Microcosm and Macrocosm

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Microcosm and macrocosm are two aspects of a theory developed by ancient Greek philosophers to describe human beings and their place in the universe. These early thinkers viewed the individual human being as a little world (mikros kosmos ) whose composition and structure correspond to that of the universe, or great world (makros kosmos, or megas kosmos ). Kosmos at this time meant "order" in a general sense and implied a harmonious, and therefore beautiful, arrangement of parts in any organic system; hence it also referred to order in human societies, reflected in good government. Comparisons between society and the human being, as well as society and the universe, were varieties of microcosmic theory. These analogies enjoyed a long life, first in the Mediterranean region during antiquity and later throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. The ideas were commonplace during the Renaissance and early modern times but lost their plausibility when a mechanistic model of the universe became dominant in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


The most fully developed version of the idea in antiquity was made by Plato (427?347 b.c.e.), but fragmentary evidence indicates that philosophers before him articulated some version of it. The idea may have begun as an archetypal theme of mythology that the pre-Socratic philosophers reworked into a more systematic form. Unfortunately, it is impossible to reconstruct their thinking in much detail, and clear references attributing the doctrine to Democritus (c. 460c. 370 b.c.e.) and Pythagoras (c. 582c. 507 b.c.e.) are quite late, dating to the fifth and ninth centuries c.e., respectively. Some form of the idea seems to have been common among most ancient cultures. Since comparisons of human beings and the universe were made in India and China, the concept may ultimately be of Asian origin; but the available sources do not indicate that the theory in Greece was the result of cultural diffusion. Among extant Greek texts, the term first appears in the Physics of Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), where it occurs in an incidental remark (Physics 8.2, 252b). Plato did not use the terminology when he developed the idea.


In the Philebus (28d30d), Plato argued that human beings and the universe are both composed of an elemental body and a rational soul, and that just as the human body derives from the universe's body, the human soul must derive from the universe's soul. The universe is, therefore, not only an orderly system but an intelligent organism as well. Plato expounded this theme at greater length in the Timaeus (29d47e), where he explained how the structure of the human being parallels that of the universe through certain correspondences in body and soul. Just as the body of the universe is spherical, and its soul is composed of orbits along which the planets wander, so too the soul of the human being is composed of orbits along which its emotions rove, and it inhabits the head, which is spherical. The rest of the human body exists merely to serve the head.

Unlike the macrocosm, which contains all things and is immortal, and hence has no need of sensory or digestive organs or limbs for locomotion, the microcosm is only a part of the whole, and its existence is threatened by the surrounding elements, so that it needs such additional parts to perceive and avoid danger and to replenish the nutrients it loses. Furthermore, the external disturbances that threaten the microcosm cause the orbits of its soul to be disrupted, throwing its emotions into disarray. Yet when the disordered microcosm observes the heavens, it sees there the orderly motions of the planets following the orbits of the macrocosmic soul. With the aid of philosophical study, it becomes aware of the correspondence between itself and its great counterpart. Having attained this insight, the microcosm realizes that just as the universe employs reason to govern the planets, it too should employ reason to govern its emotions. In this way the microcosm overcomes its inner discord and prepares its soul for a return to the heavens from which it came.

The Body Politic

In the Republic (Book 4), Plato united the microcosmic theme with the pre-Socratic tendency to view cosmology in political terms when he discussed his model of an ideal city-state in order to explore the nature of the human soul. The structure of each is tripartite and hierarchical. The class of philosopher-kings corresponds to reason (located in the head), the warrior class corresponds to irascibility (located in the breast), and the worker class corresponds to appetite (located in the belly). If the city or the soul is to function in harmony, the lower parts must obey the higher, and the higher must guide prudently. This organic notion of the body politic exerted an extraordinary appeal. St. Paul of Tarsus used it to describe the church as the mystical body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12, et al.), and medieval thinkers such as John of Salisbury (c. 11101180), in the Polycraticus, and Marsilius of Padua (c. 1270c. 1342), in the Defensor pacis, presented their political ideas within its framework. Theories of the body politic remained strong in early modern times, even inspiring the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes (15881679).

The common contemporary use of organic analogies to describe the nation or the country is, therefore, an inheritance from earlier macrocosmic metaphors. This way of thinking was not confined to the West. It was, for example, reflected in the Indian Vedas, which explained the caste system by way of an anatomical analogy according to which each level of the social order sprang from a bodily part of Brahma, the Hindu creator-god.

Hellenism and Late Antiquity

Among the Hellenistic philosophers, the Stoics preserved the idea of the universe as a living organism, but the human being as a miniature image of it did not, apparently, interest them as much. The Middle Platonists also accepted the existence of a world-soul and, like the Stoics, considered it divine. The Neoplatonist Plotinus (205270 c.e.) refined this idea and called the human being "an intelligible world" (Enneads 3.4.3) who, like the universe, is an intellect that governs a soul that animates a material body. Later Neoplatonists, believing that the correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm, if properly invoked, would allow them to draw upon hidden reserves of psychic energy immanent in the living universe, employed a form of ritual magic called "theurgy" to assist them in their spiritual aspirations. Others less spiritually inclined, however, hoped to use these cosmic sympathies to manipulate the world for material benefit or to predict the course of future events. Astrologers employed the theory of melothesiathat each sign of the Zodiac corresponds to a specific part of the human bodyin the practice of medicine.

The broad appeal of the microcosm is reflected in its adoption by Jews, Christians, Gnostics, Manichaeans, and the authors of the Hermetic corpus (attributed to Hermes Trismegistus). The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 b.c.e.c. 50 c.e.) somewhat anticipated Plotinus by calling man "a miniature heaven" (On the Creation 27.82). He preferred, however, to compare the human being with God, since Scripture taught that man and woman were made in God's image and likeness (Genesis 1:2627); he reasoned, therefore, that human souls govern their bodies in much the way that God governs the physical world (On the Creation 23.69). Philo employed unusual terminology, substituting for mikros kosmos the expression brachys kosmos, or "short world," which appeared later as brevis mundus in the Latin works of Calcidius (Commentary on Plato's Timaeus, 202; third or fourth century c.e.) and Macrobius (Commentary on Cicero's Dream of Scipio, 2.12; fl. c. 430 c.e.).

Jewish and Muslim Theories in the Middle Ages

Medieval theories of the microcosm developed separately in the three religious traditions, but there were some points of contact between Jews and Muslims. The Talmud and the Midrash included a few microcosmic references, and the theory was very prominent in the mystical tradition known as the Kabbalah. The earliest kabbalistic text, the Book of Creation (Sefer Yezirah; perhaps composed between the third and sixth centuries c.e.), observed correspondences between the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, features of the physical world, and the human body. The thirteenth-century Book of Splendor (Zohar ) taught that the first emanation in the creative process is the cosmic man (Adam Kadmon), through whom the rest of creation emanates, so that terrestrial human beings are modeled on an ideal form that provides the pattern for all of creation.

Arabic influence may have inspired two Jewish philosophers, Ibn Gabirol (Avicebron, c. 1021c. 1058) in his Fountain of Life, and Ibn Saddiq (10751149) in his Microcosm, to combine microcosmic speculation with the Delphic maxim, "Know thyself"; both demonstrated how self-knowledge leads to knowledge about the universe. Although Maimonides (11351204) found fault with certain aspects of microcosmic theory in his Guide for the Perplexed (1.72), he nevertheless accepted much of it.

The most remarkable development of the microcosm among the Muslims appeared in the encyclopedia known as the Epistles (Rasa'il ) of the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan-al-Safa ) in the city of Basra during the tenth and eleventh centuries. While two of its fifty-two treatises are devoted to microcosm and macrocosm, correspondences between the two worlds are noted throughout the work as it traces the procession of creatures from God and their mystical return to God through human understanding. Al-Biruni (973c. 1051) accepted the microcosmic model, while Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 9801037) made it the foundation of his theory of medicine.

Greek Christian Theories

Although the ancient idea of the microcosm appealed to many Christian thinkers, their view of the macrocosm as an inanimate structure created by God ex nihilo at the beginning of time led to major alterations of the ancient theory. Most conspicuously, the world-soul was omitted or interpreted allegorically as a reference to God's providential care for the created world. Although Greek Christians, unlike the Latins, had direct access to the ancient sources, they were ambivalent about the pagan philosophical heritage.

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335c. 394) criticized the comparison of humanity with the universe (De hominis opificio, 17), stressing, like Philo, that it was more appropriate to compare humanity with God; but he nevertheless retained a modified version of the theory. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a sixth-century Greek from Alexandria in Egypt, rejected the idea of a spherical world in his Christian Topography, since he considered Moses' tabernacle a symbolic representation of the universe. He nevertheless accepted the idea that humanity contains the universe within itself and therefore thought the pagans were right to have called man a microcosm (Book 7).

Greek theologians tended to view humanity as a mediator who united the material and spiritual worlds by virtue of being the only creature to possess both a body and a rational soul; at this critical juncture in the chain of being, humanity shared some characteristic with every kind of creature and thus represented the entire universe. The Greek fathers influenced the anthropology of the Irish Neoplatonist, John Scot Eriugena (c. 800c. 877), but the idea of the microcosm in the Latin West was received mainly through Calcidius and Macrobius, and disseminated by the encyclopedist Isidore of Seville (c. 560636; De natura rerum, 9.2) and the Venerable Bede (673?735; De temporum ratione, 35).

Latin Christian Theories

Latin terminology generally assumed comparative forms"lesser world" (minor mundus ) and "greater world" (maior mundus ) although it also adopted the Greek loanwords microcosmus and macrocosmus (or more commonly megacosmus ). Latin treatments of the microcosm were generally superficial until the twelfth century, but certain distinctive features did appear before then. Although Augustine of Hippo (354430) preferred the comparison of humanity to God, he developed a theory of the seven ages of man and the world, which was a projection of the seven days of creation and the seven stages of the human life cycle onto history (De Genesi contra Manichaeos, 1.22.331.23.41). Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540604) offered a concise and oft-repeated formula that combined the microcosm with the concept of the Chain of Being, whereby humanity was thought to contain all of creation because it shares simple existence with stones, life with plants, sensation with beasts, and reason with angels (Homiliae in Evangelium, 29).

Under Gregory's influence, Jesus' injunction to preach to "all creation" (Mark 16:15) was commonly interpreted as a reference to the human race in its status as an epitome of the created world. Robert Grosseteste (c. 11751253) later suggested in several works that the Incarnation not only fulfilled a redemptive role but also reconciled the creator to all creatures, since God became the creature who embodies all creation. This cosmological role of the Incarnation was restated by Nicholas of Cusa (14011464) in Learned Ignorance (De docta ignorantia, 3.3).

The microcosm received special attention in the Latin West during the twelfth century, when a revival of Platonism coincided with a keen interest in the natural world and new confidence in the power of human reason. The most extraordinary product of this fusion was the Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris, written about 1147 in two books entitled Megacosmus and Microcosmus, which depict the creation of the two worlds by Neoplatonic emanations, personified as characters in a mythological drama. The intellectual atmosphere that fostered such creative approaches to old ideas also influenced spiritual meditation, which is evident in Hildegard of Bingen's (10981179) Book of Divine Works and in the allegorical commentary on Genesis by Godfrey of Saint-Victor (c. 11251194). Microcosmic thinking had always been implicit in monastic studies of Genesis that compared the human soul to the physical world by viewing God's work during the six days of creation figuratively, as stages of spiritual progress that the monk should pursue. Godfrey noted the similarity between the ancient theory and the medieval hermeneutical method and made the connection explicit by entitling his book Microcosmus.

Early Modern Theories and Aftermath

The scholasticism of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had little use for highly malleable metaphors, and it was not until the Platonic revival of the Renaissance that the microcosm again received substantial attention. Although Ernst Cassirer argued that Renaissance thinkers significantly redefined the microcosm (The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy, trans. 1964), one must acknowledge that the fifteenth-century philosophers actually owed more of a debt to medieval conceptions than Cassirer supposed, as observed by Bernard McGinn (The Golden Chain, 1972). For instance, Nicholas of Cusa's christological use of the microcosm had already been outlined by Robert Grosseteste (as noted above), and although Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (14631494) offered a sustained discussion of the microcosm in his Heptaplus (a commentary on the creation-account in Genesis), much of his contribution in that work consisted of bringing together different currents of microcosmic theory (a testament to his wide reading and powers of synthesis). Although a new application of the ancient theory was made by Paracelsus (1493?1541), his innovation promoted an alchemical theory of medicine rather than philosophical conceptions of the self.

Despite a surge of interest in the microcosm during the early modern period, reflected in a wide range of disciplines, the theory did not lead to new discoveries and it was gradually relegated to the margins of science and philosophy along with the "occult" disciplines that maintained an affinity to it. One of the last major statements of the theory on the verge of its abandonment by most philosophers and scientists was Robert Fludd's (15741637) impressively illustrated History of the Macrocosm and Microcosm (Utriusque cosmi, maioris scilicet et minoris historia, 16171621); it is significant that Fludd's grand synthesis was regarded as a bible of Rosicrucianism, a mysterious movement associated with occultism.

The microcosm continued to inspire esoteric thinkers and opponents of modern materialism, such as the theosophist H. P. Blavatsky (18311891), who combined the microcosm with evolution in The Secret Doctrine (1888), and the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner (18611925), whose lectures on the two worlds, delivered in 1910, were later published as Makrokosmos und Mikrokosmos (1933). Although the idea of the microcosm as a synonym for humanity became untenable among mainstream thinkers by the eighteenth century, the word itself was retained as a reference to any subsystem, in which sense it is commonly used today.

See also Christianity ; Neoplatonism ; Organicism ; Platonism .



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Robert Ziomkowski