominance in a Nietzschean Will to Power. The modern “Great Chain of Being” could simply be described as a game of king of the hill, far from the perfect hierarchy envisioned by the Medievals.

Again the Malacandrian way would see this as absurd. Augray, a wise sorn on the planet, says of Earth that “...every one of them [human beings] wants to be a little Oyarssa himself” (102). This, says Augray, is why there is war and chaos on our planet. Ransom sees how peaceful Malacandra is and is humiliated at how he thought his own world championed equality. By looking at his planet, he sees how flawed it is, sees how hierarchies are gateways to equality, and realizes that hnau cannot rule themselves.

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