Macrocosm – Microcosm

Since Plato, and even before, it struck the imagination of humans that there exists a useful analogy between the macrocosm and the microcosm. The macrocosm is “The Great Universe.” It is an ordered cosmos, with perceived regularities and great periods of movement. The ancients saw the stars wheel through the heavens at night, the coming and going of the seasons, the great circle of time. On that great scale all is beautiful and moves in perfect harmony.

The Greeks made a distinction between the Heavens and the world below the moon, or the Sublunary Realm. Beyond the moon all is well. Plato’s Demiurgos, for example, who brought order to original chaos, tried his best to eliminate disorder. He does very well beyond the Moon. Unfortunately for us, the Demiurgos does not have fine grained control of the forces of matter and nature. There is no power that can tame a certain ‘recalcitrance’ in matter. This is why the creatures living on the earth occasionally suffer the shocks of earthquakes, famine, great epidemics, and war. Humans, themselves, are definitely ‘sub-lunary’ creatures, and remain chaotic despite trying, at times, to imitate the great model of the Heavens above them, or the Divine Mind or Power which people believed to lie behind it.

Later in history, but before the existence of modern mathematical science, the macrocosm – microcosm distinction took a large load of moral symbolism. There arose a doctrine of ‘correspondences’ between the macro and the microcosm. The slogan was “As above, so below.” The microcosm of the little world of humans recapitulates or mirrors the greater world of the macrocosm.

A remnant of this way of thinking lingers in the imagery of Shakespeare. King Lear experiences a mighty storm on a blasted heath that mirrors the chaos of his soul. In another play, Caesar ignores the dire omens that preceded his murder. When comets fly, or a bird falls from the sky, they are signs of a correspondence between the great and little worlds. We call this ‘magical thinking’ today, but that does not make it go away. Magical thinking still flourishes in the world, and nothing can stop a person from thinking magically. We used to look at the entrails of sheep to prognosticate the future. Now we try to ‘read’ the stock market, or estimate the invisible risks of investments.

The distinction between the macrocosm and the microcosm has also served an ideological purpose. It helped to establish hierarchical power structures in the world. The Chinese perfected this idea with their distinctions between Heaven and Earth, Emperor and Subject, Father – Son, and so on. The Emperor rules by the Will of the Macrocosm (Heaven), and the Earth prospers when it follows the will of heaven. In the West, too, the distinction had much the same purpose; namely, to bolster the Divine Right of Kings and the idea that everyone has a place a natural hierarchy.

Modern societies build change into the order of things. There is no microcosm or macrocosm because we live in an undivided universe. There is no ‘above,’ no ‘below,’ but only universal forces working out the details of their manifestations in space and time. This may be correct from a scientific point of view, which Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere.” However, the distinction may still have a use in helping us to explore the problems of ‘perspectival’ thinking, which is the view from somewhere.

Today, the distinction between the macrocosm and microcosm can highlight for us the gap that exists between the world at it is revealed to an individual’s immediate perceptual and cultural registry, and the greater world that always escapes it. How is this, and why is it important?

Grant for the sake of argument that human beings are perceiving, feeling, thinking and acting animals who exist in a perceptually limited field. This limited field is the microcosm. Not only is it bounded by the contours of an animal body, and immediate contact with a particular environment, but also by time itself. This animal body has a beginning, middle, and end in time. Therefore, a person’s animal life is spent in a microcosm. Our bodies provide both the opportunity and necessity of living in this perceptually limited world. There are as many microcosms as there are people on this planet. However, we are also aware of the macrocosm through learning, science and communication. The macrocosm is the universe as it transcends individuals’ particular experiences. The different sciences open up fit subjects for study and speculation. The excitement over the new Hadron collider is part of this, as is the amazing elaboration of the human genome. Philosophy, too, can put our necessarily microcosmic lives in a macro-cosmic perspective, giving us a longer and wider view of the universe, one that transcends the short lives and perceptual limitations of individuals.

Considering the macrocosm can thus act as a corrective to our basic myopia. People tend to take whatever is around them as reality, but thoughts of the macrocosm make us realize that our microcosmic reality is transcended on all sides by nature and differences between the histories and cultures of peoples and nations.

For example, living in a comfortable spot by the beach in Southern California, there is no war going on in the vicinity, no famine, and no great social unrest. There is hardship in East Los Angeles, poverty in Santa Ana, homelessness and untreated mental illness on Skid Row, but down by the beach, one would be forgiven for thinking that the world is a beautiful place, full of beautiful people out exercising. Everyone appears so laid back you would think that life is just a pleasant dream. Of course, there are problems, but the police force is beefy, and the streets fairly safe. If a person just lives in the microcosm of a beach town and sees nothing else, hears nothing else, and speaks nothing else, then the microcosm is all there is for that individual.

Thinking about the macrocosm and microcosm is important because it reminds us that how it is where we live is not how it is where someone else lives, even if the other person lives in the same town. Knowledge of the macrocosm draws us out of our little lives to stand in a wider world, feeling awe before the grandeur of nature, the sweep of human history, the growth of science, and the potential to integrate the great and the little into a life that appreciates both and can move from one to the other as the occasion demands.

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