The microcosm-macrocosm analogy (or, equivalently, macrocosm-microcosm analogy) refers to the view according to which there is a structural similarity between the human being (the microcosm, i.e., the small order or the small universe) and the cosmos as a whole (the macrocosm, i.e., the great order or the great universe). Given this fundamental analogy, truths about the nature of the cosmos as a whole may be inferred from truths about human nature, and vice versa.
One important corollary of this view is that the cosmos as a whole may be considered to be alive, and thus to have a mind or soul (the world soul). Moreover, this cosmic mind or soul was often thought to be divine, most notably by the Stoics and those who were influenced by them, such as the authors of the Hermetica. Hence, it was sometimes inferred that the human mind or soul too was divine in nature.
Apart from this important psychological and noetic (i.e., related to the mind) application, the analogy was also applied to human physiology. For example, the cosmological functions of the seven classical planets were sometimes taken to be analogous to the physiological functions of human organs, such as the heart, the spleen, the liver, the stomach, etc.
The view itself is ancient, and may be found in many philosophical systems world-wide, such as for example in ancient Mesopotamia, in ancient Iran, or in ancient Chinese philosophy. However, the terms microcosm and macrocosm refer more specifically to the analogy as it was developed in ancient Greek philosophy and its medieval and early modern descendants.
In contemporary usage, the terms microcosm and macrocosm are also employed to refer to any smaller system that is representative of a larger one, and vice versa.
Among ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophers, notable proponents of the microcosm-macrocosm analogy included Anaximander (c. 610 – c. 546 BCE), Plato (c. 428 or 424 – c. 348 BCE), the Hippocratic authors (late fifth or early fourth century BCE and onwards), and the Stoics (third century BCE and onwards). In later periods, the analogy was especially prominent in the works of those philosophers who were heavily influenced by Platonic and Stoic thought, such as Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE – c. 50 CE), the authors of the early Greek Hermetica (c. 100 BCE – c. 300 CE), and the Neoplatonists (third century CE and onwards).
Medieval philosophy was generally dominated by Aristotle, who had posited a fundamental and unsurmountable difference between the region below the moon (the sublunary world, consisting of the four elements) and the region above the moon (the superlunary world, consisting of a fifth element). Nevertheless, the microcosm-macrocosm analogy was adopted by a wide variety of medieval thinkers, most notably by alchemists such as those writing under the name of Jabir ibn Hayyan (c. 850–950 CE), by the anonymous Shi'ite philosophers known as the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ ("The Brethren of Purity", c. 900–1000 CE), by the Andalusian mystic Ibn Arabi (1165–1240), and by the German cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464).
The revival of Hermeticism and Neoplatonism in the Renaissance, both of which had reserved a prominent place for the microcosm-macrocosm analogy, also led to a marked rise in popularity of the latter. Some of the most notable proponents of the concept in this period include Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499), Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535), Francesco Patrizi (1529–1597), Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), and Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639). It was also central to the new medical theories propounded by the Swiss physician Paracelsus (1494–1541) and his many followers, most notably Robert Fludd (1574–1637).
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