Calvin and the Philosophers on Man as a “microcosm”

Man as a microcosm is not often used as a proof for God’s existence in modern Apologetics. The Argument from Desire and the Argument from Design have some relation to the microcosm principle. However, man as a microcosm is not those arguments stated differently.

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John Calvin referred to mankind as “a microcosm” in The Institutes. His purpose in doing so was much more than to demonstrate God’s existence. Calvin’s purpose was pastoral, meaning he was interested in presenting reasons for man’s due obligation to live unto God. In various other forms of speech and exposition Calvin spoke of man’s due reverence to God from the beginning of The Institutes (see 1.1.1, “joined by many bonds”) as he did throughout the work. The following excerpt is from Book 1, chapter 5, section 3.

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Certain philosophers, accordingly, long ago not ineptly called man a microcosm [note #9, Battles; note #58 Beveridge] because he is a rare example of God’s power, goodness, and wisdom, and contains within himself enough miracles to occupy our minds, if only we are not irked at paying attention to them. Paul, having stated that the blind can find God by feeling after him, immediately adds that he ought not to be sought afar off [Acts 17:27]. For each one undoubtedly feels within the heavenly grace that quickens him.

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With the first sentence of this section different editions of The Institutes offer references to the philosophers. Below are two examples:

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From the Battles edition, note #9

  • “μικρόκοσμον .” Aristotle’s thought of man as microcosmos over against, and analogous to, the macrocosmos, or universe as a whole, is expressed in his Physics viii. 2: “Now if this can occur in an animal, why should not the same be true of the universe as a whole? If it can occur in a small world ( ἐv μικρῷ κόσμῷ ), it can also occur in a great one.” (Tr. R. McKeon, Basic Works of Aristotle , p. 359; cf. LCL Aristotle, Physics II. 286 f.) This notion recurs in many later writers. It was frequently utilized in the Renaissance and became a literary commonplace. See G. P. Conger, Theories of Macrocosms and Microcosms in the History of Philosophy , pp. 59–72.

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From the Beveridge edition, note #58

  • See, Aristotle, History of Animals (book 1, chapter 5, section 17)
  • Macrobius, Commentarilis ex Cicerone in Scipionis (book 2, chapter 5, section 12)
  • Boethius, De Definitione (no reference mentioned)

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Calvin continued:

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Indeed, if there is no need to go outside ourselves to comprehend God, what pardon will the indolence of that man deserve who is loath to descend within himself to find God? For the same reason, David, when he has briefly praised the admirable name and glory of God, which shine everywhere, immediately exclaims: “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” [Ps. 8:4]. Likewise, “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast established strength.” [Ps. 8:2.] Indeed, he not only declares that a clear mirror of God’s works is in humankind, but that infants, while they nurse at their mothers’ breasts, have tongues so eloquent to preach his glory that there is no need at all of other orators. (Battles edition)

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The idea that “…man is a microcosm of the macrocosm, a view that extends from the pre-Socratics (Robinson, 1968), through Scholastic philosophy (Wulf, 1956) and the Renaissance (Cassirer, 1979), to Leibniz (1968), Wittgenstein (1966), Whitehead (1978), and others.” Man as microcosm was, in fact, a highly developed scheme in the Medieval philosophy and theology. Many diagrams and hierarchies of man’s place in the cosmos have been recovered from ancient, pre-modern and early modern writings. The header image of this post is of a Hebrew zodiac from the 6th century BC. The idea is not new. Though I won’t devote time to it in this post, C. S. Lewis’ Discarded Image describes this essential truth of man as the cosmos in miniature. 

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Although Calvin refers to the philosophers for the microcosm image he avoids the Monism or organicism which various philosophers have intended by the micro/macro figure. Calvin wanted his readers to see that man is a microcosm as “a rare example of God’s power, goodness, and wisdom…”  Other reformers used the figure of man as microcosm in keeping with the imago Dei such as in the work of Girolamo Zanchi. Zanchi noted that “Aristotle himself, and they say that this is man, whom certain thinkers call a μικρόκοσμον, because his spirit is heavenly and his body is composed from the elements…” These elements include “sense-perception…mind and reason.”

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