Every two or three years, at a small, elite New England university, I offer a graduate-level course on “Nature Writing.” The students, as you might guess, exhibit a keen interest in birds, blossoms, bugs, and bears. Despite shared tastes, the composition of the class is impressively diverse, a patchwork of amateur entomologists, high school science instructors, budding Thoreaus, Lake Poets manqué. Participants show little mercy towards environmental degradation (strip mining, whale-hunting, and the felling of the rain forest are anathema), but, thankfully, no more than one or two Earth-Firsters—fanatics who applaud Edward Abbey’s bitter saying that “I’m a humanist, I’d rather kill a man than a snake”—sign up each year. As our classroom discussions make clear, the students also have in common a keen religious sense, directed, it is true, more towards the awe induced by a streaking meteor or a rutting moose than, say, that of the Resurrection of Christ or the Parinirvana of Buddha. In sum, my students are, by and large, a representative sampling of post-1960s educated America.
In many ways, the highlight of the course is a peculiar little test that I administer about mid-semester, when students’ heads are abuzz with the conflicting claims of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Darwin, and Gould: Is the natural order a theophany or the battleground of rabid genes? What is man, that he is mindful of nature? As we all agree afterwards, the quiz tells us something—but we’re not sure just what—about how we apprehend the world, ourselves, and (for those students so inclined) the Creator.
The quiz is simple enough. I offer a list of fifteen items (it varies from year to year): mouse, boy, sun, angel, ant, crab, Norwegian pine, corn, amoeba, hamburger, potato, Moby Dick, Taj Mahal, Rolls Royce, the idea of the good—and I ask students to rank them, using whatever scale they deem most important. Without fall, one or two refuse to take the test, rejecting the legitimacy of any and all gradations. The rest plunge in. Predictably, there is always one—a tease, perhaps, although suspicion lingers that he means it—who gives the edge to the crab or the Rolls. There’s frequently a Platonist who opts for the idea of the good. As a rule, only one person puts the human being at the peak, as crown of creation and imago Dei: the teacher (for I participate in the listing, and share my results with the students). Invariably, the great majority put the sun on top.
When I ask why, something remarkable happens. The students understand what I am after with this test, for they never rank by height or mass or population or any other gross physical aspect. No, they do so according to a scale of values. But what values? When pressed, the students allow that they order according to what we must call being. And here the strangest part of the test emerges: although I believe that there are right and wrong answers, I cannot imagine giving a grade, for my most fundamental premises are not shared by my students—or, more exactly, are shared in such a strange way that our common ground turns to quicksand, and teaching threatens to become (as it often does when teachers do not respect their students) trench warfare.
We all rank according to the scale of being. This elusive quality I might define as degree of closeness to, or participation in, the Godhead. To my students, however, being is something else: that with the most being is that which absorbs lesser beings—to put it bluntly, the dominant muncher in the food chain. The sun, shedding the energy that powers all life 10 (that “gives life” to the earth, my students might put it), necessarily dominates the list. But what powers the sun? Here the students stare blankly ahead.
In this little test, I believe, can be discerned the hidden reason for the modern dilemma. On the one hand, it assures us that young people retain an awareness, albeit skewed, of morality and ontology. They respect that which “gives life.” In fact, as anyone who spends much time in close proximity to children knows, they make absolute moral judgments all the time based on a lively, if naive, sense of good and evil, but lack the articulated moral structure on which to hang their felt opinions.
On the other hand, something is seriously amiss. Crab over humans? Sun over angels? When parents see packs of kids running the streets like wolves, when unchecked greed threatens a delicate ecosystem, when suicide rates soar, a number of reasons are invoked: loss of family values, lack of respect for the natural order, lack of love. All these are true, yet all can be subsumed under one overwhelming loss that is pinpointed by the quiz. Its exact nature was conveyed to me by an automobile mechanic (he works on Volvos, which says something about his trust in traditional values) who was asked by an elderly friend, “What’s wrong with the world today?” His instant answer was, “We’ve lost the idea of hierarchy.”
There it is, clear as cabbages and kings: hierarchy, loss of hierarchy, loss of the idea of hierarchy. Nota bene: not sense, but idea. For the sense remains. Most students feel on a gut level that ranking is legitimate; that cabbages and kings are not interchangeable. What they lack is the knowledge of hierarchy that comes from a careful study of tradition. But before pondering how that knowledge might be reawakened, let us see whether ignorance of hierarchy is in truth the black hole at the bottom of the world’s woes.
The idea (from the Greek hieros, “sacred,” and arche, “rule” or “origin”) achieved full maturity in the sixth- writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, wherein are expounded the divine principles of order and their manifestation in the celestial and terrestrial spheres. Fourteen centuries later, the modern looking-glass has flip-flopped the meaning of the word: no longer is hierarchy a joyous acclamation that there exist creatures above me and creatures below me, a safety net of being woven by the Creator, preserving me, victim of the first Fall into death of the flesh, from a further fall into the absurdity and consequent death of the spirit. (For where can I rise, where can I fall, into what heaven or hell, in a universe stripped of levels?) Hierarchy is now an intolerable suppression of my freedom and that of my neighbors. Order of the day: paradigms must be toppled, mountains razed.
Thus forty centuries of human enterprise are hammered flat. (Not only the work of the great civilizers but of the great rebels as well. Nietzsche had a keen sense of hierarchy; thus the übermensch and Nietzsche’s claim, both literal and figurative, to think better in the mountains. The irony is piquant, for Nietzsche’s imprimatur is often attached to hierarchy’s downfall, this metaphysical coup that ends all coups by abolishing all authority.) One sees the leveling instinct everywhere: in religion, where a proposal was recently floated by disaffected Catholics to elect the Pope through popular vote of all bishops after a vigorous round of whistle-stop campaigns; in the plastic arts, which have expunged iconography and perspective, the two guardians of visual order; in the narrative arts, whenever story is replaced by self-reflective surface gyrations (known politely as “pure style”); in architecture, where massive slabs and boxes crowd the sky, each an expression of height without levels. Above all, one sees it in science. Thus microbiologists foster the “selfish gene,” in which human beings are puppets tugged willy-nilly by strands of DNA, while neo-Darwinians reject the image of evolution as a tree with human beings ascending in the topmost branches, substituting instead that of evolution as a bramble void of design. The most prominent modern Darwinist states the case succinctly:
A crab is not lower or less complex than a human being in any meaningful way.
—Stephen Jay Gould
The line of battle couldn’t be more clearly drawn. The principle of hierarchy is fundamental to the apprehension that ontological distinctions do exist; that only God is self-sufficient Being; that humans, as creatures, are contingent but made in the “likeness” of God; that non-corporeal intelligences occupy intermediate links in the Great Chain of Being (How curious that angels are now in vogue. Could this be another aspect of our disguised hunger for hierarchy: if you squelch it in one place, it springs up in another?); that animals sing a less meaningful song in the universal chorus, for meaning is inextricably bound up with free will and moral choice. (Some research indicates that animals display a spectrum of acts that ape, so to speak, those of human beings, such as making tools and war. But this observation, if confirmed, would simply refine our understanding of the Great Chain of Being, not redefine it or, as extreme animal rightists would have it, melt it down into post-industrial slag.)
Hierarchy, in fact, defines all traditional religions, including those of Native Americans, popularly lauded for their resistance to caste; witness my students’ consternation when, in the process of schematizing a Navajo emergence tale, they uncover that old discarded evolutionary tree, for the Navajo sing of human creation as an ascension through the realm of insects (black world), birds (blue world), mammals (yellow world), into that of men (rainbow world) and gods. Hierarchy is part and parcel of perception; we discern, therefore we order, therefore we establish above and below.
What social consequences result from the abolition of levels? First, the collapse of the family: The nuclear unit of father, mother, and child (epitomized for Christians by the Holy Family) is traditionally understood as the earthly reflection of a divine order, a web of relationships cohering through love. One doesn’t need St. Paul’s dicta in I Corinthians 11:3 to know that hierarchy binds the family. One merely needs to discern that by virtue of their different natures, mother and father hold different offices (nurturer and protector, to paint it broadly) in the commonweal. In their respective territories, each is a ruling monarch, with the child as loving subject. These days, by contrast, we practice family democracy—which means, in effect, rule of the child, the tail wagging the dog. When this is not the case, too often we find the single-parent family, a result of abdication by one of the monarchs (usually the king) or refusal by the queen to marry in the first place. In either case, this domestic tragedy often leads, as abdications and revolutions are wont to do, to a tilt toward anarchy.
Next, abortion. At first, “choice” may seem to affirm hierarchy by granting the mother ontological superiority over the fetus. The unborn child is part of the mother’s body (it “belongs” to the mother) and thus subordinate. Sometimes the fetus is degraded further, usually on the counsel of well-meaning medical professionals eager to protect the moral sensibilities of their patients, into a lump, albeit a complex and strangely fascinating lump, of unwelcome tissue. Such viewpoints, however, are the fruit of false hierarchies, in which the world, by dint of its fallen nature, necessarily abounds. Here the great religions answer with one voice: all human life is infinitely precious. It should be noted that many pro-choice advocates will reject my terminology, describing the world as a “web” rather than a hierarchy, in which mother and fetus coexist in delicate balance. But in this case, it is difficult to see abortion as other than a tragic exercise of power, in which one party can act and the other cannot. To grasp the wrenching realities that surround abortion, we must attempt to understand—literally, stand under, in a receptive posture—the teachings of tradition. Hierarchical truths, like so much else in the spiritual realm, are available only to those who seek them hierarchically. Faith is the mother of knowledge.
Then, unrestricted sexual indulgence. Why not? Without a hierarchy, who’s to judge?
And let’s not omit violence, murder, torture. If a human is no more meaningful than a crab and we boil crabs for dinner, why not do the same with humans? A modern riddle: How is a torture room different from a dining room? After all, the knives glitter I I just as brightly, and the victims are, as naturalist Harry Beston put it, just “separate nations.” But lest I appear too Swiftian, let me point out that the animal-human equation is dangerously infectious. Thus, in New York City, whirlpooling teenagers justify their sexual assaults by likening themselves to dogs in heat.
Finally, the decline of the university. The advent of deconstruction (the hermeneutics of suspicion), in which the ordering principle is reduced to the pull and tug of conflicting powers, is the death—knell of culture. Many students today cannot experience, say, Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” as a glory of English poetry; they perceive it only as a vehicle for sexist, Eurocentric imperialism. The real subversion of hierarchy here is the assumption that certain human activities, e.g., the aesthetic, moral, or spiritual, cannot override or subsume other activities, e.g., the political. Thus the proliferation of “Bible as literature” courses, in which the Bible as revelation receives nary a nod.
The lessons are obvious. The cure, alas, is not. Perhaps we need to open a Hierarchy Academy, to which all able-minded young Americans must devote two years of service. Tasks would include listening to elders, reverencing human life, kneeling or bowing before God in all His manifestations. Funding, of course, will not be forthcoming. Well, then, perhaps a national thought experiment might do the trick. Imagine what the world would be like if some of the hierarchies so widely attacked were instantly dismantled: if the visible Church ceased to exist, with its pomp and pageantry, its metaphysical and moral instruction, its international network of charities. Or if the federal government ceased to function. No taxes—but also no Social Security, no military. Even if we grant for a moment that these examples—ecclesia, government—are arthritic exoskeletons, consider the heart of the matter, the interpenetrating triad of faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these, says St. Paul in the greatest of all hierarchical proclamations, is love. What if these three—and above all, love—should vanish?
My thought experiment is rhetorical, but it tells us that our very world is at stake, or at the least—is this so different?—our sacred relationship to the world. What is demanded is nothing less than a volte-face on the part of all who guide and all who follow. We must learn once again, in all humility, how to discern true from false, good from bad, high from low. Pastors must teach their flocks that humans are neither dogs nor gods, but something in between, and that therein lies our promise. Teachers must explain that learning is a ladder, its feet planted in basic skills, its rungs levels of understanding, its top aslant the mount of Wisdom. Parents must make it clear that the egg does not instruct the chicken. This project of moral, aesthetic, social, political, and scientific dimensions is, in utter truth, the Final Battle.
Here, then, is another little quiz for my students (one that, while based on New Testament and Hebrew Bible sources, can be taken, if approached in the right spirit, by anyone of any faith):
What do the following three images tell us about human beings, about God, about hierarchy?
(1) A holy temple in a holy city in a holy land.
(2) The faithful gathered around the elders in that temple.
(3) Those temple elders gathered around a twelve-year-old boy.
What does a Volvo mechanic know that the world has forgotten?
Philip Zaleski, a new contributor to First Things, teaches Religion at Smith College and English at Wesleyan University.