Text #9157"Anaximander", in .
Anaximander (c. 610 – c. 546 BC) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived in Miletus, a city of Ionia (in modern-day Turkey). He belonged to the Milesian school and learned the teachings of his master Thales. He succeeded Thales and became the second master of that school where he counted Anaximenes and, arguably, Pythagoras amongst his pupils.
Little of his life and work is known today. According to available historical documents, he is the first philosopher known to have written down his studies, although only one fragment of his work remains. Fragmentary testimonies found in documents after his death provide a portrait of the man.
He was an early proponent of science and tried to observe and explain different aspects of the universe, with a particular interest in its origins, claiming that nature is ruled by laws, just like human societies, and anything that disturbs the balance of nature does not last long. Like many thinkers of his time, Anaximander’s contributions to philosophy relate to many disciplines. In astronomy, he tried to describe the mechanics of celestial bodies in relation to the Earth. In physics, his postulation that the indefinite (or apeiron) was the source of all things led Greek philosophy to a new level of conceptual abstraction. His knowledge of geometry allowed him to introduce the gnomon in Greece. He created a map of the world that contributed greatly to the advancement of geography. He was also involved in the politics of Miletus and was sent as a leader to one of its colonies.
Anaximander claimed that an “indefinite” (apeiron) principle gives rise to all natural phenomena. Carl Sagan claims that he conducted the earliest recorded scientific experiment.
Anaximander’s theories were influenced by the Greek mythical tradition, and by some ideas of Thales – the father of philosophy – as well as by observations made by older civilizations in the East[dubious – discuss] (especially by the Babylonian astrologers). All these were elaborated rationally. In his desire to find some universal principle, he assumed, like traditional religion, the existence of a cosmic order; and in elaborating his ideas on this he used the old mythical language which ascribed divine control to various spheres of reality. This was a common practice for the Greek philosophers in a society which saw gods everywhere, therefore they could fit their ideas into a tolerably elastic system.
Some scholars saw a gap between the existing mythical and the new rational way of thought which is the main characteristic of the archaic period (8th to 6th century BC) in the Greek city states. Because of this, they did not hesitate to speak for a “Greek miracle”. But if we follow carefully the course of Anaximander’s ideas, we will notice that there was not such an abrupt break as initially appears. The basic elements of nature (water, air, fire, earth) which the first Greek philosophers believed that constituted the universe represent in fact the primordial forces of previous thought. Their collision produced what the mythical tradition had called cosmic harmony. In the old cosmogonies – Hesiod (8th – 7th century BC) and Pherecydes (6th century BC) – Zeus establishes his order in the world by destroying the powers which were threatening this harmony, (the Titans). Anaximander claimed that the cosmic order is not monarchic but geometric and this causes the equilibrium of the earth which is lying in the centre of the universe. This is the projection on nature of a new political order and a new space organized around a centre which is the static point of the system in the society as in nature. In this space there is isonomy (equal rights) and all the forces are symmetrical and transferrable. The decisions are now taken by the assembly of demos in the agora which is lying in the middle of the city.
The same rational way of thought led him to introduce the abstract apeiron (indefinite, infinite, boundless, unlimited) as an origin of the universe, a concept that is probably influenced by the original Chaos (gaping void, abyss, formless state) of the mythical Greek cosmogony from which everything else appeared. It also takes notice of the mutual changes between the four elements. Origin, then, must be something else unlimited in its source, that could create without experiencing decay, so that genesis would never stop.
Anaximander explains how the four elements of ancient physics (air, earth, water and fire) are formed, and how Earth and terrestrial beings are formed through their interactions. Unlike other Pre-Socratics, he never defines this principle precisely, and it has generally been understood (e.g., by Aristotle and by Saint Augustine) as a sort of primal chaos. According to him, the Universe originates in the separation of opposites in the primordial matter. It embraces the opposites of hot and cold, wet and dry, and directs the movement of things; an entire host of shapes and differences then grow that are found in “all the worlds” (for he believed there were many).
Anaximander maintains that all dying things are returning to the element from which they came (apeiron). The one surviving fragment of Anaximander’s writing deals with this matter. Simplicius transmitted it as a quotation, which describes the balanced and mutual changes of the elements:
Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
According to necessity;
For they give to each other justice and recompense
For their injustice
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.
Simplicius mentions that Anaximander said all these “in poetic terms”, meaning that he used the old mythical language. The goddess Justice (Dike) keeps the cosmic order. This concept of returning to the element of origin was often revisited afterwards, notably by Aristotle, and by the Greek tragedian Euripides: “what comes from earth must return to earth.”
Physicist Max Born, in commenting upon Werner Heisenberg’s arriving at the idea that the elementary particles of quantum mechanics are to be seen as different manifestations, different quantum states, of one and the same “primordial substance,”’ proposed that this primordial substance be called apeiron.
Anaximander’s bold use of non-mythological explanatory hypotheses considerably distinguishes him from previous cosmology writers such as Hesiod. It confirms that pre-Socratic philosophers were making an early effort to demythify physical processes. His major contribution to history was writing the oldest prose document about the Universe and the origins of life; for this he is often called the “Father of Cosmology” and founder of astronomy. However, pseudo-Plutarch states that he still viewed celestial bodies as deities.
Anaximander was the first to conceive a mechanical model of the world. In his model, the Earth floats very still in the centre of the infinite, not supported by anything. It remains “in the same place because of its indifference”, a point of view that Aristotle considered ingenious, but false, in On the Heavens. Its curious shape is that of a cylinder with a height one-third of its diameter. The flat top forms the inhabited world, which is surrounded by a circular oceanic mass.
Anaximander’s realization that the Earth floats free without falling and does not need to be resting on something has been indicated by many as the first cosmological revolution and the starting point of scientific thinking. Karl Popper calls this idea “one of the boldest, most revolutionary, and most portentous ideas in the whole history of human thinking.” Such a model allowed the concept that celestial bodies could pass under the Earth, opening the way to Greek astronomy.
According to Simplicius, Anaximander already speculated on the plurality of worlds, similar to atomists Leucippus and Democritus, and later philosopher Epicurus. These thinkers supposed that worlds appeared and disappeared for a while, and that some were born when others perished. They claimed that this movement was eternal, “for without movement, there can be no generation, no destruction”.
In addition to Simplicius, Hippolytus reports Anaximander’s claim that from the infinite comes the principle of beings, which themselves come from the heavens and the worlds (several doxographers use the plural when this philosopher is referring to the worlds within, which are often infinite in quantity). Cicero writes that he attributes different gods to the countless worlds.
Anaximander attributed some phenomena, such as thunder and lightning, to the intervention of elements, rather than to divine causes. In his system, thunder results from the shock of clouds hitting each other; the loudness of the sound is proportionate with that of the shock. Thunder without lightning is the result of the wind being too weak to emit any flame, but strong enough to produce a sound. A flash of lightning without thunder is a jolt of the air that disperses and falls, allowing a less active fire to break free. Thunderbolts are the result of a thicker and more violent air flow.
Anaximander speculated about the beginnings and origin of animal life. Taking into account the existence of fossils, he claimed that animals sprang out of the sea long ago. The first animals were born trapped in a spiny bark, but as they got older, the bark would dry up and break. As the early humidity evaporated, dry land emerged and, in time, humankind had to adapt. The 3rd century Roman writer Censorinus reports:
“Anaximander of Miletus considered that from warmed up water and earth emerged either fish or entirely fishlike animals. Inside these animals, men took form and embryos were held prisoners until puberty; only then, after these animals burst open, could men and women come out, now able to feed themselves.”
Anaximander put forward the idea that humans had to spend part of this transition inside the mouths of big fish to protect themselves from the Earth’s climate until they could come out in open air and lose their scales. He thought that, considering humans’ extended infancy, we could not have survived in the primeval world in the same manner we do presently.
Both Strabo and Agathemerus (later Greek geographers) claim that, according to the geographer Eratosthenes, Anaximander was the first to publish a map of the world. The map probably inspired the Greek historian Hecataeus of Miletus to draw a more accurate version. Strabo viewed both as the first geographers after Homer.
In his philosophical work De Divinatione (I, 50, 112), Cicero states that Anaximander convinced the inhabitants of Lacedaemon to abandon their city and spend the night in the country with their weapons because an earthquake was near. The city collapsed when the top of the Taygetus split like the stern of a ship. Pliny the Elder also mentions this anecdote (II, 81), suggesting that it came from an “admirable inspiration”, as opposed to Cicero, who did not associate the prediction with divination.
Aelian: Various History (III, 17)
Aëtius: De Fide (I-III; V)
Agathemerus: A Sketch of Geography in Epitome (I, 1)
Aristotle: Meteorology (II, 3) Translated by E. W. Webster
Aristotle: On Generation and Corruption (II, 5) Translated by H. H. Joachim
Aristotle: On the Heavens (II, 13) Translated by J. L. Stocks
Aristotle. Wikisource link to Physics. Wikisource. (III, 5, 204 b 33–34)
Censorinus: De Die Natali (IV, 7) See original text at LacusCurtius
Cicero (1853) [original: 44 BC]. Wikisource link to On divination. Trans. Charles Duke Yonge. Wikisource. (I, 50, 112)
Cicero: On the Nature of the Gods (I, 10, 25)
Diogenes Laërtius, Life of Anaximander, translated by Robert Drew Hicks (1925).
Euripides: The Suppliants (532) Translated by E. P. Coleridge
Eusebius of Caesarea: Preparation for the Gospel (X, 14, 11) Translated by E.H. Gifford
Heidel, W.A. Anaximander’s Book: PAAAS, vol. 56, n.7, 1921, pp. 239–288.
Herodotus: Histories (II, 109) See original text in Perseus project
Hippolytus (?): Refutation of All Heresies (I, 5) Translated by Roberts and Donaldson
Pliny the Elder: Natural History (II, 8) See original text in Perseus project
Pseudo-Plutarch: The Doctrines of the Philosophers (I, 3; I, 7; II, 20–28; III, 2–16; V, 19)
Seneca the Younger: Natural Questions (II, 18)
Simplicius: Comments on Aristotle’s Physics (24, 13–25; 1121, 5–9)
Strabo: Geography (I, 1) Books 1‑7, 15‑17 translated by H. L. Jones
Themistius: Oratio (36, 317)
The Suda (Suda On Line)
Brumbaugh, Robert S. (1964). The Philosopher’s of Greece. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.
Burnet, John (1920). Early Greek Philosophy (3rd ed.). London: Black.
Conche, Marcel (1991). Anaximandre: Fragments et témoignages (in French). Paris: Presses universitaires de France.
Couprie, Dirk L.; Robert Hahn; Gerard Naddaf (2003). Anaximander in Context: New Studies in the Origins of Greek Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Furley, David J.; Reginald E. Allen (1970). Studies in Presocratic Philosophy, vol. 1. London: Routledge.
Guthrie, W.K.C. (1962). The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans. A History of Greek Philosophy 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hahn, Robert (2001). Anaximander and the Architects. The Contribution of Egyptian and Greek Architectural Technologies to the Origins of Greek Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Heidegger, Martin (2002). Off the Beaten Track. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kahn, Charles H. (1960). Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology. New York: Columbia University Press.
Kirk, Geoffrey S.; Raven, John E. (1983). The Presocratic Philosophers (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Luchte, James (2011). Early Greek Thought: Before the Dawn. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1962). Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. Chicago: Regnery.
Robinson, John Mansley (1968). An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy. Houghton and Mifflin.
Ross, Stephen David (1993). Injustice and Restitution: The Ordinance of Time. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Rovelli, Carlo (2011). The First Scientist, Anaximander and his Legacy. Yardley: Westholme.
Sandywell, Barry (1996). Presocratic Reflexivity: The Construction of Philosophical Discourse, c. 600–450 BC 3. London: Routledge.
Seligman, Paul (1962). The “Apeiron” of Anaximander. London: Athlone Press.
Vernant, Jean-Pierre (1982). The Origins of Greek Thought. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Wheelwright, Philip, ed. (1966). The Presocratics. New York: Macmillan.
Wright, M.R. (1995). Cosmology in Antiquity. London: Routledge.