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Microcosm and Macrocosm

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. 1110–1180), in the Polycraticus, and Marsilius of Padua (c. 1270–c. 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 (1588–1679).

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.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Methane to Molecular clockMicrocosm and Macrocosm - Origins, Plato, The Body Politic, Hellenism And Late Antiquity, Jewish And Muslim Theories In The Middle Ages