Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


MICROCOSM (from Gr. mikros kosmos; "small world"), term in the Western philosophical tradition referring to man as an epitome of the universe (the macrocos) in his parts and structure. The Arabic (ʿālam ṣaghīr), Hebrew (olam katan), and Latin (mundis minor) terms are literal equivalents of the Greek. The term is said to be first attested in Aristotle (Physics, 8:2, 252b, 26–27), though the motif is older; indeed, the notion that some aspect of reality (the city, sanctuary, man) reflects the cosmos is both ancient and widespread. Though the broad diffusion of the microcosm motif in late antiquity (in Gnostic, Hermetic, neoplatonic, neopythagorean, Orphic, and stoic writings) complicates the study of original sources, its occurrence in medieval Arabic and Hebrew texts is mainly the result of neoplatonic influence. The analogy was frequently invoked to argue for the existence of a world soul or mind which directs and orders the physical universe as the soul does the body. The idea that man exemplifies all being was also used to buttress the theme of man's superiority, dignity, or freedom: as nodus et vinculum mundi, he epitomizes the entire scale of being (spiritual and material) and determines his own place, unlike angels and beasts whose nature is fixed. The elaboration of the neoplatonic hypostases was, in effect, a projection of human psychology to the supersensible world. Furthermore, the neoplatonic notion that the human mind is potentially a κόσμος νοητός ("intelligible world") implies that by knowing the intelligibles man becomes identical with all being. Microcosmic speculation tended to combine with astrology (correspondence between heavenly bodies and parts of the human body), medicine (universal and human nature, parallel between the four elements and the four humors), and magical practice (universal sympathy). Philo frequently compares man as microcosm βραχὑς κόσμο to the universe (Conger, in bibl., 16–18; H.A. Wolfson, Philo, 1 (1948), 424, n.), stressing the parallel between the human and cosmic minds (logoi; e.g., Op. 69–71). He is said to have drawn his theory of the microcosm from Greek and rabbinic sources (A. Altmann in bibl., 20). Among the latter is found a long list of gross analogies between parts of the world and parts of man in Avot de-Rabbi Nathan (ARN2 31, 92). (For other rabbinic sources, see Altmann, 21, n.) In medieval Jewish philosophy the motif is frequently cited, being part of the common stock of popular philosophy found in such works as the Epistles of the *Brethren of Sincerity. It is mentioned, for example, by *Saadiah Gaon in his commentary on the Sefer Yeẓirah (ed. by M. Lambert (1891), 67ff., 91), where he compares God to life and intelligence and sets forth a series of analogues between the universe, the sanctuary, and man (followed by Abraham Ibn Ezra in his commentary on Ex. 25:40; see Altmann, in bibl., 25–26); by *Baḥya ibn Paquda (Ḥovot ha-Levavot, 2:4); and by *Judah Halevi in his Kuzari (4:3), where he quotes "the philosophers" who compared the world to a macranthropos ("large man") and man to a microcosm, implying that God is the spirit, soul, mind, and life of the world. (For other citations of the microcosm motif by medieval Jewish philosophers, see Conger, in bibl., 37ff., and Altmann, in bibl., 27–28.)

The microcosm theme was productive in *Israeli, Ibn *Gabirol, and Joseph ibn *Ẓaddik. Israeli links it to his definition of philosophy as self-knowledge: "This being so, it is clear that man, if he knows himself in both his spirituality and corporeality, comprises knowledge of all, and knows both the spiritual and the corporeal substance, and also knows the first substance which is created from the power of the Creator without mediator … " (A. Altmann and S.M. Stern (eds.), Isaac Israeli (1959), 27; see comments, ibid., 28–30, 203–8, and Altmann, in bibl., 22–23). The same combination of philosophy as self-knowledge and the consequent knowledge of all is found in Ibn Ḥaddik's Sefer ha-Olam ha-Katan (Introd.). Ibn Ḥaddik adds that this knowledge leads to knowledge of the Creator. (See also Sefer ha-Olam ha-Katan, pt. 2, Introd., where Job 19:26 is cited as a proof verse – "And from my flesh I shall behold God"; cf. Altmann-Stern, 208; Altmann, in bibl., 23, 25; and Vajda, in bibl., 97 and n. 3, who cites the similar combination of the microcosm and γνῶθι σεαυτόν ("know yourself ") themes by Abraham ibn Ezra.) In a more primitive vein, reminiscent of Avot de-Rabbi Nathan and the microcosm passage in the Iranian Greater Bundahišhn (trans. by B.T. Anklesaria (1956), 245), Ibn Ḥaddik (pt. 2, ch. 1), referring to "the ancients," compares the members of the human organism to the heavenly bodies (head to the outer sphere, nostrils to Venus, mouth to Mars, tongue to Mercury, vertebrae to the signs of the zodiac, eyes to the sun and moon, ears to Saturn and Jupiter), while the arteries are compared to the seas and rivers, the bones to the mountains, the hair to the plants, and the four humors to the four elements (see Altmann, in bibl., 24; and Vajda, in bibl., 113, who brands this a "néoplationisme vulgarisé"). Nothing so gross appears in Ibn Gabirol's Mekor Ḥayyim. Though the term for microcosm (ʿālam ṣaghir = mundis minor) appears but once (3:2, 10; see S. Pines, in Tarbiz, 27 (1958), 220), Ibn Gabirol makes ample use of the motif. Following the general principle that the inferior is an exemplar of the superior, man as microcosm is said to exemplify the macrocosm. The correspondence is utilized to demonstrate, for example, that the most simple substance is not in contact with the substance that bears the nine categories (3:2, 10, see also 3:58). The action of the particular will is invoked in order to explain that of the universal will (5:37).

Maimonides had little use for the popular philosophy of the Brethren of Sincerity and says he never read Ibn Ḥaddik's Sefer ha-Olam ha-Katan (in his letter to Ibn Tibbon; A. Marx (ed.), in: JQR, 25 (1934–35), 378–9), but in a central chapter of the Guide (1:72) he sets forth an elaborate analogy (with qualifications) between the whole of being and man, the parallel par excellence, being that between God vis-à-vis the universe and the rational intellect vis-à-vis man. It is on the basis of this parallel that man is called a microcosm. In his structure man exemplifies the unity within diversity and the hierarchical ordering of the universe (an idea which appears frequently in the writings of al-Fārābī). With this analogy in the Guide microcosmic speculation in Jewish philosophy reaches its peak, from which it ebbs with the decline of Jewish neoplatonism occasioned by the rise of Jewish Aristotelianism in the post-Maimonidean era. A notable exception is Judah *Abrabanel (Leone Ebreo), the Renaissance neoplatonist, who set forth analogies between the heavens and parts of the body (astrological microcosm; cf. Ibn Ḥaddik) in the second dialogue of his Dialoghi d'amore (ed. Carmella (1929), 84f.; trans. by F. Friedberg-Seeley and J.H. Barnes (1937), 93ff.).


A. Altmann, Studies in Religious Philosophy and Mysticism (1969); G. Vajda, in: Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge, 24 (1949), 93–181; D. Levy, in: The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 5 (1967), 121–5 (with good bibl.); G.P. Conger, Theories of Macrocosms and Microcosms in the History of Philosophy (1922); M. Doctor, Die Philosophic des Josef (Ibn) Ḥaddik (1895); H. Schipperges, in: P. Wilpert (ed.), Antike und Orient im Mittelalter (1962), 129–53 (with extensive bibliography); R. Allers, in: Tradition, 2 (1944), 319–407; A. Goetze, in: Zeitschrift fuer Indologie und Iranistik, 2 (1923), 60–98.