Anaxagoras: Fragments Additional Summary


World Creation

Like every other Greek philosopher, Anaxagoras held that nothing can come from nothing, nor can anything utterly vanish. The totality of world stuff is fixed: It is “all,” and “we must know that all of them are neither more nor less; for it is not possible for them to be more than all, and all are always equal.” However, the world of moving, changing, differentiated things that we know is not eternal. Anaxagoras postulated a primeval condition of homogeneity and motionlessness:All things were together, infinite both in number and in smallness; for the small too was infinite. And, when all things were together, none of them were plain, because of their smallness. . . . But before they were separated off, when all things were together, not even was any color plain; for the mixture of all things prevented it—of the moist and the dry, and the warm and the cold, and the light and the dark, and of much earth that was in it, and of a multitude of innumerable seeds in no way like each other.

It is perhaps permissible to think of this initial condition as a gray, dim, damp, tepid, dirty vastness, or if you prefer, a luminosity: “Air and fire prevailed over all things, being both of them infinite; for amongst all things these are the greatest both in quantity and size.” That is, a homogeneous mixture of all things would look like air and fire, because those are what are most plentiful.

At some point in this mass, mind started a whirl: “And Mind had power over the whole revolution, so that it began to revolve in the beginning. And it began to revolve first from a small beginning; but the revolution now extends over a larger space, and will extend over a larger still.” We see the whirl of the heavenly bodies still going on overhead.

The centrifugal force of the whirl caused separation out of the homogeneous mass, “as these things revolve and are separated off by the force and speed. And the speed makes the force. Their speed is not like the speed of any of the things that are now among men, but in every way many times as fast.” He continues, “And when Mind began to move things, separating off took place from all that was moved, and so much as Mind set in motion was all separated. And as things were set in motion and separated, the revolution caused them to be separated much more.”

The separation resulted not just in...

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A Thorough Rationalist

Anaxagoras was aware of the Italian philosophers—the Pythagoreans, Parmenides, Empedocles, and Zeno—and in some respects adopted their views (concerning eclipses), in others made concessions to their arguments (in rejecting a vacuum), and sometimes argued against them (his doctrine of infinite divisibility seems to stem from an attempt to refute Zeno). Primarily, however, Anaxagoras was the continuator of the Milesian school. His conception of the “beginning” and of the process of world formation, for instance, was an elaboration of Anaximander’s. Like the Milesians, he was a thorough rationalist: There is no trace of mysticism in his work, and if he had any emotional reaction to his vision of the nature of things, no report of it has come down to us. The Milesians still talked of “god” and “the divine” in connection with the cosmic process, although these terms had become mere abstract labels for stuffs and mechanisms. In Anaxagoras, on the other hand, even the words have disappeared. Nor was his mind an object of worship; it was not a personality, and (as Socrates complained) it was not even a cosmic designer. It was just the projection of human cognition and will (“known” in experience as initiator of motion) without any moral or religious attributes.

In one respect, Anaxagoras’s explanation of things was more consistent than that of any of his predecessors: Having postulated that nothing can come from nothing, and that...

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Additional Reading

Barnes, Jonathan. The Presocratic Philosophers. London: Routledge, 1993. Includes a chapter on Anaxagoras, reconstructing his philosophy from a careful examination of the fragments.

Davison, J. A. “Protagoras, Democritus, and Anaxagoras.” Classical Quarterly 3 (1953): 33-45. Establishes Anaxagoras’s position vis-à-vis other Greek philosophers and shows his influence on the “atomist” school that succeeded him. Also contains some information on his early life not available elsewhere in English and argues for an early date for his exile from Athens.

Gershenson, Daniel E., and Daniel A. Greenberg. Anaxagoras and the Birth of Physics. New York: Blaisdell, 1964. This controversial work suggests that the Anaxagoras fragments are not really the words of Anaxagoras, but rather his words as interpreted by later philosophers, notably Simplicius, who succeeded him. Contains a good, if somewhat theoretical, explanation of Anaxagoras’s system.

Guthrie, W. K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 2 Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1965. Contains the most complete account available of Anaxagoras’s life. Puts his life and teachings in the context of his times.

Kirk, Geoffrey S., John E. Raven, and M. Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers. 2d ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. One chapter contains a scholarly account of Anaxagoras’s philosophy; includes Greek text of fragments.

Mansfield, J. “The Chronology of Anaxagoras’s Athenian Period and the Date of His Trial.” Mnemosyne 33 (1980): 17-95. Offers the most convincing arguments concerning Anaxagoras’s arrival in Athens, his trial, and his banishment. Also contains references to Anaxagoras’s relationship with Pericles and the political motives behind the former’s exile.

Mourelatos, Alexander P. D. The Pre-Socratics: A Collection of Critical Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. Includes two essays by eminent scholars, Gregory Vlastos and G. B. Kerford, which attempt to reconstruct Anaxagoras’s philosophy in a way that makes it logically consistent. Both focus on his materialism.

Schofield, Malcolm. An Essay on Anaxagoras. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1980. A clear, witty exposition of the philosophy of Anaxagoras and his importance in the history of philosophy. Perhaps the best work on Anaxagoras’s system and its meaning available in English.

Taylor, A. E. “On the Date of the Trial of Anaxagoras.” Classical Quarterly 11 (1917): 81-87. A good discussion of the backdrop against which Anaxagoras’s sojourn in Athens was played and the political and intellectual milieu during which his book was written.