Macrocosm and microcosm

From Academic Kids

Macrocosm and microcosm is an ancient Greek schema of seeing the same patterns reproduced in all levels of reality. It may have begun with Democritus in the fifth century B.C. or with Pythagoras and is a philosophical conception that runs through Socrates, and Plato and through to the Renaissance. With Pythagoras, the discovery of the golden ratio and its philosophical conception called the Golden mean, the Greeks saw that this golden ratio is repeated in all parts of the ordered universe both large and small. The Greeks were very concerned with a rational explanation of everything and saw this repetition of the golden mean as a pattern that was reproduced throughout reality. It a product of the ancient Greek mentality of seeing reality as a whole and noticing patterns that are repeated throughout all the levels of reality.

Macrocosm/microcosm is a Greek compound of μακρο- "Macro-" and μικρο- "Micro-", which are Greek respectively for "large" and "small", and the word κόσμος kósmos which means "order" as well as "world" or "ordered world".


Ancient thought

Macrocosm/microcosm is a principle in Socratic/Platonic philosophy. The Republic, most of it of Socratic influence, is based on this fundamental principle. The Republic is a discussion originally about righteousness (justice) for man and what is it. At §368, Socrates mentions that this virtue is “spoken as a virtue of an individual, and sometimes as the virtue of the state” and that it would be easier to discern its essence if one looked at the State because it would have a larger quantity of it and then proceeding back down into the individual to see how it appears in the smaller unit.

Furthermore, there is a tight interrelationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm in the human sphere. Socrates says, “Must we not acknowledge, I said, that in each of us there are the same principles and habits which there are in the state; and that from the individual they pass into the state?—how else can they come there? (1) It can be paraphrased as “How goes the part, so goes the Whole”. In their science of politics, Socrates and Plato both saw this principle at work.

This principle is also very prevalent in Plato and his theory of “Forms”.

It also permeated the thinking of Hermetic philosophers and alchemists. The earliest known usage of this schema, among them, can be dated to the 3rd century CE by the Greek Olympiadorus, who stated, "the mythic Hermes calls man a small cosmos", the literal meaning of mikro-kosmos. Hermes Trismegistus's axiom As above, so below meaning that all that is in the Cosmos is mirrored in man the small universe, also reflects the macro/micro correspondence.

Medieval and modern thought

Throughout the Middle Ages the Macrocosmic quaternities of the elements and the seasons were linked to the Microcosmic quaternities of the four humours and ages of Man. The macrocosm/microcosm schema was developed further by the Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus, who proposed that within man was an inner heaven with stars. Paracelsus's philosophy of correspondences was based upon the belief that for every ailment and illness in Man (the microcosm) there existed a cure in nature (the macrocosm).

The English physician and alchemist Robert Fludd (1574-1637) expicitly based his work Utriusque Cosmi Historia (The history of the two worlds) upon the macro/micro correspondence; as does Sir Thomas Browne in his binary Discourses of 1658: Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial depicts the small, temporal world of man, whilst The Garden of Cyrus represents the macrocosm, in which the ubiquitous and eternal quincunx pattern is discerned in art, nature and the Cosmos.

The great enigma of alchemy is the mystery between the macrocosm and microcosm. Equally an unsolved enigma of English literature is the relationship between Browne's diptych Discourses: the microcosm world of Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial and the macrocosm world of The Garden of Cyrus.

See Also


  1. Republic, Plato, trans. By B. Jowett M.A., Vintage Books, NY. § 435, pg 151


  • Theories of Macrocosms and Microcosms in the History of Philosophy, G. P. Conger, NY, l922, which includes a survey of critical discussions up to

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