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Microcosm and Macrocosm

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 (1463–1494) 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 (1574–1637) impressively illustrated History of the Macrocosm and Microcosm (Utriusque cosmi, maioris scilicet et minoris …historia, 1617–1621); 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 (1831–1891), who combined the microcosm with evolution in The Secret Doctrine (1888), and the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), 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.



Bernardus Silvestris. The Cosmographia of Bernardus Silvestris. Translated by Winthrop Wetherbee. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973.

Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard of Bingen's Book of Divine Works, with Letters and Songs. Edited by Matthew Fox. Santa Fe, N.M.: Bear and Company, 1987.

Ibn Saddiq, Joseph. The Microcosm of Joseph Ibn Saddiq. Critically edited by Saul Horovitz; translated by Jacob Haberman. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003.

Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni. On the Dignity of Man, On Being and the One, Heptaplus. Translated by Charles Glenn Wallis, Paul J. W. Miller, and Douglas Carmichael. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.


Allers, Rudolf. "Microcosmus: From Anaximandros to Paracelsus." Traditio 2 (1944): 319–407.

Altmann, Alexander. "The Delphic Maxim in Medieval Islam and Judaism." In Biblical and Other Studies, edited by Alexander Altmann, 196–232. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Boas, George. "The Microcosm." In The History of Ideas: An Introduction, 212–238. New York: Scribners, 1969.

Conger, George Perrigo. "Cosmic Persons and Human Universes in Indian Philosophy." Journal and Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal New Series, 29 (1933): 255–270.

——. Theories of Macrocosms and Microcosms in the History of Philosophy. New York: Russell and Russell, 1967. Reprint of a Columbia University dissertation from 1922.

Dales, Richard C. "A Medieval View of Human Dignity." Journal of the History of Ideas 38 (1977): 557–572.

Finckh, Ruth. Minor Mundus Homo: Studien zur Mikrokosmos-Idee in der mittelalterlichen Literatur. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1999.

Guthrie, W. K. C. "Man's Role in the Cosmos. Man the Microcosm: the Idea in Greek Thought and its Legacy to Europe." In The Living Heritage of Greek Antiquity, 56–73. European Cultural Foundation. The Hague: Mouton, 1967.

McGinn, Bernard. The Golden Chain: A Study in the Theological Anthropology of Isaac of Stella. Washington, D.C.: Cistercian Publications, 1972.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines: Conceptions of Nature and Methods Used for Its Study by the Ikhwan-al-Safa, al-Biruni, and Ibn Sina. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Norford, Don Parry. "Microcosm and Macrocosm in Seventeenth-Century Literature." Journal of the History of Ideas 38 (1977): 409–428.

Saxl, F. "Macrocosm and Microcosm in Mediaeval Pictures." In Lectures, Vol. 1, 58–72. London: Warburg Institute, 1957.

Robert Ziomkowski

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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