Anaximander 610 B.C.–c. 546 B.C.
Anaximander is considered one of the most important of Presocratic philosophers, all of whom are concerned with the principle governing change in the natural world. Some accounts name him as the first Western philosopher, as he was the first to have developed a comprehensive scientific approach to the origin and guiding principles of the world. Anaximander constructs a cosmology based upon the apeiron, or the Bound less, which is itself an indeterminate substance which gave rise to all particular entities. Furthermore, he is credited by Diogenes Laertius not only with developing an original model of the universe and the foundations of life but with producing the first known map in the West and with being the first Greek author to write in prose.
whatsoever is known about Anaximander's life has been gleaned from various sources, some of which conflict in their accounts. Most histories place his birth in 610 B.C. in Miletus, a city in Ionia. Anaximander may have been a student of Thales and was at least well acquainted with Thales's ideas. Anaximander himself was followed by a philosopher named Anaximenes, and the three together are known as the Milesian philosophers. As a prominent citizen of Miletus, Anaximander conducted the colony of Apollonia on the Black Sea. Although it is less certain than that of his birth, there is general agreement that the date of Anaximander's death is approximately 546 B.C.
During his lifetime, Anaximander wrote at least four works, which were housed in the library at Alexandria: On Nature, Description of the Earth, The Fixed Stars, and Sphere. These titles, however, may actually be subtitles of a single work. Anaximander's contributions fall into four major areas: the structure of the natural order, the shape and position of the earth, the origin of living creatures, and the causes of meteorological phenomena. While Thales defines the foundation of all matter as water, Anaximander contends that any particular substance could not be the ground of all
other particular substances. His cosmology is based on the concept of apeiron (generally translated as the Boundless or the Infinite). The Boundless transcends all specific characteristics but falls into opposition in its actualization in the natural world. The most fundamental of these oppositions—wet-dry and hot-cold—cause all motion and change in the universe. Anaximander claims that these cosmic forces are in continual conflict: any increase of water is an encroachment on dryness. Changes in the natural order therefore can be attributed to "justice," by which the "wrongdoing" of each force is counteracted by an equal and opposite force.
The only extant fragment of Anaximander's writing survived as part of a historical work by Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle. Theophrastus's study of the Presocratic philosophers was a resource for Aristotle's Physics. Theophrastus' writing is only indirectly preserved in the commentary on Aristotle's Physics by Simplicius entitled "Of the Opinions of the Physicists." Aristotle frequently refers to Anaximander in various extant works, and the Doxographers, who in the first century A.D. began studying Presocratic philosophy, also draw on Anaximander's work. However, all of these sources present problems of interpretation: Theophrastus's historical survey is highly schematic and only excerpted and paraphrased Anaximander's own writing; Aristotle refers to Anaximander without citation and tends to interpret rather than directly report on Presocratic ideas; Simplicius' work is thrice removed from Anaximander's text; the Doxographers approach their studies with particular interests and ultimately rely on Theophrastus' historical survey for information on Anaximander.
Anaximander's immediate successor—Anaximenes, the third of the Milesian philosophers—incorporates aspects of both Thales's and Anaximander's innovations. Although he retains the notion of the Boundless, he considers the world-substance to be air, which is held to divine status. Thus, Anaximenes's system returns to a natural order controlled by divine forces that could initiate change. Anaximander rejects the idea that the natural world is governed by the highly arbitrary and personified influence of deities and instead seeks a universal law by which nature can be understood as a system. Because of this move towards science, many historians consider Anaximander to be the first philosopher. His attempt to construct a system that unites science and philosophy places Anaximander at the beginning of a long tradition of rational inquiry, and his early innovations in the study of the natural world make him a significant figure in the history of Western philosophy.
SOURCE: John Burnet, "The Ionians," in Greek Philosophy: Thales to Plato, Part I, Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1920, pp. 17-36
[In the following excerpt, Burnet examines Anaximander's scientific system in relation to later ancient and early modern cosmological models.]
[The] generation of the Milesian school [after Thales] is represented by Anaximander. We are on surer ground with regard to his doctrines; for he wrote a book which was extant in the time of Theophrastos and later. It is probable that it was the first Greek book written in prose, and it may be noted here that Ionic prose was the regular medium of philosophical and scientific writing. Two Greek philosophers, Parmenides and Empedokles, wrote in verse at a later date, but that was quite exceptional, and due to causes we can still to some extent trace. Anaximander was also the first cartographer, and this connects him with his younger fellow-citizen Hekataios, whose work formed, as has been said, the text of Anaximander's map.
Anaximander seems to have thought it unnecessary to fix upon "air," water, or fire as the original and primary form of body. He preferred to represent that sim ply as a boundless something … from which all things arise and to which they all return again. His reason for looking at it in this way is still in part ascertainable. It is certain that he had been struck by a fact which dominated all...
(The entire section is 1109 words.)
SOURCE: B. A. G. Fuller, "The School of Miletus: The First Philosophers," in History of Greek Philosophy: Thales to Democritus, Henry Holt and Company, 1923, pp. 76-102.
[In this excerpt, Fuller suggests that Anaximander complicated ancient cosmology by describing the world-substance as the indeterminate ground of determinate physical types, thus presaging modern evolutionary theory.]
Anaximander, a pupil of Thales, was born about 610 B.C. He lived to see the fall of Sardis and the destruction of the Lydian Empire. Indeed, the publication of his book on philosophy, perhaps the first Greek work in prose, is said to have taken place in the same memorable year—546 B.C. Only fragments of this book have come down to us, but it was extant in the time of Aristotle. The exact date of his death is unknown.
Anaximander seems to have shared the universality of his age and of his master. He evinced a profound and scientific interest in astronomy, geography, and biology, and drew the maps—the first in existence in the Western world—to illustrate the descriptions of his fellow-townsman, the geographer Hecatæsus.
With the philosophical conclusions of his teacher the pupil was unable to agree. He asked the same simple and comprehensive question, and answered it also in a single word. But the word was different. Apparently he found water too specific, too wedded to its own...
(The entire section is 1252 words.)
SOURCE: John Burnet, "Anaximander," in Early Greek Philosophy, The Meridian Library, 1957, pp. 50-71.
[In the following excerpt, Burnet explains Anaximander's cosmological theories regarding the physical composition of the earth and its position in the universe.]
Anaximander, son of Praxiades, was … a citizen of Miletos, and Theophrastos described him as an "associate" of Thales.1 …
According to Apollodoros, Anaximander was sixty-four years old in Ol. LVIII. 2 (547/6 B.C.); and this is confirmed by Hippolytos, who says he was born in Ol. XLII. 3 (610/9 B.C.), and by Pliny, who assigns his great discovery of the obliquity of the zodiac to Ol. LVIII.2 We seem to have something more here than a combination of the ordinary type; for, according to all the rules, Anaximander should have "flourished" in 565 B.C., half-way between Thales and Anaximenes, and this would make him sixty, not sixty-four, in 546. Now Apollodoros appears to have said that he had met with the work of Anaximander; and the only reason he can have had for mentioning this must be that he found in it some indication which enabled him to fix its date. Now 547/6 is just the year before the fall of Sardeis, and we may perhaps conjecture that Anaximander mentioned what his age had been at the time of that event. We know from Xenophanes that the question, "How old were you when the Mede appeared?" was...
(The entire section is 6452 words.)
SOURCE: William K. C. Guthrie, "Anaximander," in A History of Greek Philosophy, Vol. I, Cambridge at the University Press, 1962, pp. 72-145.
[In the excerpt that follows, Guthrie provides a historical framework for Anaximander's cosmology and cosmogony, contending that Anaximander made original and significant contributions to scientific thought.]
(1) Date, writings, interests
Anaximander was a younger friend and fellow-citizen of Thales…. Apollodorus says with unusual precision that he was sixty-four in the year 547/6 ([Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers; hereafter D.L.] II, 2).1 Following the tradition that Thales wrote nothing, Themistius described him as 'the first of the Greeks, to our knowledge, who was bold enough to publish a treatise on nature'. Certain it is that he wrote a book, which seems to have come into the hands of Apollodorus the chronologist, and we may feel some confidence that it was in the library of the Lyceum under Aristotle and Theophrastus. Yet it is perhaps worth remarking that neither Anaximander nor Anaximenes is mentioned by any writer before Aristotle. Plato, though he tells a story about Thales, and quotes the dictum elsewhere attributed to him that all things are full of gods, nowhere mentions the other two Milesians, nor makes any certain reference to their doctrines. This remarkable fact has led the Swiss...
(The entire section is 14105 words.)
SOURCE: Edward Hussey, "The Milesians," in The Presocratics, Duckworth, 1972, pp. 11-31.
[In the following excerpt, Hussey examines Anaximander's philosophy in the larger context of Milesian cosmology.]
The Theogony of Hesiod is very likely the earliest work of Greek literature that we possess. Its author lived in Boeotia, on the Greek mainland, and can be plausibly dated to near the beginning of the seventh century. The Theogony is an attempt to construct a unified genealogy of the gods. It is far from being merely a reworking of traditional Greek stories. The chief deities of the Greeks have a prominent place; but the story which looms largest—the 'Succession Myth', in which Uranus is deposed by his son Cronus who is in turn succeeded by his son Zeus—is of Near Eastern origin, though it had perhaps arrived in Greece in the Mycenean age. What is more, the well-known gods are surrounded by a host of others not often, or not all, worshipped by Greeks, and in many cases 'invented' by Hesiod himself. These others correspond to features of the universe which Hesiod thought important: we find such diverse divinities as Earth, Night, Rivers, Sleep, Strife, Victory, and so on. Hesiod is not personifying or allegorising; he believes in the existence of all his gods alike. What is important is that he is led to assert their existence, and to assign them a particular place in his genealogy, only...
(The entire section is 7092 words.)
SOURCE: Charles H. Kahn, "Anaximander's Fragment: The Universe Governed by Law," in The Pre-Socratics: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Alexander P. D. Mourelatos, Anchor Books, 1974, pp. 99-117.
[In the following excerpt, Kahn contends that Anaximander 's most significant achievement was the conception of nature governed by regular and determinate laws. According to Kahn, Anaximander's Boundless was not a mystical but a scientific and philosophical idea.]
Anaximander … declared the Boundless to be principle and element of existing things, having been the first to introduce this very term of "principle"; he says that it is neither water nor any other of the so-called elements, but some different, boundless nature, from which all the heavens arise and the kosmoi within them; "out of those things whence is the generation for existing things, into these again does their destruction take place, according to what must needs be; for they make amends and give reparation to one another for their offense, according to the ordinance of time," speaking of them thus in rather poetical terms. It is clear that, having observed the change of the four elements into one another, he did not think fit to make any one of these the material substratum, but something else besides these. (Simplicius Phys. 24.13, after Theophrastus)1
(The entire section is 7471 words.)
SOURCE: Allan S. Gnagy, "The Apeiron: Anaximander's Concept of the Endless Ground of Nature," in The Northwest Missouri State University Studies, 1975, pp. 1-19.
[In the essay that follows, Gnagy presents a comprehensive account of Anaximander's central idea—the Boundless apeiron—and surveys the most influential interpretations of this doctrine.]
The problem with which this paper deals is the interpretation of the only extant fragment of the writings of Anaximander, a Greek philosopher whose dates are approximately estimated at 610-546 B.C. The fragment is of considerable interest to scholars of ancient Greek philosophy, because it is agreed to be the earliest verbatim quotation from that tradition, and, because of its brevity, it is open to a wide variety of interpretations. This variety will be evident to the reader, as will also be the fact that this paper attempts to add to the divergent opinions, by an emphasis on the dynamic character of Anaximander's philosophy. Anaximander was one of several cosmologists usually called the Milesian, or Ionian, physicists, or nature-thinkers. Their concern was to understand the overall structure and processes of the natural world by identifying the ground of change, the Greek word for which was "arché," which literally means "beginning," and eventually came to approximate our word, "principle" or...
(The entire section is 6623 words.)
SOURCE: Richard D. McKirahan, Jr., "Anaximander of Miletus," in Philosophy before Socrates: An Introduction with Texts and Commentary, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1994, pp. 32-47.
[In the following excerpt, McKirahan describes Anaximander 's major contributions in the fields of astronomy, cartography, and natural philosophy.]
If Anaximander was sixty-four in 546, as our best source1 says, he was twenty-five at the time of Thales' eclipse, which agrees with the tradition that he was Thales' successor in investigating nature. His picture of KOSMOS and his ways of thought can be gleaned from the surviving information (including one fragment) on his physical speculations.
5.1 He was the first to discover the gnomon and set one up on the sundials at Sparta … indicating the solstices and equinoxes, and he constructed hour-markers.
(Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers 2.1 = DK 12A1)
A gnomon (originally "carpenter's square") is the raised piece whose shadow indicates the sun's position. Most ancient sundials indicated not only the time of day by the direction of the shadow but also the season of the year as a function of the sun's height in the sky (higher in summer, lower in winter) marked by the length of the shadow. At the summer and winter...
(The entire section is 6719 words.)
Barnes, Jonathan. "Anaximander on Nature." In his The Presocratic Philosophers, Vol. 1: Thaïes to Zeno, pp. 19-37. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.
Attempts to reconstruct and evaluate Anaximander's arguments for his theoretical cosmology.
Kahn, Charles H. Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960, 249 p.
Discusses the documentary sources of Anaximander scholarship and uses them to outline the cosmology of Anaximander as it relates to the other Milesians.
Kirk, G. S. "Some Problems in Anaximander." In Studies in Presocratic Philosophy, Vol. 1: The Beginnings of Philosophy, edited by David J. Furley and R. E. Allen, pp. 323-49. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.
Examines and evaluates Anaximander's material principle and Aristotle's related commentary.
Kirk, G. S., J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield. "Anaximander of Miletus." In their The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts, pp. 100-42. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Discusses ancient references to Anaximander, using them to formulate a fuller picture of his metaphysics.
(The entire section is 203 words.)