J. Alan Smith looks at the place of humankind in the Great Chain of Being

Movements for ‘animal rights’ question our assumptions about humans and non-human animals. The environmental movement questions our relationship with the Earth: indeed, one extreme, the ‘Gaia Hypothesis’, sees us as mere constituents of the organism Gaia, or Mother Earth, to be eliminated if we threaten the well-being of that higher organism. It is therefore prudent to examine our beliefs about our relationship with the rest of creation.

Four levels

A useful starting point is suggested by Twenty Questions, that wireless panel game of yesteryear which started the search to identify each unknown object with the simple analysis of Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?’ This brings to mind the Great Chain of Being, the Platonic concept sanctified by St Augustine of Hippo. In its Christian form it sees God the Creator at the apex of a hierarchy of created beings.

Dr E.F. Schumacher has discussed the Great Chain of Being in his book, A Guide for the Perplexed. Here he discusses four primary levels: Mineral, Plant, Animal, and Man. Each level above Mineral possesses a property that the level immediately below does not: plants have life; animals have consciousness; men have self-awareness. It is this last distinction that requires the greatest attention.


René Descartes (1596-1650) is famous for his dictum: ‘Cogito, ergo sum: ‘I think, therefore I am: Its brevity is so striking that most of us forget to ask how one knows that one thinks. St Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-74) pointed out that one becomes aware of one’s own existence by becoming aware of the existence of objects other than oneself and then reflecting on that awareness:

‘The soul is known by its acts. For a man perceives that he has a soul and lives and exists by the fact that he perceives that he senses and understands and performs other vital operations of this kind… No one perceives that he understands except through the fact that he understands something, for to understand something is prior to understanding that one understands.

And so the soul comes to the actual realization of its existence through the fact that it understands or perceives’ (De veritate, 10, 8, quoted in Aquinas by F.C. Coplesfon).

Concrete example

We may take a concrete example of one man and his dog who went to mow a meadow; though it is not germane to this story we may presume that the purpose of mowing the meadow was the man’s alone and not shared by the dog. A rabbit ran across the meadow and was seen by both the man and the dog. The man was aware of the fact that he had seen the rabbit and was aware, too,from the dog’s reactions that the dog had also seen the rabbit. However, the dog simply saw the rabbit but was not aware of the fact.

Further subdivisions

Above Man in the Great Chain of Being we must place the Angels: Aquinas discusses Angels in the Summa Theologïae, Part 1, Questions 50-64. In contrast to plants and animals who have material bodies with material souls and men who have material bodies and spiritual souls, he identified angels as purely spiritual beings. Each angel is a separate species, the class of angels forming a genus.

A further subdivision may be established by analysing animals into sentient and non-sentient. C.S. Lewis discusses this in a chapter on Animal Pain’ in his book The Problem of Pain: ‘It is certainly difficult to suppose that the apes, the elephant, and the higher domestic animals, have not, in some degree, a self or soul which connects experiences and gives rise to rudimentary individuality’. However: ‘If the life of a newt is merely a succession of sensations, what should we mean by saying that God may recall to life the newt that died today? It would not recognize itself as the same newt’.

Unanswered questions

This article is merely an introduction to this question, an attempt by the writer to collate material that lies readily to hand; there are many unanswered questions. But the greater danger today is not that we might treat animals as humans but that we might treat humans as animals. In a time of perplexity we may take comfort from the Psalmist: ‘What is man that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet (Psalm 8).