1 minute read

Microcosm and Macrocosm

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 (205–270 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 melothesia—that each sign of the Zodiac corresponds to a specific part of the human body—in 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 1:26–27); 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.).

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