Microcosm-macrocosm Analogy in Jewish Philosophy
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Microcosm-macrocosm Analogy in Jewish Philosophy

Analogies between microcosm and macrocosm are found throughout the history of Jewish philosophy. According to this analogy, there is a structural similarity between the human being (the microcosm, from ancient Greek , mikrós kósmos; Hebrew ? , Olam katan, i.e., the small universe) and the cosmos as a whole (the macrocosm, from ancient Greek , makrós kósmos, i.e., the great universe).[1]

The view was elaborated by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE-50 CE), who adopted it from ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophy.[2] Similar ideas can also be found in early Rabbinical literature. In the Middle Ages, the analogy became a prominent theme in the works of most Jewish philosophers.

Rabbinical literature

In the Avot de-Rabbi Nathan (compiled c. 700-900 CE), human parts are compared with parts belonging to the larger world: the hair is like a forest, the lungs like the wind, the loins like counselors, the stomach like a mill, etc.[3]

Middle Ages

The microcosm-macrocosm analogy was a common theme among medieval Jewish philosophers, just as it was among the Arabic philosophers who were their peers. Especially influential with regard to the microcosm-macrocosm analogy were the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, an encyclopedic work written in the 10th century by an anonymous group of Shi'ite philosophers.[4] Having been brought to Islamic Spain at an early date by the hadith scholar and alchemist Maslama al-Qur?ub? (died 964),[5] the Epistles were of central importance to Spanish Jewish philosophers such as Bahya ibn Paquda (c. 1050-1120), Judah Halevi (c. 1075-1141), Joseph ibn Tzaddik (died 1149), and Abraham ibn Ezra (c. 1090-1165).[6]

Nevertheless, the analogy was already in use by earlier Jewish philosophers. In his commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah ("Book of Creation"), Saadia Gaon (882/892-942) put forward a set of analogies between the cosmos, the Tabernacle, and the human being.[7] Saadia was followed in this by a number of later authors, such as Bahya ibn Paquda, Judah Halevi, and Abraham ibn Ezra.[8]

Whereas the physiological application of the analogy in the Rabbinical work Avot de-Rabbi Nathan had still been relatively simple and crude, much more elaborate versions of this application were given by Bahya ibn Paquda and Joseph ibn Tzaddik (in his Sefer ha-Olam ha-Katan, "Book of the Microcosm"), both of whom compared human parts with the heavenly bodies and other parts of the cosmos at large.[9]

The analogy was linked to the ancient theme of "know thyself" (Greek? ?, gn?thi seauton) by the physician and philosopher Isaac Israeli (c. 832-932), who suggested that by knowing oneself, a human being may gain knowledge of all things.[10] This theme of self-knowledge returned in the works of Joseph ibn Tzaddik, who added that in this way humans may come to know God himself.[11] The macrocosm was also associated with the divine by Judah Halevi, who saw God as the spirit, soul, mind, and life that animates the universe, while according to Maimonides (1138-1204), the relationship between God and the universe is analogous to the relationship between the intellect and the human being.[12]

See also


  1. ^ The Greek terms may mean 'small universe' and 'great universe', but their primary meaning is 'small order' and 'great order', respectively (see wiktionary; cf. Allers 1944, pp. 320-321, note 5). The terms also occur in medieval Arabic sources as lam ?agh?r and in medieval Latin sources as microcosmus or minor mundus (see Kraemer 2007; on the Latin terminology, see Finckh 1999, p. 12).
  2. ^ See, e.g., Runia 1986, pp. 87, 133, 157, 211, 259, 278, 282, 315, 324, 339, 388, 465-466.
  3. ^ Jacobs & Broydé 1906.
  4. ^ Jacobs & Broydé 1906; Kraemer 2007. On the microcosm-macrocosm analogy in the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, see e.g., Widengren 1980; Nokso-Koivisto 2014; Krinis 2016.
  5. ^ De Callataÿ & Moureau 2017.
  6. ^ The Epistles of the Brethren of Purity were of much less importance to Maimonides (1138-1204), who also ignored Joseph ibn Tzaddik's work on the microcosm-macrocosm analogy; see Kraemer 2007.
  7. ^ Kraemer 2007.
  8. ^ Kraemer 2007.
  9. ^ Jacobs & Broydé 1906; Kraemer 2007. Physiological applications of the microcosm-macrocosm analogy are also found and in, a.o., the Hippocratic Corpus (see Kranz 1938, pp. 130-133), and in the Zoroastrian work Bundahishn (see Kraemer 2007).
  10. ^ Kraemer 2007.
  11. ^ Kraemer 2007.
  12. ^ Kraemer 2007.

Sources cited

  • Allers, Rudolf (1944). "Microcosmus: From Anaximandros to Paracelsus". Traditio. 2: 319-407.
  • De Callataÿ, Godefroid; Moureau, Sébastien (2017). "A Milestone in the History of Andalus? Binism: Maslama b. Q?sim al-Qur?ub?'s Ri?la in the East". Intellectual History of the Islamicate World. 5 (1): 86-117. doi:10.1163/2212943X-00501004.
  • Finckh, Ruth (1999). Minor Mundus Homo: Studien zur Mikrokosmos-Idee in der mittelalterlichen Literatur. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. ISBN 3-525-20579-1.
  • Jacobs, Joseph; Broydé, Isaac (1906). "Microcosm". In Singer, Isidore; Funk, Isaac K.; Vizetelly, Frank H. (eds.). Jewish Encyclopedia. 8. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. pp. 544-545.
  • Kraemer, Joel (2007). "Microcosm". In Skolnik, Fred; Berenbaum, Michael (eds.). Encyclopaedia Judaica. 14 (2 ed.). Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House. pp. 178-179. ISBN 978-0-02-865942-8.
  • Kranz, Walther (1938). "Kosmos und Mensch in der Vorstellung frühen Griechentums". Nachrichten von der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Philologisch-historische Klasse. 2 (7): 121-161. OCLC 905422149.
  • Krinis, Ehud (2016). "The Philosophical and Theosophical Interpretations of the Microcosm-Macrocosm Analogy in Ikhw?n al-?af?' and Jewish Medieval Writings". In Amir-Moezzi, Mohammad Ali; De Cillis, Maria; De Smet, Daniel; Mir-Kasimov, Orkhan (eds.). L'Ésotérisme shi'ite, ses racines et ses prolongements - Shi'i Esotericism: Its Roots and Developments. Turnhout: Brepols. pp. 395-409. doi:10.1484/M.BEHE-EB.4.01178.
  • Nokso-Koivisto, Inka (2014). Microcosm-Macrocosm Analogy in Rasil Ikhw?n a?-?af and Certain Related Texts (Unpubl. PhD diss.). University of Helsinki.
  • Runia, David T. (1986). Philo of Alexandria and the Timaeus of Plato. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-07477-4.
  • Widengren, G. (1980). "Macrocosmos-microcosmos speculation in the Rasa'il Ikhwan al-safa and some Hurufi texts". Archivio di filosofia. 48: 297-312.

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