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Macrocosm and Microcosm


"Macrocosm" and "microcosm" are philosophical terms referring, respectively, to the world as a whole and to some part, usually man, as a model or epitome of it. According to one version of this ancient analogy, man and the universe are constructed according to the same harmonic proportions, each sympathetically attuned to the other, each a cosmos ordered according to reason. By an imaginative leap, the universe itself was thought to be, like man, living and conscious, a divine creature whose nature is reflected in human existence. Animism and panpsychism also regard the world as alive throughout, but the microcosm idea is distinct in emphasizing the unity or kinship of all life and thought in the world. If man is the microcosm of the universe, then not only is everything animated by some soul or other, but there is one world soul by which everything is animated. Thus, the followers of Pythagoras and Empedocles held, according to Sextus Empiricus, that "there is a certain community uniting us not only with each other and with the gods but even with the brute creation. There is in fact one breath pervading the whole cosmos like soul, and uniting us with them" (W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. I, p. 278).

Because the word kosmos can mean order as well as world or world order, "microcosm" can signify not only man in relation to the universe (or in relation to the state, as in Plato's Republic ) but also any part of a thing, especially a living thing, that reflects or represents the whole it belongs to, whenever there is a mirroring relation between the whole and each of its parts. Nicholas of Cusa's doctrine of individuals as "contractions" of the form of the universe is a microcosm theory, as is Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's theory of monads as "perpetual living mirrors of the universe"; similarly, to cite an example from nonphilosophical discourse, the composer Béla Bartók's collection of piano pieces Mikrokosmos is a little world of modern musical style and technique.

The idea of the microcosm appears in pre-Socratic philosophy in connection with the problem of relating the One and the Many. Taking all of nature to derive ultimately from a single common substance, they supposed it to have inherent in it a principle of motion and change (which they identified with life, soul). Since some of the resulting entities possess consciousness, so too must their source. And if the universal soul is eternal and divine, then the human soul, which is a "fragment" of the One, as the Pythagoreans held, must also be eternal and divine. The return of the individual soul to its divine origin could be realized by philosophical understanding of the cosmos; since like is known by like, as the cosmos becomes known the knower is assimilated to it. Thus, man is, and discovers himself to be, the part that most perfectly reveals the nature of the whole.

Man the microcosm is a commonplace of Greek thought from Anaximenes, the Pythagoreans, Heraclitus, and Empedocles to the Stoics and Neoplatonists. It is a staple theme for variation in the Orphic, Gnostic, and Hermetic texts and in the literature of mysticism, pantheism, and the occult. That man is the microcosm was, in the Renaissance, widely taken to mean that cosmic knowledge and influence might be achieved through contemplation of the powers and tendencies men find in their own imaginations. Such knowledge would be based not on mere inference from resemblance but rather on the kinship or identity of human life and consciousness with the forces governing nature as a whole.

The notion that man is the microcosm has always played both rational and mystical roles in Western thought. Well into the period of the scientific revolution, the microcosm was an image of the order and harmony pervading the world. Saying that the universe is controlled by a single principle (in the way that rational thought is the controlling principle in man) expressed the unified and self-regulating character of the world as understandable in its own terms, fit for scientific investigation. Similarly, human thought itself was conceived to be self-regulating and self-correctingthus entered the idea of the autonomy of reason that has played an important part in the history of rationalism and of Western philosophy generally. According to Plato's recollection doctrine, "All nature is akin, and the soul has learned everything, so that when a man has recalled a single piece of knowledgelearned it, in ordinary languagethere is no reason why he should not find out all the rest" (Meno 81d, e). By recollection Plato meant the recovery of systematic knowledge of necessary truths from within oneself, but it is easy to see how it could also be thought of as an intuitive, nontheoretical processa stream of consciousness leading to memory of past reincarnations or of the soul's celestial origin.

The thought that the universe is ordered not by chance but by one spiritual principle stimulated the wish for direct mystical union with this soul, and even for influence over things through it, as easily as it encouraged the pursuit of systematic understanding of the world. The first impulse produced such exalted sentiments as those lavished upon the universe in the Hermetic religious writings; the second pushed open the door to that underground world of magic, astrology, alchemy, and spiritualism that claimed to utilize the same unifying principles assumed in science and in the astral theology of the philosophers. Perhaps something may be said for a generous interpretation of this magical view of nature, which even in antiquity was distinguishable from its rationalistic and humanistic counterpart. For the practitioners of the occult and for their opponents, the view of the world as a "be-souled" creature was neither an isolated hypothesis nor an idle conceit; the microcosm was an almost omnipresent presupposition, the basis of the very language in which the phenomena whose explanation was sought were represented. Yet there were always philosophical skeptics, and often the same writers who affirmed the world soul or the microcosmfor example, Plotinus, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Johannes Kepleralso tried to restrict it in ways that precluded the possibility of undesirable magical application.

Ancient Thought

In the Timaeus Plato presents a mythical account of the creation of the world according to which the world's soul and body are made by the Demiurge, who copies the Form of the ideal living creature (not itself any species of animate being but embracing the types of them all). The world soul is constructed according to a complex musical pattern, and, in order to be capable of thought, the elements of discoursesameness, difference, and existenceare blended to form its mind. The body joined to the world soul is said to be unlike the human body or that of any animal in the world, being perfectly spherical, devoid of organs of sense, respiration, and ingestion; however, the processes of the universe are said to be reproduced even in the details of microcosmic processes, such as the moment of blood in humans. And because of the affinity between the divine part in humans and the thoughts and revolutions of the universe, the study of the rhythms of the macrocosm are recommended as a means of "correcting those circuits in the head that were deranged at birth."

A methodological discussion forms the context of a playful passage in the Philebus (27a31b) in which the microcosm image also appears. All philosophers hold mind to be the king of heaven and earth, Socrates observes: "in reality they are magnifying themselves. And perhaps they are right." Socrates and Protarchus agree that the order of the world proves that the cosmos is governed by "Mind [nous ] and a wondrous regulating Intelligence." Socrates argues further that the elements composing our bodies are but fragments produced and sustained by the elements in the universe. Because the unity of the elements in us makes up our bodies, the collective unity of elements in the universe must make up the world's body; because our bodies have souls, the body of the universe must have one, too; for where could our bodies have gotten their souls "if the body of the universe, which has elements the same as our own though still fairer in every respect, were not in fact possessed of a soul?" Strictly, this much of the argument concludes merely in the existence of a world soul that is the cause of the mixture of the body's elementsthere is as yet barely a hint of the world soul's having a structure of its own apart from the body, of its being rationally ordered and the cause not just of all mixture but of all movement in the cosmos. Ultimately, the universal soul itself is said to be produced by Cause (later identified with Mind), yet this Mind cannot come into existence without soul (30c). To the extent that we can distinguish the Demiurge from the world soul (in the Timaeus ), we can say that the Cause of the Philebus is probably more like the first of these.

Aristotle's physical system seems to have been designed to avoid the view of the cosmos as "besouled" or as alive in all its parts. Thus, in De Caelo the motion of the stars is explained not by any life in them but mainly in terms of the circular motion natural to the aether of which they are composed. In Book II (Ch. 2) Aristotle rejects the view that "it is by the constraint of a soul that it [the heaven] endures forever." The Demiurge as designer of the world is wholly excluded; no consciousness is needed of the rational (but unpremeditated) pattern to which nature adheres. Although there is a reference (to the views of others) in the Physics (Book VIII, Ch. 2), which may be the first occurrence of the Greek expression for "microcosm," Aristotle seems not to have organized his conception of nature around the view of it as an organism in any significant way. (For a contrasting account, see W. K. C. Guthrie, "Man as Microcosm.")

What is missing in Aristotle reappears (partly under Heraclitus's influence) in the thought of the Stoicsthe sense of the world as an animate and conscious continuum each part of which affects all others by its sympathy, its "sharing of experience" with the others. The doctrine of sympathies and antipathies among the parts of the world animal guided the physical research of the Stoics and predisposed them to accept and to attempt to rationalize the particulars of astrology and divination. And man as microcosm was the source of their efforts to locate the basis of human conduct in natural law; by playing one's assigned role in the cosmos, one's logos, his "inner self," would be linked to that of the whole (Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, p. 248).

Plotinus, like the Stoics, treated the world as a single creature, "living differently in each of its parts." If the world soul of Plato's system is thought of as operating purposefully and consciously, and if the Nature of Aristotle's system is taken to work purposefully but unconsciously, we should say that for Plotinus the world as a whole is governed consciously yet produces individual things "as in a dream," spontaneously, without reasoning, choice, or calculation. According to Plotinus only a unity of soul among us could explain our sympathetic relations to one another, "suffering, overcome, at the sight of pain, naturally drawn to forming attachments" (Ennead IV, ix, 3). Plotinus denied that the unity he spoke of entailed the transference of a person's emotions to places outside his body; the souls of the sufferer and of the sympathizer do not feel as one. Rather, his model of unity is that of a science, where individual truths cannot be considered apart from the whole; "the whole is in every part: The one detail, when it is matter of science, potentially includes all" (IV, ix, 5). In geometry, for example, "the single proposition includes all the items that go to constitute it and all the propositions which can be developed from it" (IV, ix, 5). Perhaps this very strict sense of unity, which asserts that each thing is internally connected with every other thing (or that there is one thing with which each is connected) has always been latent in the microcosm doctrine; if so, it is an aspect of the doctrine that seems to offer small encouragement to the search for the actual relations in nature. The question "Which things are causally connected, which are not?" has little point if all can affect all alike.

The general ancient view of the world as a perfect organism may have been responsible, as Samuel Sambursky suggests, for the insistence of ancient thinkers on the attempt to understand the world as a whole, in its entirety, and for their almost total avoidance of experimentationthe isolation of phenomena, or "dissection of nature," characteristic of modern science.

Medieval and Modern Thought

Man as microcosm of the universe is not integral to Jewish and Christian doctrine in the way that it is to the Gnostic religious system, for example; thus, Philo Judaeus and Moses Maimonides employed the idea of the world soul only dialectically. In The Guide of the Perplexed (Pt. I, Ch. 72) Maimonides at first argues that the world is like a human being, but he then presents so many points of difference between the two that in the end it is clear that he considers the possession of a rational order to be their only common factor. As a cosmological view, the microcosm has little or no place in Augustine or in Thomas Aquinas, who treats it as a mere figure of speech. By contrast, Joseph ibn Zaddik states one of the microcosm's main attractions when he proposes to show how self-knowledge will lead to knowledge of the wholea "short cut" through the study of man, bypassing the sciences. Bernard of Tours and other members of the school of Chartres assimilated the world soul of Plato's Timaeus to the Third Person of the Trinity. Drawing upon Bernard, Hildegard of Bingen, in her visionary writings, represented detailed correspondences between heavenly motions, winds, elements, humors, and bodily and spiritual states in the individual.

Plato had typically employed the microcosm image to portray the transformation of consciousness through theoretical knowledge of whatever cosmic order science reveals; Ibn Zaddik reverses the process, seeking to discover in man what the cosmic order must be. Where Plato stressed the dissimilarity between the living cosmos and the structure and functioning of any particular animal, including man, Hildegard dwells on their supposed similarity in picturesque detail. The idea that inner experience of human nature supplies a direct route to reality is prone to magical extension in a way that Plato's view is not, but it was this conception that took hold in medieval and Renaissance microcosm literature.

Renaissance speculation on the microcosm centered on the idea that human nature partakes of bodily, intellectual, and divine existence, uniting in itself the whole of the sublunary, celestial, and supercelestial realms. Human consciousness, by which man can know all things, connects him with all things; consciousness is itself a link between thought and its objects. Through consciousness man can know and become all that he wills. A similar doctrine of connections drawn from the Kabbalah underlies the various magical theories of language which asserted that quasi-physical influences join names and things, beyond the conventions of the various natural languages. Partly controllable influences also form the structure of the elaborate identities and correspondences that Agrippa von Nettesheim and Paracelsus described between minerals, animals, heavenly bodies, psychic powers, and parts of the human body. Such influences are also involved in the interaction between thought and its objects that Giordano Bruno assumed in his search for direct awareness of the sympathies controlling nature through memory and the ideas of them in his imagination.

The occult "applications" of the microcosm idea did not survive the advance of the mechanistic worldview. By the eighteenth century, occult qualities, or anything that seemed like themfor example, action at a distancewere in such wide disrepute that even Isaac Newton, to avoid the appearance of being committed to an occult doctrine, refrained from expressing fully his theory of the mode of action of atomic "Central Forces." But in the second edition of the Principia (1713), he described the ether as "a certain most subtle spirit which pervades and lies hid in all gross bodies by the force and action of which spirit the particles of bodies attract one another at near distances and cohere and all sensation is excited, and the members of animal bodies move at the command of the will, namely by vibrations of this spirit"a view not far from that of the Stoics, as Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield remark (The Architecture of Matter, p. 195).

Even later, belief in psychic planetary action had not lost all ground; thus, Franz Anton Mesmer's explanation of "animal magnetism," or hypnosis, assumed a "responsive influence between the heavenly bodies, the earth, and animated bodies," which the hypnotist drew upon. And the idea of a psychic force in the world beyond our immediate awareness, of which our conscious lives are parts or manifestations, endured, for example, in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Nature philosophy and in Arthur Schopenhauer's world willancestors of the concept of the unconscious. Perhaps some aspects of the microcosm idea can be found in Sigmund Freud's attempts to explain the instincts in man as repetitions of the reactions of living matter to drastic changes in the prehistoric environment. (Thus, we might say that man's instincts are a microcosm of his evolution.) Among the known "enforced alterations in the course of life stored for repetition," Freud, along with Sándor Ferenczi, noted the drying up of the oceans which left life to adapt on land and the cultural development necessitated by the glacial epoch. These are reexperienced at birth, in the diphasic onset of man's sexual life, and in the latency period. Freud invokes the contending forces, Love and Strife, of Empedocles's "Cosmic phantasy," pointing out their similarity to Eros and Destructiveness, the two primal instincts of his biopsychical theory. These instincts, which "present the delusive appearance of forces striving after change and progress" actually impel the organism toward the reinstatement of earlier, more stable states, ultimately to inorganic existence. The originally biological principle that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny has received very wide psychological extension in psychoanalysis; most recently, Carl Jung has (somewhat cryptically) identified his doctrine of the collective unconscious with that of "the microcosm containing the archetypes of all ideas."

Perhaps the microcosm image is not entirely the scientific dead end it has understandably been taken for; as early attempts to construct models of the embodied soul's structure, development, and dynamics, some versions of the image may stand to scientific psychological research as alchemy stands to chemistry.

See also Agrippa von Nettesheim, Henricus Cornelius; Anaximenes; Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Bernard of Tours; Bruno, Giordano; Chartres, School of; Empedocles; Freud, Sigmund; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von; Heraclitus of Ephesus; Hildegard of Bingen; Ibn Zaddik, Joseph ben Jacob; Jung, Carl Gustav; Kabbalah; Kepler, Johannes; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Maimonides; Neoplatonism; Nicholas of Cusa; Panpsychism; Paracelsus; Philo Judaeus; Pico della Mirandola, Count Giovanni; Plato; Plotinus; Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Sextus Empiricus; Socrates; Thomas Aquinas, St.


Three useful histories of the microcosm theme are G. P. Conger, Theories of Macrocosms and Microcosms in the History of Philosophy (New York: Russell and Russell, 1922), which includes a survey of critical discussions up to 1922; Rudolph Allers, "Microcosmus, From Anaximandros to Paracelsus," in Traditio 2 (1944): 319407; and W. K. C. Guthrie's "Man as Microcosm," in Proceedings of the European Cultural Foundation (Athens, 1966); all contain many references. W. K. C. Guthrie's discussion of the microcosm, to which this article is indebted, in A History of Greek Philosophy (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1962), Vol. I, is the most important one for the period covered; this volume, The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans, also contains valuable remarks on Plato and Aristotle. The microcosm in Plato is discussed by F. M. Cornford throughout his commentary on the Timaeus in Plato's Cosmology (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1937); G. M. A. Grube discusses the microcosm as part of Plato's theory of the soul in Plato's Thought (London: Methuen, 1935), Ch. 4; see also F. M. Cornford, "Psychology and Social Structure in the Republic of Plato," in Classical Quarterly (1912): 247265; R. Hackforth's translation of the Philebus, with commentary, in Plato's Examination of Pleasure (Cambridge, U.K., 1945); and Gregory Vlastos, "Anamnesis in the Meno," in Dialogue 4 (2) (September 1965): 143167, which interprets the recollection theory with comments on its connection with the doctrine of reincarnation. Possible oriental influences on Plato are discussed in A. Olerud, L'idée de microcosmos et de macrocosmos dans la Timée de Platon (Uppsala, 1951). Two valuable relevant studies of Aristotle are W. K. C. Guthrie's introduction to the text and translation of Aristotle on the Heavens (London, 1939) and Friedrich Solmsen's Aristotle's System of the Physical World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1960).

On the Stoics, see Samuel Sambursky, The Physics of the Stoics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.)

On Plotinus, see the introductions and translations in E. R. Dodds, Select Passages Illustrating Neoplatonism (London, 1923), and A. H. Armstrong, Plotinus (London: Allen and Unwin, 1953). Remarks bearing on the microcosm in ancient thought generally are contained throughout E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Boston: Beacon, 1957); Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon, 1963), especially Ch. 10, "The Cosmos in Greek and Gnostic Evaluation"; A.-J. Festugière, Personal Religion among the Greeks (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954); E. A. Lippman, Musical Thought in Ancient Greece (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964); and Samuel Sambursky, The Physical World of the Greeks (London: Routledge and Paul, 1956). See also E. W. Beth, The Foundations of Mathematics: A Study in the Philosophy of Science, rev. ed. (New York, 1964), Chs. 1 and 2, "The Pre-history of Research into Foundations" and "Aristotle's Theory of Science."

Hildegard of Bingen's life and writings are examined in Charles Singer, From Magic to Science (New York: Dover, 1958), Ch. 6, "The Visions of Hildegard of Bingen," a rewritten chapter from Studies on the History and Method of Science, Vol. I (Oxford, 1917). Ernst Cassirer, Individuum und Kosmos in der Philosophie der Renaissance (Leipzig: Teubner, 1927), translated by Mario Domandi as The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy (New York: Harper, 1963), is the standard discussion of the microcosm in Renaissance thought. On the difficult subject of Renaissance occult literature, see D. P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella (London: Warburg Institute, University of London, 1958). Three chapters in Frederick Copleston's A History of Philosophy, Vol. III, Late Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy, Part 2 (Westminster, MD: Newman Bookshop, 1953), are useful surveys; Ch. 15 discusses the microcosm in Nicholas of Cusa, Chs. 16 and 17 are on the philosophy of nature. An important interpretation of Bruno is Frances Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964). There are also interesting discussions in Alexandre Koyré, Mystiques, spirituels, alchimistes du XVIe siècle allemand (Paris, 1955), and in Werner Pauli, "The Influence of Archetypal Ideas on the Scientific Theories of Kepler," in The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche (New York: Pantheon, 1955). Microcosm and macrocosm are discussed in the context of the idea of the chain of being in E. M. W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (New York, 1941); see also W. C. Curry, Shakespeare's Philosophical Patterns (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1937). On the transition from animism to mechanism in science, see E. J. Dijksterhuis, Mechanization of the World-Picture, translated by C. Dikshoorn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961); M. B. Hesse, Forces and Fields (London: T. Nelson, 1961); and Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield, The Architecture of Matter (New York: Harper and Row, 1962).

A brief account of Mesmer's ideas can be found in Clark L. Hull, Hypnosis and Suggestibility (New York: Appleton-Century, 1933), pp. 611. Schopenhauer's doctrine of the microcosm and its influence on Ludwig Wittgenstein are discussed in Patrick Gardiner, Schopenhauer (Baltimore: Penguin, 1963). Wittgenstein's remark "I am my world. (The microcosm.)" appears in the Tractatus, but without the connection with the world-spirit doctrine it has in his Notebooks (pp. 8485). Wittgenstein's idea of an internal connection between language, thought, and reality is discussed in Erik Stenius, Wittgenstein's Tractatus (Oxford, 1960), and Max Black, A Companion to Wittgenstein's Tractatus (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1964).

A short discussion of the microcosm image as employed by Freud and other analysts is contained in Philip Rieff's introduction to General Psychological Theory (New York, 1963), which is a volume in the paperback edition of Freud's Collected Papers ; see pp. 917. Freud discusses Empedocles in "Analysis Terminable and Interminable," in the volume Therapy and Technique, edited by Philip Rieff (New York, 1963), the paperback edition of Freud's Collected Papers. Jung's ideas are expressed in his Naturklärung und Psyche (Zürich: Rasche, 1952), translated by R. F. C. Hull as The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955). Ch. 3 of his essay "Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle" contains numerous quotations from earlier microcosm literature.

Problems that arise in trying to characterize the universe as a unified whole (or as a "whole" at all) on the basis of information concerning only a part and in trying to treat scientifically the nature of a necessarily unique object are presented in D. W. Sciama, The Unity of the Universe (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), pp. 69205. For further discussion and bibliography, see the Cosmology and Rationalism entries.

Donald Levy (1967)

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