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Microcosm and Macrocosm

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 (354–430) 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, 1.22.33–1.23.41). Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540–604) 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. 1175–1253) 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 (1401–1464) 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 (1098–1179) Book of Divine Works and in the allegorical commentary on Genesis by Godfrey of Saint-Victor (c. 1125–1194). 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.

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