Dear Joel,


My name is Eric Snow.  I’m answering a question submitted to me by Alan Ruth, the Webmaster of about the influence of the idea of the chain of being on the development of racism in England in the early modern period (c. 1450-1650).


The idea of the chain of being goes way back before 17th century England, all the way to the ancient Greek philosophers Plato (428-348 b.c.) and Aristotle (384-322 b.c.)  The Neoplatonism of Plotinus (205-270 A.D.), with its ideas of emanation from a higher reality (Absolute/One/God) down to Mind/Intelligence and then the World Soul and then matter, which is also a version of the chain of being.  Mankind, in this system, falls in the middle, since humans are made up of both matter and spirit.  Most importantly, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the great Catholic medieval philosopher and theologian, built upon Aristotle’s conception of there being a hierarchy of beings.  As described in W.L. Reese’s “Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion:  Eastern and Western Thought” (1980), p. 24, Aquinas conceived of the chain of being as having gradations between God at the top and unformed matter at the bottom, with God being pure actuality and unformed matter as pure potentiality.  As Reese describes Acquinas’ position, “Instances of formed matter are differentiated by differences among the forms, and these differences allow us a vertical dimension of levels of reality. . . . Between these two extremes [God and unformed matter] are to be found various levels of instances of formed matter, the order of nature; and both form and matter are abstract metaphysical elements of the concrete individual substance.”


For an application of the chain of being idea to the development of racism, you’ll want to look up Winthrop D. Jordan’s “The Whiteman’s Burden:  Historical Origins of Racism in the United States” (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 100-107.  This book is largely derived from the same author’s “White Over Black:  American Attitudes Toward The Negro, 1550-1812,” which you would need to look up to find the footnotes and documentation for his statements in “The Whiteman’s Burden.” 


There was tension historically in applying the idea of the chain of being to the natural world, and humans in it.  The chain of being implies that there are no gaps in the overall chain, but that something fills each would-be “spot” or link along it, without any huge change from species to species or category to category along it.  But from a Christian viewpoint, mankind is deemed qualitatively different from the animals, not merely quantitatively different, which is the viewpoint of the theory of evolution.  A huge gap looms between even primitive men and (say) chimpanzees intellectually, morally, and spiritually from a Biblical viewpoint, but not from a materialistic one.  (Historically, the theory of evolution in the nineteenth century was a major impetus to racism, as such a scientific creationist opponent of evolution, Dr. Henry Morris, has described.  See Darwin’s “Ascent of Man,” which I think manifests a racist viewpoint at least in passing).  Traditional Darwinian gradualistic evolution abhors gaps, finding them hard to plausibly bridge through the processes of natural selection and mutation, but fundamentalist Christianity embraces them, and major differences between various categories (man/woman, truth/error, light/darkness, good/evil, etc.)  But thanks to Linneaus’s biological classification system of taxa, which is merely a development of Aristotle’s way of categorizing things so they can be scientifically analyzed and described, mankind was placed with the apes in the “primates” family.  Unfortunately for blacks, these animals were discovered at about the same time as blacks were from a white western viewpoint, and in the same region of the world (Africa).  This unhappy coincidence made associations between the two biologically easy to make for western thinkers of the time.  (Miscegenation between (male) apes and black women was a theme that popped up in these discussions, as Winthrop notes).  Blacks ended up on the lowest rung of the chain, just above the most intelligent animals, for this reason in part.  The Dutch anatomist Peter Campter in the 1770’s took this idea of hierarchy among beings, and applied it to men’s skulls (“facial angle”), finding a “regular gradation from apes, through Negroes, to Europeans.”  He placed an orangutan’s skull next to a black’s skull among others in his chosen order on a shelf in a cabinet of his.  Also because blacks were already held as slaves by Europeans at this point in time, it promoted the placing of blacks at a lower spot on the chain of being than uncivilized whites, such as the Lapps of Scandinavia.  Here slavery promoted racism, not merely racism promoting slavery, so one has an interactive cause-effect relationship here.


I’m rather skeptical that the King James Version’s translators would have been influenced to slant texts against blacks in the Bible because black nations are rarely described in Scripture. (Egypt is a mixed culture, partially white (“Mediterranean Caucasian,” to use scientifically obsolete terminology), partially black.  It seems the ancient Egyptians cared far less about skin color than we modern Americans do—so who has the more advanced culture on this issue then?)  The citation from Song of Solomon 1:5 as racist is undermined by 1:6, “Do not stare at me because I am swarthy, for the sun has burned me” (NASB).  Verse 5 was hardly a description of a black person, but of someone tanned or sunburned!  I admit, if we turn a bit deconstructionist for a moment, that it could be the truly ancient association of whiteness with purity, righteousness, and knowledge and darkness with ignorance and evil, such as found in John 1, may have helped contribute to a perception of the latter qualities with people with dark skin colors.  This would require more research to prove, however.  A list of all the texts supposedly slanted against blacks in the KJV would need to be compiled, complete with alternative translations, such as from more recent versions, in order to see if there is any foundation to these claims.


Remember that the wealth of England was primarily agricultural even in the 16th century.  There’s a reason why (if I remember right) the Exchequer sits on a ceremonial bag of wool in the English Parliament, since that was England’s most valuable export.  It would be necessary to document that (say) the translators were relatives of shipowners engaged in the slave trade to really pull off this kind of cultural influence argument.  Because of the Protestant Reformation’s upheaval (including a switch back from Anglicanism to Catholicism under “Bloody Mary,” before its restoration again), the theological energies of Englishmen wouldn’t have been mainly devoted to justifications of slavery in the time of Elizebethan England.  It would be necessary (say) to cite pamphlets written at this time (maybe Jordan does this in his longer work mentioned above) in order to show the culture then was as obsessed about race as ours is today.  We’re merely reading back our present-day obsession into the past when running these kinds of arguments, I suspect.


Remember, Farrakhan is the guy who believes black people are of the tribe Shabazz, which came from outer space 66 trillion years ago.  (At least, this is Elijah Muhammad’s mythology).  White people were “devils” created by the evil black scientist Yakub in a 600-year hybridization experiment.  If Farrakhan upholds such nonsense as “history,” why should I believe anything else he says on the subject of history without documentation?  When Curtain’s numbers on the size of the slave trade are available, why does anyone absurdly exaggerate its size, except to encourage white guilt to extract loot or alms from them?


So I hope this excursion above into the history of philosophy helps you.  Please email me back if you have further questions.




Eric Snow