On Sensation and the Microcosm

Introduction by Wendy Boring

Bonaventure says: “2. Let it be noted then that this world, which is called the "macrocosm," enters our souls, which are called the "microcosm," through the doors of the five senses, according to the apprehension, delectation, and judgment of sensible things themselves. This is apparent as follows: In the world some things are generating, some generated, some governing the former and the latter. The generating are simple bodies, celestial bodies, and the four elements.”

Original Latin

All the Universe in One Person

Medieval cosmology understood the human being as embedded in an ordered universe in which the human body was governed by the forces of nature, the zodiac, and the heavens. Classical Greek texts in philosophy and medicine, the biblical account of Creation in Genesis, and Greek, Latin, and Islamic science, astrology, and geography combined to create a many-layered universe in which the human and the universe were seen as complementary, mirrored aspects of a single whole. 

Plato's Timmaeus described the human body as a microcosm of the universe containing the four elements from which the cosmos was generated: earth, water, fire, and ether.  The four elements corresponded with the four humours in the human: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.  The humors in turn produced the four temperaments: sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic.   The humors governed one's basic temperament, dictated what medieval treatment was appropriate for various ailments, and corresponded to stages in the human life.

Popular belief held that different regions of the earth were governed by different signs of the zodiac.   Theological belief combined with Aristotelian science and metaphysics held that God as the Primum mobile, through the power of light, moved the Celestial Intelligences, which in turn turned the spheres of the heavens.

Bonaventure's text begins with this idea of the human as a microcosm and emphasizes the hierarchical arrangement of the cosmos.  According to Aristotelian science, the visible world contains:

  • things that generate (the heavenly bodies and the four elements)
  • things that are generated and are composed of the elements (minerals, plants, animals, human bodies)
  • things that govern both (spiritual substances).

Using the Senses to Contemplate the Divine

The spiritual substances are divided into those completely bound up with matter like the souls of brutes, or separable from matter.  The latter are the souls of rational spirits like humans, or celestial spirits, the highest of which are what philosophers call “intelligences,” or theologians call angels.   Bonaventure describes how the Celestial spirits receive an influx of power from God, which they in turn use to move and order the universe, an idea that Dante will express poetically in the Paradiso (Canto II, 125-145)

Bonaventure's purpose in rehearsing this cosmology is found in the passage just beyond the one excerpted:  just as the material universe is ordered and regulated by the purely spiritual substances, so too our soul orders and regulates the material input from the senses. 

In this activity of cognition, we can see the vestiges, or footprints, of God.  In our capacity to take the input from sensible species and use judgment abstract from time and space to form universal laws, we can see the power of reason to know immutable, changeless truths and are led from this to contemplate the absolutely eternal, immutable nature of God.