Anaximander Essay - Critical Essays



Anaximander 610 B.C.–c. 546 B.C.

Greek philosopher.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Textual History

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, edited by Hermann Diels and W. Kranz, sixth edition (philosophical prose) 1951


John Burnet (essay date 1920)

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 subsequent physical theory among the Greeks, namely, that the world presents us with a series of opposites, of which the most primary are hot and cold, wet and dry. If we look at things from this point of view, it is more natural to speak of the opposites as being "separating out" from a mass which is as yet undifferentiated than to make any one of the opposites the primary substance. Thales, Anaximander seems to have argued, made the wet too important at the expense of the dry. Some such thought, at any rate, appears to underlie the few words of the solitary fragment of his writing that has been preserved. He said that things "give satisfaction and reparation to one another for their injustice, as is appointed according to the ordering of time." This conception of justice and injustice recurs more than once in Ionic natural philosophy, and always in the same connexion. It refers to the encroachment of one opposite or "element" upon another. It is in consequence of this that they are both absorbed once more in their common ground. As that is spatially boundless, it is natural to assume that worlds1 arise in it elsewhere than with us. Each world is a sort of bubble in the boundless mass. Our authorities attribute this view to Anaximander, and no good...

(The entire section is 1109 words.)

B. A. G. Fuller (essay date 1923)

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....

(The entire section is 1252 words.)

John Burnet (essay date 1957)

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...

(The entire section is 6452 words.)

William K. C. Guthrie (essay date 1962)

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...

(The entire section is 14105 words.)

Edward Hussey (essay date 1972)

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...

(The entire section is 7092 words.)

Charles H. Kahn (essay date 1974)

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...

(The entire section is 7471 words.)

Allan S. Gnagy (essay date 1975)

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 ideathe 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...

(The entire section is 6623 words.)

Richard D. McKirahan, Jr. (essay date 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 6719 words.)

Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 203 words.)