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John Burnet (essay date 1920)

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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 reason has been given for disbelieving them. It is obviously an idea of the greatest scientific importance; for it is fatal, not only to the theory of an absolute up and down in the universe, but also to the view that all heavy things tend to the same centre. It was, in many ways, a misfortune that Plato was led to substitute for this old doctrine the belief in a single world, and thus to prepare the way for the reactionary cosmology of Aristotle. The Epicureans, who took up the old Ionic view at a later date, were too unscientific to make good use of it, and actually combined it with the inconsistent theory of an absolute up and down. We are told that Anaximander called his innumerable worlds "gods." The meaning of that will appear shortly.

(This entire section contains 1109 words.)

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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 reason has been given for disbelieving them. It is obviously an idea of the greatest scientific importance; for it is fatal, not only to the theory of an absolute up and down in the universe, but also to the view that all heavy things tend to the same centre. It was, in many ways, a misfortune that Plato was led to substitute for this old doctrine the belief in a single world, and thus to prepare the way for the reactionary cosmology of Aristotle. The Epicureans, who took up the old Ionic view at a later date, were too unscientific to make good use of it, and actually combined it with the inconsistent theory of an absolute up and down. We are told that Anaximander called his innumerable worlds "gods." The meaning of that will appear shortly.

The formation of the world is, of course, due to the "separating out" of the opposities. Anaximander's view of the earth is a curious mixture of scientific intuition and primitive theory. In the first place, he is perfectly clear that it does not rest on anything, but swings free in space, and the reason he gave was that there is nothing to make it fall in one direction rather than in another. He inferred this because, as has been observed, his system was incompatible with the assumption of an absolute up and down. On the other hand, he gives the earth a shape intermediate between the disc of Thales and the sphere of the Pythagoreans. He regarded it as a short cylinder "like the drum of a pillar," and supposed that we are living on the upper surface while there is another antipodal to us. His theory of the heavenly bodies shows that he was still unable to separate meteorology and astronomy. So long as all "the things aloft" … are classed together, that is inevitable. Even Galileo maintained that comets were atmospheric phe nomena, and he had far less excuse for doing so than Anaximander had for taking the same view of all the heavenly bodies. Nor was his hypothesis without a certain audacious grandeur. He supposed that the sun, moon, and stars were really rings of fire surrounding the earth. We do not see them as rings, however, because they are encased in "air" or mist. What we do see is only the single aperture through which the fire escapes "as through the nozzle of a pair of bellows." We note here the beginning of the theory that the heavenly bodies are carried round on rings, a theory which held its ground till Eudoxos replaced the rings by spheres. We are also told that Anaximander noted the obliquity of these rings to what we should call the plane of the equator. Eclipses were caused by stoppages of the apertures.

With regard to living beings, Anaximander held that all life came from the sea, and that the present forms of animals were the result of adaptation to a fresh environment. It is possible that some of his biological theories were grotesque in detail, but it is certain that his method was thoroughly scientific. He was much impressed by the observation of certain viviparous sharks or dogfish, and evidently regarded them as an intermediary between fishes and land animals. His proof that man must have been descended from an animal of another species has a curiously modern ring. The young of the human species require a prolonged period of nursing, while those of other species soon find their food for themselves. If, then, man had always been as he is now he could never have survived.


1 I do not use the term "world" for the earth…. It means everything within the heavens of the fixed stars. From our point of view, it is a "planetary system," though the earth and not the sun is its centre, and the fixed stars are part of it.

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

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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 nature and ways, in a word, too essentially watery, to be transformed without protest in fact and imagination into all the myriad things which water to all intents and purposes, save those of theory, so palpably is not. The Stuff of which all things are made must be something more versatile, more adaptable, more capable of throwing itself wholeheartedly and with utter self-effacement into its innumerable and absolutely different rôles and parts. Indeed, that one specific kind of thing should be the substance of which all other sorts of things are composed might well seem unreasonable. Only something which was no one thing in particular could turn itself with equal facility into anything and everything. And perhaps, too, he was struck with the way in which the confusion of things may be sorted out into pairs of opposites, and thought that Thales gave undue prominence to the wet and unduly disparaged the importance of the dry.1

However that may be, Anaximander refused to specify the nature of the World-Substance. It was simply something to which no particular character or limitations of any sort could be assigned. It was the Boundless, the Indeterminate. Being undefined and unbounded, it could be imagined without difficulty as assuming any shape whatsoever. Out of it all things arose and into it all things were resolved again without any alteration of its essential character.

In addition to the question, "What is the world made of?" Anaximander asks and attempts to answer a second question, "What is the process like by which the world is formed?" This problem he tries to solve somewhat as follows: There is an eternal motion in the Boundless, in the course of which pairs of opposites like hot and cold, wet and dry, light and darkness, become separated out from the indefinite substance. These opposites conflict with and suppress one another and are thus continually resolved again into the undifferentiated World-Substance. This happens, we are told, in a somewhat perplexing phrase, "as is ordained, for they give satisfaction and reparation to one another for their injustice according to the ordering of time."2

What does this passage mean? Is it, as the compiler who quotes it suggests, simply a poetic way of speak ing? It may well be that Anaximander is merely remarking rather figuratively that as any one thing by monopolizing a certain amount of space and material keeps some other thing from existing, it only seems turn about and fair play for it eventually to step out and make room for something else in the crowded world. Or he may have the balance of opposites in mind, and the disturbance to the order and equilibrium of the Universe which would result if one member of a pair permanently triumphed over and suppressed its adversary. Again, he is not perhaps from his own point of view speaking figuratively and poetically at all. It may be that we are simply dealing with a philosophical example of that tendency, noted in the last chapter, to leave physical and moral law indistinguishable from one another, and to regard the behavior of things as controlled by the same considerations of propriety and equity as regulate the conduct of men.

Anaximander seems to have continued his description of the way in which the world arose, with considerable astronomical, geological, and biological detail. He be lieved apparently in the existence of other worlds besides our own. But whether he conceived the process of separation into opposites as occurring throughout the Indeterminate and Boundless Substance and thus giving rise simultaneously to an indefinite number of cosmic systems, or believed rather in an infinite succession of such systems, one after another, is a debatable point.3 These worlds he also spoke of as Gods.

The manner in which a world-system was evolved he conceived as follows: The original opposition of the hot and the dry to the cold and the moist became, when once they were separated out, a ring of fire surrounding a core of cold and wet. In the course of the interaction between these two, earth, water, and air or vapor were differentiated within the core, while the enclosing fire became broken into three revolving hoops or rings, solar, lunar, and stellar. These rings were veneered with air or mist except at holes through which the fire shone out. The hole in the first is the sun, in the second the moon. The many perforations of the third are the stars. The earth itself is a cylinder on the top of which we live.

Anaximander's account of the origin of man is even more interesting. "Living creatures," he tells us, "arose from the moist element as it was evaporated by the sun4 … each enclosed in a prickly bark. As they advanced in age, they came out upon the drier part. When the bark broke off, they survived for a short time."5 Man himself "was born from animals of another species,"6 and was "like a fish, in the beginning."7 For had he been subject in the old days to his present disadvantages of a prolonged infancy and of inability immediately to forage for himself, he could never have survived primeval conditions.

It seems astonishing to find at the very outset of Greek thought a theory anticipating some of the most important conclusions and arguments of the modern doctrine of evolution, but it should be remembered that the idea of the development of all things out of less highly organized beginnings was, as we have pointed out, natural to the Greek mind, and that the notion of the fixity of species was a later development in ancient philosophy. And as for the doctrine of the special creation by fiat of the different kinds of animals, we remarked in the last chapter that it was quite foreign to Hellenic ways of thinking.


1 Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, 3rd ed., p. 54.

2 Diels, Vorsokratiker, I. p. 15 (trans. Burnet).

3 The latter view is Zeller's, the former Mr. Burnet's.

4 Hipp. Ref. 1, 7 (trans. Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, 3rd ed., p. 73).

5 Aet. v. 19, 4 (trans. Burnet, loc. cit.).

6 Ps.-Plut. Strom. fr. 2 (trans. Burnet, loc. cit.).

7 Hipp. Ref. 1, 6 (trans. Burnet, loc. cit.)

John Burnet (essay date 1957)

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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 considered an interesting one in those days.3 At all events, Anaximander was apparently a generation younger than Thales.4

Like his predecessor, he distinguished himself by cer tain practical inventions. Some writers credited him with that of the gnomon; but that can hardly be correct. Herodotos tells us this instrument came from Babylon, and Thales must have used it to determine the solstices and equinoxes.5 Anaximander was also the first to construct a map, and Eratosthenes said this was the map elaborated by Hekataios. No doubt it was intended to be of service to Milesian enterprise in the Black Sea. Anaximander himself conducted a colony to Apollonia,6 and his fellow-citizens erected a statue to him.7

Nearly all we know of Anaximander's system is derived in the last resort from Theophrastos, who certainly knew his book.8 He seems once at least to have quoted Anaximander's own words, and he criticised his style. Here are the remains of what he said of him in the First Book:

Anaximander of Miletos, son of Praxiades, a fellow-citizen and associate of Thales,9 said that the material cause and first element of things was the Infinite, he being the first to introduce this name of the material cause. He says it is neither water nor any other of the so-called10 elements, but a substance different from them which is infinite, from which arise all the heavens and the worlds within them.—Phys. Op. fr. 2 (Dox. p. 476; R. P. 16).

He says that this is "eternal and ageless," and that it "encompasses all the worlds."—Hipp. Ref. i. 6 (R. P. 17 a).

And into that from which things take their rise they pass away once more, "as is meet; for they make reparation and satisfaction to one another for their injustice according to the ordering of time," as he Says11 in these somewhat poetical terms.—Phys. Op. fr. 2 (R. P. 16).

And besides this, there was an eternal motion, in which was brought about the origin of the worlds.—Hipp. Ref. i. 6 (R. P. 17 a).

He did not ascribe the origin of things to any alteration in matter, but said that the oppositions in the substratum, which was a boundless body, were separated out.—Simpl. Phys. p. 150, 20 (R. P. 18).

Anaximander taught, then, that there was an eternal, indestructible something out of which everything arises, and into which everything returns; a boundless stock from which the waste of existence is continually made good. That is only the natural development of the thought we have ascribed to Thales, and there can be no doubt that Anaximander at least formulated it distinctly. Indeed, we can still follow to some extent the reasoning which led him to do so. Thales had regarded water as the most likely thing to be that of which all others are forms; Anaximander appears to have asked how the primary substance could be one of these particular things. His argument seems to be preserved by Aristotle, who has the following passage in his discussion of the Infinite:

Further, there cannot be a single, simple body which is infinite, either, as some hold, one distinct from the elements, which they then derive from it, or without this qualification. For there are some who make this (i.e. a body distinct from the elements) the infinite, and not air or water; in order that the other things may not be destroyed by their infinity. They are in opposition one to another—air is cold, water moist, and fire hot—and therefore, if any one of them were infinite, the rest would have ceased to be by this time. Accordingly they say that what is infinite is something other than the elements, and from it the elements arise.—Arist. Phys. Γ, 5. 204 b 22 (R. P. 16 b).

It is clear that Anaximander is here contrasted with Thales and with Anaximenes. Nor is there any reason to doubt that the account given of his reasoning is substantially correct, though the form is Aristotle's own, and in particular the "elements" are an anachronism. Anaximander started, it would seem, from the strife between the opposites which go to make up the world; the warm was opposed to the cold, the dry to the wet. These were at war, and any predominance of one over the other was an "injustice" for which they must make reparation to one another at the appointed time.12 If Thales had been right in saying that water was the fundamental reality, it would not be easy to see how anything else could ever have existed. One side of the opposition, the cold and moist, would have had its way unchecked, and the warm and dry would have been driven from the field long ago. We must, then, have something not itself one of the warring opposites, something more primitive, out of which they arise, and into which they once more pass away. That Anaximander called this something by the name of Øύσις is the natural interpretation of what Theophrastos says; the current statement that the term άρχ ή was introduced by him appears to be due to a misunderstanding.13 We have seen that, when Aristotle used the term in discussing Thales, he meant what is called the "material cause," and it is hard to believe that it means anything else here.

It was natural for Aristotle to regard this theory as an anticipation or presentiment of his own doctrine of "indeterminate matter,"14 and that he should sometimes express the views of Anaximander in terms of the later theory of "elements." He knew that the Boundless was a body,15 though in his own system there was no room for anything corporeal prior to the elements; so he had to speak of it as a boundless body "alongside of or "distinct from" the elements…. So far as I know no one has doubted that, when he uses this phrase, he is referring to Anaximander.

In a number of other places Aristotle speaks of some one who held the primary substance to be something "intermediate between" the elements or between two of them.16 Nearly all the Greek commentators referred this to Anaximander also, but most modern writers refuse to follow them. It is, no doubt, easy to show that Anaximander himself cannot have said anything of the sort, but that is no real objection. Aristotle puts things in his own way regardless of historical considerations, and it is difficult to see that it is more of an anachronism to call the Boundless "intermediate between the elements" than to say that it is "distinct from the elements." Indeed, if once we introduce the elements at all, the former description is the more adequate of the two. At any rate, if we refuse to understand these passages as referring to Anaximander, we shall have to say that Aristotle paid a great deal of attention to some one whose very name has been lost, and who not only agreed with some of Anaximander's views, but also used some of his most characteristic expressions. We may add that in one or two places Aristotle certainly seems to identify the "intermediate" with the something "distinct from" the elements.

There is even one passage in which he speaks of Anaximander's Boundless as a "mixture," though his words But this may perhaps is of admit of another interpretation.17 But this is of no consequence for our interpretation of Anaximander. It is certain that he cannot have said anything about "elements," which no one thought of before Empedokles, and no one could think of before Parmenides. The question has only been mentioned because it has given rise to a lengthy controversy, and because it throws light on the historical value of Aristotle's statements. From the point of view of his own system, these may be justified; but we shall have to remember in other cases that, when he seems to attribute an idea to some earlier thinker, we are not bound to take what he says in an historical sense.18

Anaximander's reason for conceiving the primary substance as boundless was, no doubt, as indicated by Aristotle, "that becoming might not fail."19 It is not clear, however, that these words are his own, though the doxographers speak as if they were. It is enough for us that Theophrastos, who had seen his book, attributed the thought to him. And certainly his view of the world would bring home to him the need of a boundless stock of matter. The "opposites" are, we have seen, at war with one another, and their strife is marked by "unjust" encroachments on either side. The warm commits "injustice" in summer, the cold in winter, and this would lead in the long run to the destruction of everything but the Boundless itself, if there were not an inexhaustible supply of it from which opposites might continually be separated out afresh. We must picture, then, an endless mass, which is not any one of the opposites we know, stretching out without limit on every side of the world we live in.20 This mass is a body, out of which our world once emerged, and into which it will one day be absorbed again.

We are told that Anaximander believed there were "innumerable worlds in the Boundless,"21 and we have to decide between the interpretation that, though all the worlds are perishable, there are an unlimited number of them in existence at the same time, and Zeller's view that a new world never comes into existence till the old one has passed away, so that there is never more than one world at a time. As this point is of fundamental importance, it will be necessary to examine the evidence carefully.

In the first place, the doxographical tradition proves that Theophrastos discussed the views of all the early philosophers as to whether there was one world or an infinite number, and there can be no doubt that, when he ascribed "innumerable worlds" to the Atomists, he meant coexistent and not successive worlds. Now, if he had classed two such different views under one head, he would have been careful to point out in what respect they differed, and there is no trace of any such distinction. On the contrary, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Archelaos, Xenophanes, Diogenes, Leukippos, Demokritos, and Epicurus are all mentioned together as holding the doctrine of "innumerable worlds" on every side of this one,22 and the only distinction is that, while Epicurus made the distances between these worlds unequal, Anaximander said all the worlds were equidistant.23 Zeller rejected this evidence24 on the ground that we can have no confidence in a writer who attributes "innumerable worlds" to Anaximenes, Archelaos, and Xenophanes. With regard to the first two, I hope to show that the statement is correct, and that it is at least intelligible in the case of the last.25 In any case, the passage comes from Aetios,26 and there is no reason for doubting that it is derived from Theophrastos, though the name of Epicurus has been added later. This is confirmed by what Simplicius says:

Those who assumed innumerable worlds, e.g. Anaximander, Leukippos, Demokritos, and, at a later date, Epicurus, held that they came into being and passed away ad infinitum, some always coming into being and others passing away.27

It is practically certain that this too comes from Theophrastos through Alexander.

We come next to a very important statement which Cicero has copied from Philodemos, the author of the Epicurean treatise on Religion found at Herculaneum, or perhaps from the immediate source of that work. "Anaximander's opinion was," he makes Velleius say, "that there were gods who came into being, rising and passing away at long intervals, and that these were the innumerable worlds";28 and this must clearly be taken along with the statement of Aetios that, according to Anaximander, the "innumerable heavens" were gods.29 Now it is much more natural to understand the "long intervals" as intervals of space than as intervals of time;30 and, if that is right, we have a perfect agreement among our authorities.

It may be added that it is very unnatural to understand the statement that the Boundless "encompasses all the worlds" of worlds succeeding one another in time; for on this view there is at a given time only one world to "encompass." Moreover, the argument mentioned by Aristotle that, if what is outside the heavens is infinite, body must be infinite, and there must be innumerable worlds, can only be understood in one sense, and is certainly intended to represent the reasoning of the Milesians; for they were the only cosmologists who held there was a boundless body outside the heavens.31 Lastly, we happen to know that Petron, one of the earliest Pythagoreans, held there were just one hundred and eighty-three worlds arranged in a triangle, which shows at least that the doctrine of a plurality of worlds was much older than the Atomists.

The doxographers say it was the "eternal motion" that brought into being "all the heavens and all the worlds within them." … [This] is probably only the Aristotelian way of putting the thing, and … we must not identify the primordial motion of the Boundless with any purely mundane movement such as the diurnal revolution. That would be quite inconsistent, moreover, with the doctrine of innumerable worlds, each of which has, presumably, its own centre and its own diurnal revolution. As to the true nature of this motion, we have no definite statement, but the term "separating off … rather suggests some process of shaking and sifting as in a riddle or sieve. That is given in Plato's Timaeus as the Pythagorean doctrine,32 and the Pythagoreans followed Anaximander pretty closely in their cosmology…. The school of Abdera … attributed a motion of the same kind to their atoms, and they too were mainly dependent on the Milesians for the details of their system. This, however, must remain a conjecture in the absence of express testimony.

When, however, we come to the motion of the world once it has been "separated off," we are on safer ground. It is certain that one of the chief features of early cosmology is the part played in it by the analogy of an eddy in water or in wind…, and there seems to be little doubt that we are entitled to regard this as the doctrine of Anaximander and Anaximenes.34 It would arise very naturally in the minds of thinkers who started with water as the primary substance and ended with "air," and it would account admirably for the position of earth and water in the centre and fire at the circumference, with "air" between them. Heavy things tend to the centre of a vortex and light things are forced out to the periphery. It is to be observed that there is no question of a sphere in revolution at this date; what we have to picture is rotary motion in a plane or planes more or less inclined to the earth's surface.35 It is in favour of the conjecture given above as to the nature of the primordial motion that it provides a satisfactory dynamical explanation of the formation of the [eddy]….

The doxographers also give us some indications of the process by which the different parts of the world arose from the Boundless. The following statement comes ultimately from Theophrastos:

He says that something capable of begetting hot and cold out of the eternal was separated off at the origin of this world. From this arose a sphere of flame which fitted close round the air surrounding the earth as the bark round a tree. When this had been torn off and shut up in certain rings, the sun, moon and stars came into existence.—Ps.-Plut. Strom, fr. 2 (R. P. 19).36

We see from this that, when a portion of the Boundless was separated off from the rest to form a world, it first differentiated itself into the two opposites, hot and cold. The hot appears as flame surrounding the cold; the cold, as earth with air surrounding it. We are not told here how the cold was differentiated into earth, water and air, but there is a passage in Aristotle's Meteorology which throws some light on the question. After discussing the views of the "theologians" regarding the sea, he says:

But those who are wiser in the wisdom of men give an origin for the sea. At first, they say, all the terrestrial region was moist; and, as it was dried up by the sun, the portion of it that evaporated produced the winds and the turnings back of the sun and moon, while the portion left behind was the sea. So they think the sea is becoming smaller by being dried up, and that at last it will all be dry.—Meteor, B, I. 353 b 5.

And the same absurdity arises for those who say the earth too was at first moist, and that, when the region of the world about the earth was heated by the sun, air was produced and the whole heavens were increased, and that it (the air) produced winds and caused its (the sun's) turnings back.—Ib. 2. 355 a 21 (R. P. 20 a).

In his commentary on the passage, Alexander says this was the view of Anaximander and Diogenes, and cites Theophrastos as his authority for the statement. This is confirmed by Anaximander's theory of the sea as given by the doxographers…. We conclude, then, that after the first separation of the hot and the cold by the [eddy], the heat of the flame turned part of the moist, cold interior of the world into air or vapour—it is all one at this date—and that the expansion of this mist broke up the flame itself into rings. We shall come back to these rings presently, but we must look first at what we are told of the earth.

The origin of earth and sea from the moist, cold matter which was "separated off in the beginning is thus described:

The sea is what is left of the original moisture. The fire has dried up most of it and turned the rest salt by scorching it.—Aet. iii. 16, 1 (R. P. 20 a).

He says that the earth is cylindrical in form, and that its depth is as a third part of its breadth.—Ps.-Plut. Strom, fr. 2 (R. P. ib.).

The earth swings free, held in its place by nothing. It stays where it is because of its equal distance from everything. Its shape is hollow and round, and like a stone pillar. We are on one of the surfaces, and the other is on the opposite side.—Hipp. Ref. i. 6 (R. P. 20).

Adopting for a moment the popular theory of "elements," we see that Anaximander put fire on one side as the hot and dry, and all the rest on the other as the cold, which is also moist. This may explain how Aristotle came to speak of the Boundless as intermediate between fire and water. And we have seen also that the moist element was partly turned into "air" or vapour by the fire, which explains how Aristotle could say the Boundless was something between fire and air, or between air and water.

The moist, cold interior of the world is not, in fact, water. It is always called "the moist" or "the moist state." That is because it has to be still further differentiated under the influence of heat into earth, water, and vapour. The gradual drying up of the water by the fire is a good example of what Anaximander meant by "injustice."

Thales had said that the earth floated on the water, but Anaximander realised that it was freely suspended in space … and did not require any support. Aristotle has preserved the argument he used. The earth is equally distant from the circumference of the vortex in every direction, and there is no reason for it to move up or down or sideways. The doctrine of innumerable worlds was inconsistent with the existence of an absolute up and down in the universe, so the argument is quite sound. The central position of the earth is due to the [eddy]; for the greater masses tend to the centre of an eddy. There is good evidence that Anaximander made the earth share in the rotary movement. It is not, however, a sphere, so we must not speak of an axial revolution. The shape given to the earth by Anaximander is easily explained if we adopt the view that the world is a system of rotating rings. It is just a solid ring in the middle of the vortex.

We have seen that the flame which had been forced to the circumference of the vortex was broken up into rings by the pressure of expanding vapour produced by its own heat. I give the statements of Hippolytos and Aetios as to the formation of the heavenly bodies from these rings.

The heavenly bodies are a wheel of fire, separated off from the fire of the world, and surrounded by air. And there are breathing-holes, certain pipe-like passages, at which the heavenly bodies show themselves. That is why, when the breathing-holes are stopped, eclipses take place. And the moon appears now to wax and now to wane because of the stopping and opening of the passages. The wheel of the sun is 27 times the size of (the earth, while that of) the moon is 18 times as large.39 The sun is the highest of all, and lowest are the wheels of the stars.—Hipp. Ref. i. 6 (R. P. 20).

The heavenly bodies were hoop-like compressions of air, full of fire, breathing out flames at a certain point through orifices.—Aet. ii. 13, 7 (R. P. 19 a).

The sun was a wheel 28 times the size of the earth, like a chariot-wheel with the felloe hollow, full of fire, showing the fire at a certain point through an orifice, as through the nozzle of a pair of bellows.—Aet. ii. 20, 1 (R. P. 19 a).

The sun was equal to the earth, but the wheel from which it breathes out and by which it is carried round was 27 times the size of the earth.—Aet. ii. 21, 1.

The sun was eclipsed when the orifice of the fire's breathing-hole was stopped.—Aet. ii. 24, 2.

The moon was a wheel 19 times the size of the earth, like a chariot-wheel with its felloe hollow and full of fire like that of the sun, lying oblique also like it, with one breathing-hole like the nozzle of a pair of bellows. [It is eclipsed because of the turnings of the wheel.]40—Aet. ii. 25, 1.

The moon was eclipsed when the orifice of the wheel was stopped.—Aet. ii. 29, 1.

(Thunder and lighting, etc.) were all caused by the blast of the wind. When it is shut up in a thick cloud and bursts forth with violence, then the tearing of the cloud makes the noise, and the rift gives the appearance of a flash in contrast with the blackness of the cloud.—Aet. iii. 3, 1.

Wind was a current of air (i.e. vapour), which arose when its finest and moistest particles were stirred or melted by the sun.—Aet. iii. 7, 1.

There is a curious variation in the figures given for the size of the wheels of the heavenly bodies, and it seems most likely that 18 and 27 refer to their inner, while 19 and 28 refer to their outer circumference. We may, perhaps, infer that the wheels of the "stars" were nine times the size of the earth; for the numbers 9, 18, 27 play a considerable part in primitive cosmogonies.41 We do not see the wheels of fire as complete circles; for the vapour or mist which formed them encloses the fire, and forms an outer ring except at one point of their circumference, through which the fire escapes, and that is the heavenly body we actually see.42 It is possible that the theory of "wheels" was suggested by the Milky Way. If we ask how it is that the wheels of air can make the fire invisible to us without becoming visible themselves, the answer is that such is the property of what the Greeks at this date called "air." For instance, when a Homeric hero is made invisible by being clothed in "air," we can see right through both the "air" and the hero.43 It should be added that lightning is explained in much the same way as the heavenly bodies. It, too, was fire breaking through condensed air, in this case storm-clouds. It seems probable that this was really the origin of the theory, and that Anaximander explained the heavenly bodies on the analogy of lightning, not vice versa. It must be remembered that meteorology and astronomy were still undifferentiated, and that the theory of "wheels" or rings is a natural inference from the idea of the vortex.

So far we seem to be justified, by the authority of Theophrastos, in going; and, if that is so, certain further inferences seem to be inevitable. In the first place, Anaximander had shaken himself free of the old idea that the heavens are a solid vault. There is nothing to prevent us from seeing right out into the Boundless, and it is hard to think that Anaximander did not believe he did. The traditional cosmos has given place to a much grander scheme, that of innumerable vortices in a boundless mass, which is neither water nor air. In that case, it is difficult to resist the belief that what we call the fixed stars were identified with the "innumerable worlds" which were also "gods." It would follow that the diurnal revolution is only apparent; for the stars are at unequal distances from us, and can have no rotation in common. It must, then, be due to the rotation of the cylindrical earth in twenty-four hours. We have seen that the earth certainly shared in the rotation of the [eddy]. That gets rid of one difficulty, the wheel of the "stars," which is between the earth and the moon; for the fixed stars could not be explained by a "wheel" at all; a sphere would be required. What, then, are the "stars" which are accounted for by this inner wheel? I venture to suggest that they are the morning and the evening stars, which … were not recognised yet as a single luminary. In other words, I believe that Anaximander regarded the fixed stars as stationary, each rotating in its own vortex. No doubt this involves us in a difficulty regarding the rotation of the sun and the moon. It follows from the nature of the vortex that they must rotate in the same direction as the earth, and, on the assumption just made, that must be from west to east, and it must be a slower rotation than that of the earth, which is inconsistent with the fact that the circumference of a vortex rotates more rapidly than the centre. That, however, is a difficulty which all the Ionian cosmologists down to Demokritos had to face. Holding, as they did, that the whole rotation was in the same direction, they had to say that what we call the greatest velocities were the least. The moon, for instance, did not rotate so rapidly as the sun, since the sun more nearly keeps up with the fixed stars.44 That Anaximander failed to observe this difficulty is not surprising, if we remember that he was the first to attack the problem. It is not immediately obvious that the centre of the vortex must have a slower motion than the circumference. This serves to explain the origin of the theory that the heavenly bodies have a rotation of their own in the opposite direction to the diurnal revolution….

We have, in any case, seen enough to show us that the speculations of Anaximander about the world were of an extremely daring character. We come now to the crowning audacity of all, his theory of the origin of living creatures. The Theophrastean account of this has been well preserved by the doxographers:

Living creatures arose from the moist element as it was evaporated by the sun. Man was like another animal, namely, a fish, in the beginning.—Hipp. Ref. i. 6 (R. P. 22 a).

The first animals were produced in the moisture, each enclosed in a prickly bark. As they advanced in age, they came out upon the drier part. When the bark broke off, they survived for a short time.—Aet. v. 19, 4 (R. P. 22).

Further, he says that originally man was born from animals of another species. His reason is that while other animals quickly find food by themselves, man alone requires a lengthy period of suckling. Hence, had he been originally as he is now, he would never have survived.—Ps.-Plut. Strom. fr. 2 (R. P. ib.).

He declares that at first human beings arose in the inside of fishes, and after having been reared like sharks,46 and become capable of protecting themselves, they were finally cast ashore and took to land.—Plut. Symp. Quaest. 730 f (R. P. ib.).

The importance of these statements has sometimes been overrated and still more often underestimated. Anaximander has been called a precursor of Darwin by some, while others have treated the whole thing as a mythological survival. It is therefore important to notice that this is one of the rare cases where we have not merely a placitum, but an indication of the observations on which it was based. It is clear from this that Anaximander had an idea of what is meant by adaptation to environment and survival of the fittest, and that he saw the higher mammals could not represent the original type of animal. For this he looked to the sea, and he naturally fixed upon those fishes which present the closest analogy to the mammalia. The statements of Aristotle about the galeus levis were shown by Johannes Müller to be more accurate than those of later naturalists, and we now see that these observations were already made by Anaximander. The way in which the shark nourishes its young furnished him with the very thing he required to explain the survival of the earliest animals.47


1 [Historia Philosophiae Graecae, H. Ritter et L. Preller, Editio octava, quam curavit Eduardus Wellmann, Gotha, 1898; hereafter R. P.], 15 d….

2 Diog. ii. 2 (R. P. 15); Hipp. Ref. i. 6 ([Doxographi graeci, Hermannus Diels, Berlin, 1879; hereafter Dox.] p. 560); Plin. N.H. ii. 31.

3 Xenophanes, fr. 22 (= fr. 17 Karsten; R. P. 95 a).

4 The statement that he "died soon after" (Diog. ii. 2; R. P. 15) seems to mean that Apollodoros made him die in the year of Sardeis (546/5), one of his regular epochs.

5 For the gnomon, … cf. Diog. ii. I (R P. 15); Herod, ii. 109 (R. P. 15 a). Pliny, on the other hand, ascribes the invention of the gnomon to Anaximenes (N.H. ii. 187).

6 Aelian, V.H. iii. 17. Presumably Apollonia on the Pontos is meant.

7 The lower part of a contemporary statue has been discovered at Miletos (Wiegand, Milet, ii. 88)…. It was not, we may be sure, for his theories of the Boundless that Anaximander received this honour; he was a statesman and an inventor like Thales and Hekataios.

8 In this and other cases, where the words of the original have been preserved by Simplicius, I have given them alone….

9 Simplicius says "successor and disciple" … in his Commentary on the Physics….

10 For the expression…, see Diels, Elementum, p. 25, n. 4.

11 Diels, [Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, von Hermann Diels, Dritte Auflage, Berlin, 1912; hereafter Vors.]….

12 The important word άλλήλοις is in all the MSS. of Simplicius, though omitted in the Aldine. This omission made the sentence appear to mean that the existence of individual things … was somehow a wrong … for which they must be punished. With άλλήλοις restored, this fanciful interpretation disappears. It is to one another that whatever the subject of the verb may be make reparation and give satisfaction, and therefore the injustice must be a wrong which they commit against one another. Now, as δίκη is regularly used of the observance of an equal balance between the opposites hot and cold, dry and wet, the αδικία here referred to must be the undue encroachment of one opposite on another, such as we see, for example, in the alternation of day and night, winter and summer, which have to be made good by an equal encroachment of the other. I stated this view in my first edition (1892), pp. 60-62, and am glad to find it confirmed by Professor Heidel (Class. Phil, vii., 1912, p. 233 sq.).

13 The words of Theophrastos, as given by Simplicius (Phys. p. 24, 15: P. P. 16), are … "he being the first to introduce this name … of the material cause." …

14 Arist. Met. Λ, 2. 1069 b 18 (R. P. 16 c).

15 This is taken for granted in Phys. Γ, 4. 203 a 16; 204 b 22 (R. P. 16 b), and stated in Γ, 8. 208 a 8 (R. P. 16 a). Cf. Simpl. Phys. p. 150, 20 (R. P. 18).

16 Aristotle speaks four times of something intermediate between Fire and Air (Gen. Corr. B, 1. 328 b 35; ib. 5. 332 a 21; Phys. A, 4. 187 a 14; Met. A, 7. 988 a 30). In five places we have something intermediate between Water and Air (Met. A, 7. 988 a 13; Gen. Corr. B, 5. 332 a 21; Phys. Γ, 4. 203 a 18; ib. 5. 205 a 27; De caelo, Γ, 5. 303 b 12). Once (Phys. A, 6. 189 b 1) we hear of something between Water and Fire. This variation shows at once that he is not speaking historically….

17Met. A, 2. 1069 b 18 (R. P. 16 c). Zeller [in Die Philosophie der Griechen, dargestellt von Dr. Eduard Zeller, Erster Theil Fünfte Auflage, Leipzig, 1892; hereafter Zeller] (p. 205, n. 1) assumes an "easy zeugma."

18 For the literature of this controversy, see R. P. 15. Professor Heidel has shown in his "Qualitative Change in Pre-Socratic Philosophy" (Arch. xix. p. 333) that Aristotle misunderstood the Milesians because he could only think of their doctrine in terms of his own theory of ἄλλοίωσις. That is quite true, but it is equally true that they had no definite theory of their own with regard to the transformations of substance. The theory of an original "mixture" is quite as unhistorical as that of ἄλλοίωσις. Qualities were not yet distinguished from "things," and Thales doubtless said that water turned into vapour or ice without dreaming of any further questions. They all believed that in the long run there was only one "thing," and at last they came to the conclusion that all apparent differences were due to rarefaction and condensation….

19Phys. Γ, 8. 208 a 8 (R. P. 16 a). Cf. Aet. i. 3, 3 (R. P. 16 a). The same argument is given in Phys. Γ, 4. 203 b 18…. I cannot, however, believe that the arguments at the beginning of this chapter (203 b 7; R. P. 17) are Anaximander's. They bear the stamp of the Eleatic dialectic, and are, in fact, those of Melissos.

20 I have assumed that the word ᾄπειρου means spatially infinite, not qualitatively indeterminate, as maintained by Teichmiiller and Tannery….

21 Cf. [Plut.] Strom, fr. 2 (R. P. 21 b).

22 Aet. ii. I, 3 (Dox. p. 327)….

23 Aet. ii. I, 8 (Dox. p. 329)….

24 He supposed it to be only that of Stobaios. The filiation of the sources had not been traced when he wrote.

25 For Anaximenes see § 30; Xenophanes, § 59; Archelaos, § 192.

26 This is proved by the fact that the list of names is given also by Theodoret….

27 Simpl. Phys. p. 1121, 5 (R. P. 21 b)….

28 Cicero, De nat. d. i. 25 (R. P. 21).

29 Aet. i. 7, 12 (R. P. 21 a) ….

30 It is natural to suppose that Cicero found διαστήμᾳ̑σιν in his Epicurean source, and that is a technical term for the intermundia.

31 Arist. Phys. Γ 4. 203 b 25….

32 Plato, Tim. 52 e. There the elemental figures (which have taken the place of the "opposites") "being thus stirred…, are carried in different directions and separated, just as by sieves and instruments for winnowing corn the grain is shaken and sifted; and the dense and heavy parts go one way, while the rare and light are carried to a different place and settle there." …

34 I gratefully accept the view propounded by Prof. W. A. Heidel ("The ὄινη in Anaximenes and Anaximander," Class. Phil. i. 279), so far as the cosmical motion goes, though I cannot identify that with the "eternal motion." I had already done what I could to show that the "spheres" of Eudoxos and Aristotle must not be imported into Pythagoreanism, and it strengthens the position considerably if we ascribe a rotary motion in a plane to Anaximander's world.

35 This is the plain meaning of Aet. ii. 2, 4…, which is referred to Anaximander by Diels (Dox. p. 46)…. Of course, the rotations are not all in the same plane; the ecliptic, for instance, is inclined to the equator, and the Milky Way to both.

36 This passage has been discussed by Heidel (Proceedings of the American Academy, xlviii. 686)….

39 I assume with Diels (Dox. p. 560) that something has fallen out of the text, but I have made the moon's circle 18 and not 19 times as large, as agreeing better with the other figure, 27.

40 There is clearly some confusion here, as Anaximander's real account of lunar eclipses is given in the next extract. There is also some doubt about the reading….

41 See Tannery. Science hellène, p. 91; Diels, "Ueber Anaximanders Kosmos" (Arch. x. pp. 231 sqq.).

42 The true meaning of this doctrine was first explained by Diels (Dox. pp. 25 sqq.). The flames issue per magni circum spiracula mundi, as Lucretius has it (vi. 493)….

43 This is not so strange a view as might appear. An island or a rock in the offing may disappear completely when shrouded in mist…, and we seem to see the sky beyond it.

44 Lucretius, v. 619 sqq….

47 On Aristotle and the galeus levis, see Johannes Millier, "Ueber den glatten Hai des Aristoteles" (K. Preuss. Akad., 1842), to which my attention was directed by my colleague, Professor D'Arcy Thompson….

William K. C. Guthrie (essay date 1962)

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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 scholar Gigon to suppose that Aristotle, with his deep interest in the historical aspect of his subject, must have sought out the works of these two and discovered copies which up to his time had been lost.

The Suda lists as titles of works by Anaximander: On Nature, Description of the Earth, The Fixed Stars, Sphere, 'and a few more'. These probably come from the catalogue of the Alexandrian library and represent divisions of a single work which Anaximander himself would almost certainly, in accordance with the custom of his time, have left unnamed, and, on the assumption that the titles are in fact sub-titles, the lists may well have varied. Throughout antiquity the title 'On Nature' … was given indiscriminately to the writings of the Presocratics, who from the main bent of their interests were known as 'the natural philosophers' or 'physiologers'…. The phrase was already in use as a title in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., though this fact is not indeed proved by the passages commonly cited to support it, in which a Hippocratic writer or Plato refers to 'those who write on nature': this and similar phrases mark them off as a recognized group, but cannot be said to indicate anything so definite as a title.2 More certain proof comes from something which does not seem to have impressed scholars in this connexion, namely the statement that Gorgias the fifth-century Sophist wrote a book which he called 'On the Non-existent or On Nature'.3 One cannot doubt that the deliberately provocative title was chosen by Gorgias himself, nor that it was intended as a parody of titles already extant. He may have had particularly in mind his contemporary Melissus, whose book according to Simplicius (Phys. 70. 16, De Caelo, 557. 10; DK, 30A4) was called 'On Nature or the Existent'.

The classification of his writings in the Suda may be fairly taken to represent the scope of Anaximander's interests. Coupled with the well-authenticated fact that he drew a map of the known world, it suggested to Heidel that he was more of a geographer than a philosopher and that the limited interest of the Peripatetics who were responsible for the doxographic tradition has therefore given a somewhat distorted picture of his achievements as a whole. The reports of his map go back to the great Alexandrian geographer and librarian Eratosthenes, e.g. that of Strabo who in claiming that geography is a study worthy to be called philosophical says, after giving pride of place to Homer (I, I, 11, DK, 12A6):

Those who followed him were clearly notable men and at home in philosophy, of whom Eratosthenes says that the first after Homer were two, Anaximander the acquaintance and fellow-citizen of Thales, and Hecataeus of Miletus. The one was the first to publish a geographical tablet [map of the earth], whereas Hecataeus left a treatise which is authenticated as his from the rest of his writings.4

Anaximander was also noted for his astronomical achievements, a natural accompaniment to his interest in the cosmos as a whole. He is said (D.L. II, 2) to have constructed a sphere, that is, some sort of model of the heavens, but unfortunately we have no details of this, and we are still at the cloudy stage of history when the attribution of particular actions or discoveries to an individual is almost impossible of verification. We read in Cicero that the first celestial sphere was fashioned by Thales (eam a Thalete Milesio primum esse tornatam, De Rep. I, 14, 22). Heidel mentions that according to Pliny (II, 31, DK, 12A5) Anaximander discovered the obliquity of the zodiac, but does not here note that Eudemus in his Astronomical History credited this to Oenopides in the fifth century (DK, 41.7). Like Thales, Anaximander was said to have invented, or introduced, the dial with upright rod (gnomon), and to have shown by its aid the 'solstices, times, seasons, and equinoxes' (Eusebius, DK, A 4, cf. D.L. II, 1). Herodotus, as we have seen…, regarded this as an importation from Babylonia, and the different words used by our authorities indicate at least some doubt as to the extent of Anaximander's achievement here. This dial, according to Favorinus (ap. D.L. II, 1), he set up at Sparta, a city with which he is further connected by a story in Cicero (De Div. 1, 50, 112) that he was responsible for a considerable saving of life by warning the Spartans of an impending earthquake and persuading them to spend the night in the open.5 Thus, as one would expect from his geographical interests, he evidently had the Ionian taste for travel, and Aelian (c. A.D. 200) says that he led the expedition to found one of the numerous colonies of Miletus, that at Apollonia on the Black Sea coast (V.H. III, 7, DK, A 3). No doubt like Thales he took a full part in the public life of his city, even if we may no longer accept the sixth-century statue bearing the name of Anaximander, the lower part of which has been discovered in the bouleuterion of Miletus, as having been erected in honour of the philosopher.6

Heidel's minute examination of the evidence from non-Peripatetic sources led him to the conclusion that Anaximander's book was, in short and summary form, a universal history and geography, 'purporting to sketch the life-history of the cosmos from the moment of its emergence from infinitude to the author's own time'. Carrying this tendency even further, Cherniss says: 'Anaximander's purpose was to give a description of the inhabited earth, geographical, ethnological and cultural, and the way in which it had come to be what it was.' This would mean that the only part of Anaximander's doctrine on which we have anything but the smallest and most doubtful bits of information, namely his cosmogony, was to him only incidental or preparatory to the main purpose of his work. We may admit the likelihood that Aristotle and his followers were silent about parts of the book that did not interest them, but to go so far in the opposite direction is to outrun the evidence.

Here our main purpose must be to attempt a reconstruction of Anaximander's cosmogonical views, and in this, as we have seen, we are better situated than we were with Thales. None of our informants, or their sources, had knowledge of a book by Thales. They were dependent on anecdotes or a few apophthegms, the authenticity of which was doubtful or worse. The treatise of Anaximander could be quoted, and its style criticized, by Theophrastus, and we are told that Apollodorus saw a copy in the second century B.C. Whatever we may think of their interpretations, it is safest to assume that Aristotle and Theophrastus both had the work, and to be correspondingly cautious in criticizing what they say from the standpoint of our own comparative ignorance.

(2) The Unlimited as 'arche '

The best starting-point will be the account which Simplicius gives, in large part from Theophrastus (Phys. 24.13, DK, A9 and Bl):

Anaximander named the arche … and element of existing things 'the boundless', being the first to introduce this name for the arche. He says that it is neither water nor any other of the so-called elements, but a different substance which is boundless, from which there come into being all the heavens and the worlds within them. Things perish into those things out of which they have their being, as is due; for they make just recompense to one another for their injustice according to the ordinance [or perhaps 'assessment'] of time—so he puts it in somewhat poetical terms.

Having thus paraphrased and in part quoted Anaximander's words, Simplicius, with Aristotle and Theophrastus before him, proceeds to interpret them:

It is clear that when he observed how the four elements change into each other, he did not think it reasonable to conceive of one of these as underlying the rest, but posited something else. Moreover he does not account for genesis by a qualitative alteration of the element, but by a separation of the opposites caused by the eternal motion.

Few passages descriptive of Presocratic doctrine have escaped a thorough mauling from many modern commentators. The above is no exception, and many difficulties have been discovered, if not created, in it. The casual aside, that Anaximander's language here is rather poetical, gives us the valuable information that the previous sentence, though cast in indirect speech in the Greek, preserves some of his actual words. At a minimum, the criticism must refer to the clause: 'for they make just recompense to one another for their injustice according to the ordinance of time', and this is sufficient guarantee that the preceding clause is a true representation of Anaximander's thought.7 The statement in Simplicius's explanation that Anaximander accounts for the origin of things 'by a separation of the opposites', etc., depends no doubt on Aristotle, who writes (Phys. 1, 4, 187a20): 'Others teach that the opposites are in the one and are separated out, as Anaximander says.'8

It is clear (though a different view has been taken) that the first sentence in the passage from Simplicius means that Anaximander was the first to give the name apeiron (boundless, unlimited) to the arche. That he was also the first to use arche for that which writers from Aristotle onwards, with rather different ideas in their heads, called 'the substratum' appears not from this but from another passage of Simplicius (Phys. 150.22): 'Anaximander says that the opposites were in the substratum, which was a boundless body, and were separated out: he was the first to name the substratum arche.' We notice also that Theophrastus deemed it necessary to explain the archaic word by adding the Aristotelian term … (element).9

With Anaximander physical theory takes a momentous step, to a notion from which it has retreated many times before its reappearance in very different form in the modern world: the notion of the non-perceptible. 'The physical view of the world', writes the physicist von Weizsäcker, 'has always had a tendency towards the nonperceptible. This stems immediately from the endeavour of physics to achieve a unified world-view. We do not accept appearances in their many-coloured fulness, but we want to explain them, that is, we want to reduce one fact to another. In this process what is perceptible is often explained by what is not perceptible.'10

Anaximander then rejected the idea that water, or any of the popularly (and later philosophically) recognized elemental masses visible in the world of today, could have served as a basis for all the rest. Instead he posited an unnamed substance behind them all, less definite in character, which he described as apeiron (from a privative, indicating absence, and peras = limit or boundary). There was no reason for regarding water, earth, fire or any such familiar, sensibly manifest phenomenon as prior to the rest. The original matrix of the universe must be something more primitive and ultimate than any of them, of which they are all alike secondary manifestations or modifications, obtained by a process of 'separating out'.

The following questions therefore suggest themselves: Why did he thus go behind the phenomena? What did he mean by apeiron? What were the 'opposites', and in what sense 'in the one and separated out'?

(3) The opposites

The assumption of an imperceptible reality behind the perceptible was, for one seeking a unity behind the multiplicity of phenomena, on general grounds a reasonable one, as von Weizsäcker has confirmed from the scientist's standpoint. Anaximander had also a more specific reason for adopting it, and this introduces a fundamental feature of Greek thought with a long and influential history, namely the notion of the primary opposites. Later, when substance and attribute had been clearly distinguished by Plato and Aristotle, it was said that the elements—earth, water, air and fire—were characterized by one or more of a set of contrary qualities, hot, cold, wet and dry, and because of their contrary attributes were always in a state of conflict. European literature attests the vitality of this semi-anthropomorphic notion. From Ovid—

Frigida pugnabant calidis, umentia siccis—

we pass to Spenser—

The earth the air the water and the fire
Then gan to range themselves in huge array,
And with contrary forces to conspire
Each against other by all means they may—

and Milton—

Hot, cold, wet and dry, four champions fierce
Strive here for maistery.

When Anaximander first tried to give philosophical expression to the idea, no clear distinction was possible between substance and attribute. Just as he spoke of 'the boundless', so also he designated the opposites by article and adjective as the hot, the cold, the wet and the dry.11 These, as Cornford has said, are for Anaximander not qualities but things. "'The hot" was not warmth, considered as an adjectival property of some substance which is warm. It is a substantive thing, and "the cold", its contrary, is another thing. Hence it was possible to think of the hot and the cold as two opposed things which might be fused together in an indistinct condition, like a mixture of wine and water' (Princ. Sap. 162).

The conflict of the opposites is an undeniable fact of nature. Water for instance, whose nature it is to quench fire whenever it meets it, can hardly be the original substance out of which fire, along with all the other forms of material existence, had its being. Aristotle puts the argument thus, though without mentioning Anaximander by name:

Some thinkers make this [sc. a substance other than the elements, out of which they have evolved] the unlimited, not air or water, to prevent their destruction by that one of them which is unlimited; for they are marked by mutual opposition—e.g. air is cold, water wet, fire hot—so that if one of them were unlimited, the others would have perished. As it is, they say, it is something else, out of which the known elements come (Phys. III, 204b 24).

The conflict is referred to by Anaximander himself in the only well-attested fragment of his writings: 'They make just recompense to one another for their injustice according to the ordinance of time.'

To avoid misunderstanding, a distinction must be observed here which may at first sight seem rather subtle. There is a sense in which water (the cold and wet) can and does give birth to its opposite, fire (the hot and dry). No other meaning can be attached to Anaximander's sentence than that the 'injustice' which they commit consists in an encroachment, say, of fire by swallowing up some of its rival water, and vice versa. It was in fact a common Greek belief, which emerges still more clearly in Anaximenes, that the fiery heat at the circumference of the universe (that is, in the present world-order the sun) not only vaporized the moisture of earth and sea, thus turning it into mist or air, but finally ignited it and transformed it into fire. The process was actually spoken of as the 'nourishment' of the sun by water or moisture, as we saw in connexion with Thales….

In this sense fire can be created out of water, but only because of the simultaneous existence of both, and, as Anaximander says, their balance is always being redressed: the encroachment of one opposite is followed by a retribution in which the other regains the lost ground. Fire becomes cooled into cloud, cloud into rain which once more replenishes the moisture on earth. This alternate advance and retreat of the hot and the dry, the cold and the wet, is an obvious expression of the annual variation of the seasons.12 It in no way contradicts the observation which led to the abandon ment of one of the opposites as primal arche, for it remains as true as ever that in a universe which was all water, like that of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian myths which Thales perhaps rationalized a little too precipitately, no fire could ever have come into being. For water to turn into fire requires the action of fire already existing.

Thus whether the sentence 'things perish into those things out of which they have their being, according to necessity' is also Anaximander's or is a paraphrase by Theophrastus or Simplicius, it cannot refer (as it has frequently been thought to do) to the primal generation of the opposites out of, and final reabsorption into, the ultimate apeiron, but only to their mutual transformations in the present order. Otherwise its connexion with the quotation which follows would make no sense.13

To sum up, Anaximander had noticed that it is the natural tendency of each of the elements to swallow up its opposite. Fire and water must inevitably be in conflict. When they meet they struggle until one or the other prevails, and either the fire is put out and noth ing but the water remains, or else the water is dried up and fire remains in sole possession of the field. Conversely this may be described, in Simplicius's words, as the conversion of water into fire and vice versa. There is of course an intermediate stage, clearly visible to observation, of the conversion of water into steam or vapour, which for the Greeks are included in the term aer. In the world as a whole, complete and final victory is never granted to one or the other of the opposing forces (or litigants, as Anaximander imagined them): the balance between them is always being restored or maintained. If one gains a local advantage, the other is encroaching elsewhere.

Now if the world is evolved from a single substance, there must be at least enough of this substance to make the whole world, and probably a good deal more besides. But if fire existed in that quantity, it would inevitably enjoy a permanent victory over its potential rivals, none of which could be allowed to come into existence; or if the arche and physis of the world were water, there could never be fire. This remains true whether we take Anaximander's word apeiron, which he applied to his primary state of matter, to mean strictly infinite in extent, as Aristotle did, or simply of an indefinite quantity large enough to serve as source or reservoir14 from which all that exists has been drawn. What exactly he did mean by the word has been matter of considerable controversy, and is now due for consideration.

It was long customary to regard the Milesians as interested only in the question 'What is the world made of?' They assumed it to be made of one material substance, and asked only whether that substance was water, air or something else. This was Aristotle's view, because when he approached them from the standpoint of his own fourfold scheme, seeking only, as he tells us, for anticipations of the material, efficient, formal and final causes as he conceived them, they appeared to be concerned only with 'principles of a material kind'…. But by thus limiting the scope and purpose of his review, he has undoubtedly misled those who, ignoring his own explicit declaration of intentions, supposed him to be writing a history of philosophy. Not 'matter' (for which they had no word, since they knew of no other form of existence) but rather 'nature' (physis) is the correct keyword. It may be that no certain instance of this word occurs in the scanty fragments of the philosophers before Heraclitus, but we have it in a very similar sense in Homer,15 and this with the universal consensus of antiquity is enough to justify the claim of Pohlenz that 'the concept of physis is a creation of Ionian science, in which they summed up their new understanding of the world'.16 Most commonly it meant the real constitution or character of things, including the way they behave, though it could also mean 'birth' or 'growth' (e.g. in Empedocles, fr. 8). The two are not unconnected, since, as Aristotle said (Phys. 193b12), 'Physis in the sense of comingto-be is the path to physis' (in the sense of state or structure finally reached). Physis could be both process and constitution or developed form, and the Milesians were interested in both aspects, though the evidence, such as it is, suggests that the latter sense (which it has in the Odyssey) is likely to have predominated in the sixth century.

The 'new understanding of the world' consisted in the substitution of natural for mythological causes, that is, of internal development for external compulsion. This, as Pohlenz says, is well expressed by the generalized use of physis,17 which is something essentially internal and intrinsic to the world, the principle of its growth and present organization, identified at this early stage with its material constituent. The primary assumption is not simply that it consists of a single material substance, but that the diversity of its present order is not from eternity, but has evolved from something radically simpler at a particular point in time.

(4) The meaning of 'apeiron '

To this initial simple state or arche Anaximander gave the name of the Boundless, and the process by which a world-order emerged from it he described as a 'separating-off. To consider first the initial state itself, how did he conceive it and why did he call it apeiron? Aristotle (Phys. 203b 15; DK, A15), for whom the word had the strict sense of infinite, mentions five considerations as leading to the belief that something is apeiron. We may take it that they include all the traditional aspects of the word up to and including his time. In the first of these aspects, the temporal, the apeiron of Anaximander certainly deserves to be called infinite. The notion of temporal infinity was familiar to the Greek mind from remote antiquity in the religious conception of immortality, and Anaximander's description was in terms appropriate to this conception, for like many of his successors, says Aristotle (Phys. 203b 13; DK, B3), he called his arche 'deathless and imperishable'. According to Hippolytus he also applied to it the words 'eternal and ageless' (Ref. 1, 6, 1; DK, B2). This marks it off as something of a different order from anything recognizable in the present world, and also illustrates the meaning of arche as both the original state of things—for it has existed from all time—and the permanent ground of their being. The arche of all things cannot itself have an arche—a beginning—because then not it but that further arche would be the ultimate one. And what has no arche, and also no ending, is apeiron, for an arche would be a limit. So, in effect, says Aristotle (Phys. 203b7), using an argument which seemed to Cornford to have 'an archaic ring'.18

Apart from the temporal sense of 'everlasting', apeiron has two main meanings, according as the 'boundaries' (perata) which it lacks are thought of as external or internal. If a body is limited externally, this can only be because it comes up against something else, or so at least it seemed to Aristotle and later writers.19 Beyond its limit there must be something other than itself. Conversely, then, a body which is unlimited in this sense must continue infinitely, or at least indefinitely, in space. In the Placita of Aëtius (DK, A14) we are told that Anaximander regarded the apeiron as infinite in this quantitative sense 'in order that becoming might not fail'. The extant 'opposites', as we have seen, and more complex bodies composed of them, are continually perishing. Consequently, it seems to be argued, if the supply of them is to be kept up—as it is and has been for time out of mind—the reservoir out of which new supplies come—that is, the apeiron—must be inexhaustible and therefore infinite.

It seems doubtful, however, whether Anaximander used this argument himself.20 It looks rather as if the author had drawn that inference from a sentence in which Aristotle denies that this is a valid reason for supposing the existence of an infinite body, but without suggesting that Anaximander did so. 'Nor is it necessary', writes Aristotle (Phys. 208a8; DK, A14), 'for an infinite sensible body to exist in actuality in order that becoming may not fail; for the destruction of one thing may be the genesis of another, while the whole sum remains finite.' What Aristotle says is clearly right. The process of becoming and perishing is circular. Perishing does not mean vanishing into nothingness, but changing into a different form of matter. This circularity, symbolized by anaximander as the alternation of 'injustice' and 'reparation', seems to have been central in his thought. If he did not see that it does away with the necessity for an inexhaustible reservoir of primal matter which is everlastingly being drawn upon to form new creatures and other things in the world, then his mind was less acute than the evidence suggests it to have been.

It is unlikely that Anaximander was capable of grasping the notion of strict spatial or quantitative infinity, which came with further advances in mathematics. It is indeed purely conceptual, and has no meaning in the world of immediate sensible experience. As one of the five reasons for believing in an infinite, Aristotle says that number, mathematical magnitude and the space beyond the sky are thought to be infinite 'because they never give out in our thought'. It is hardly credible that Anaximander reasoned like this. He certainly regarded the apeiron as an enormous mass surrounding … the whole of our world, but it may even have presented itself to his mind, as Cornford suggested, as a vast sphere. The word was in use in Greek to describe both spherical and circular shape, and, in an age without any sciences of grammar, semantics or logic, men were at the mercy of words to an extent which it is not always easy to realize. A word was more like a single whole entity, and its various meanings, which we without difficulty analyse and separate, could only appear as different aspects or facets of a single meaning.

It is right therefore to take into account the fact that apeiron was used of spheres and rings, to indicate no doubt that one can go on and on around them without ever coming to a bounding line. This comes out particularly clearly when Aristotle says (Phys. 207a2) that finger-rings are called unlimited if they have no gem-socket. Empedocles (fr. 28) speaks of an unlimited sphere, and the word is also applied to a seamless robe and a circular band of worshippers round an altar.21

Secondly apeiron was used with internal perata chiefly in mind, to indicate that no line could be drawn between part and part within the whole. In this way it approximates to the notion of indeterminacy. A body unlimited in this sense may be made up of different sorts of matter, but they are fused into an indistinguishable mass. Standing on the shore, we can see clearly where sea and earth and air begin and end. The world is not apeiron in the sense we are considering. But we can imagine some cataclysm occurring which would destroy those boundaries, just as we can imagine an initial state of chaos before the main divisions of the world were so cleanly distinguished as they are now. If earth, sea and sky were fused in one heaving, molten mass, the world might be described as a boundless, or unlimited, mixture…, meaning that the boundaries between its various components were non-existent and they were inextricably confused. The extent of the world's own boundaries is not in question.

Let me repeat that we are not at a stage of thought when clear distinctions between different uses of the same word are possible. Some inheritance of the magical idea that a word or name has an independent existence and essence of its own, and can only therefore be one thing, persisted until later times than this, and influenced even the thought of the most enlightened, however far it may have receded into the subconscious. Of that the Cratylus of Plato is ample evidence. There is no question then of deciding in which of several senses Anaximander intended us to take his word, but only which sense was upper-most in his mind. This is likely to have been the notion of internal indeterminacy rather than of spatial infinity, since the former offered a solution to the problem that he was trying to solve. He was impressed, as we have seen…, with the difficulty of supposing the single primary element to be water, or 'the wet', as Thales had done, or any of the actual opposites with their determined characteristics. Owing to his belief in the inherent hostility and 'injustice' of these, any single one of them, far from serving as source of being to the rest, would prevent it altogether. A primitive stuff must be, so to speak, a neutral in these hostilities, and must therefore have no definite characteristics of its own. It must hold, inactive in the first place and suspended as it were in solution, the characteristics of all the future opposites which in due course were to be, in the significant word which was probably his own, 'separated off' (or 'out') from it. Here we may find, in all probability, the chief reason why he called his arche simply 'the apeiron'. There were no perata in it between the hot, the cold, the wet and the dry. Before the formation of a cosmos, the opposites as such could be said to be as yet non-existent, because they were indistinguishably mingled. At the same time (to use a resource of language that was not at Anaximander's disposal) they were present in a potential state, so that their subsequent emergence into actual and active being was always a possibility. The difficulties of this conception, at least as it was expressed in the crude language of his time, were not immediately apparent. To bring them out fully required the uncompromising clarity of a Parmenides. If the opposites could be separated out from the arche, we may say, it must have contained them all the time and therefore could not be described as a unity. In applying the ancient formula 'everything came into being out of one thing', Anaximander virtually cheated.22 But to make this criticism belonged to a more advanced stage of thought, a necessary stage between the naive monism of the Milesians and the Aristotelian distinction between various modes of being.23

(5) The 'apeiron' divine

There is a little more to be said about Anaximander's arche, based on the words of Aristotle in Phys. 203b6 (DK, A15):

Everything either is an origin or has an origin: the unlimited has no origin, for that would be a limit of it. Moreover, being an origin [or source or principle: arche], it is ungenerated and imperishable…. Therefore, as I say, there is no origin for it, but it appears to be the origin of other things and to encompass all things and direct all things, as those philosophers say who do not posit besides the unlimited other causes such as Mind or Love; and this they say is the divine, for it is immortal and imperishable, as Anaximander and most of the writers on nature call it.

Aristotle is here distinguishing later thinkers, to whom the belief in an animate self-moving stuff was beginning to seem unsatisfactory so that like Empedocles and Anaxagoras they moved towards the notion of a separate moving force, from those who like the Milesians were still at the hylozoist stage. For these a single arche filled the dual role; it included or surrounded all things, and was also the directive force. This verb…, literally 'to steer', was applied in the fifth century by Diogenes of Apollonia (fr. 5) to air, which he adopted as the arche from Anaximander's successor Anaximenés. Elsewhere among the Presocratics we find it in Heraclitus (whatever the correct reading and interpretation of fr. 41) and Parmenides (fr. 12, v. 3). In all probability this word and the rest of the language here quoted from 'philosophers of the unlimited' go back to Anaximander as well as the two epithets explicitly vouched for by Aristotle as his.24

These words, as Aristotle says a little later (207a18), impart a certain loftiness of tone to the pronouncements of early philosophers on the apeiron. Indeed the attribution to the arche not only of life but of directive powers immediately suggests divine status. The same verb (to steer…) is of course applied to divinities in non-philosophical contexts. It is therefore no surprise when Aristotle goes on to ascribe divinity explicitly to the arche of Anaximander and those who thought like him. For a Greek indeed, as he indicates in the next clause, it follows directly from the fact of immortality. If it includes directive or governing power it also implies at least some form of consciousness. For Anaximander we have no further evidence on this point, but later monist philosophers ascribe consciousness and intelligence explicitly to their single material arche. This is the beginning of the road which will lead ultimately to the separation of matter and moving cause, that is of matter and spirit, as the difficulty of their identification becomes more apparent; but that is still in the future. At present the very word 'matter' is an anachronism.25

(6) Cosmogony and cosmology

From the primal state, or original source of all things, we turn to the process by which a world-order comes into being. This is described as being, in general terms, one of 'separating-out', caused by an 'eternal motion' in the apeiron. In Aristotle's words (Phys. 187a20), 'the opposites are in the one and are separated out'. This statement of the process follows well on our description of the primary nature of the apeiron as an initial indeterminate fusion of all the opposites.26 But we are not confined to the general term ekkrisis (or apokrisis) for our knowledge of how Anaximander supposed a world to be formed from the apeiron. Part of a description of his cosmogony, taken by Eusebius from the compilation called Stromateis and originating in Theophrastus, reads thus (DK, A10):

He says that at the birth of this cosmos a27 germ of hot and cold was separated off from the eternal substance, and out of this a sphere of flame grew about the vapour surrounding the earth like the bark round a tree. When this was torn away and shut off in certain rings, the sun, moon and stars came into existence.

The last sentence can be better understood by comparison with the following….

(a) (Aët. 11, 13, 7, DK, A18) Anaximander says that the stars are wheel-shaped concentrations (lit. 'feltings') of mist filled with fire, breathing out flames through openings in a certain quarter.

(b) (Hippolytus, Ref. 1, 6, 4, DK, All) The stars come into being as a circle of fire, separated off from the fire that pervades the cosmos and surrounded by mist. There are breathing-places, certain pipe-like passages,28 through which the stars appear. When these are blocked, eclipses occur.

The word … here translated 'germ', is an adjective meaning generative, fertile, able to bring to birth, and is used of eggs and seed. It is used again by Theophrastus in De Igne, 44 in relation to the life of animals and plants only. We can never know whether it is the actual word used by Anaximander, but it is in keeping with the language of organic generation which seems to pervade the passage and, as we saw in discussing Aristotle's conjecture about Thales, is a likely colour for the thought of these early speculators to have taken…. The whole sentence strongly suggests, as Professor Baldry has well brought out,29 that Anaximander conceived his cosmogony on the analogy of early views concerning the seed of animals and the development of the embryo. The mythical world-egg of Orphic and other cosmogonies shows how primitive such a notion could be, and the 'separation' … of the seed in the womb, the part played by hot and cold…, and the 'detachment' … of the new organism from the parent body, are all familiar from Greek medical writers as well as finding their place in the present account. As to … (the word translated 'bark' above), one may note with Baldry that it means 'any skin that forms round a growing organism, whether plant or animal'. Aristotle (H.A. v, 558a28) uses it of the membrane round an egg, and Anaximander himself is said to have applied it to the prickly skin which on his theory surrounded the earliest forms of animal life. It looks as if Anaximander saw the outer 'skin' of the embryo world, separating it from the womb of the 'Boundless' in which it was formed, as a parallel phenomenon to this membrane which developed round eggs, animal embryos and trees alike. Since the world's skin is spherical, the reference to trees (which may have been added by Theophrastus or even later) is obviously not intended to be pressed.30

That cosmogony should be described in terms of or ganic life is appropriate to the mentality of these intellectual pioneers. The arche of Anaximander, the doxographers tell us,31 was in eternal motion. The reason for this is nowhere explained, an omission censured by Aristotle but no doubt due to persistence of the belief that the arche is eternally alive. Since for the Greek the very notion of life involves self-caused motion, no external cause was conceivable, let alone demanded. Anaximander has rejected the anthropomorphic imagery of sexual mating which formed the basis of mythical cosmogonies, but for him it is still natural and rational to regard the matrix of the world as animate and its origin as taking place from a kind of seed or egg.

This fertile nucleus, pregnant with the opposites, becomes detached from the Boundless and develops into a sphere of fire enclosing a cold, moist mass. Between the two is dark mist…. At this stage only two primary opposites can be said to be separated, hot including dry and cold including wet. The mist arises from the action of the hot periphery on the cold-wet centre, and, under the same action of heat, wet and dry become in the end more completely separated, producing land and sea. So Aëtius (DK, A27 fin.):

Anaximander says that the sea is a relic of the primal moisture, the greater part of which has been dried up by the fire.

Anaximander was among those whose accounts of the origin of the sea are mentioned by Aristotle in the Meteorologica (353b5, trans. Lee):

Those who were more versed in secular philosophy [as opposed to the ancient theological poets] suppose it to have had a beginning. They say that at first the whole region about the earth was wet, and that as it dried up the water that evaporated became the cause of winds and the turnings of the sun and moon, while what was left is the sea: consequently they believe that the sea is still drying up and becoming less, and that in the end a time will come when it is all dried up.

He is mentioned by name in the commentary of Alexander of Aphrodisias on the passage (DK, A27):

Some of them say that the sea is a residue of the primal moisture. The region of the earth was moist, and subsequently part of the moisture was vaporized by the sun … but part of it left behind in the hollows of the earth forms the sea. Hence it is continually becoming less as the sun dries it up, and eventually it will be dry. Of this opinion, according to Theophrastus, were Anaximander and Diogenes.

It is characteristic of Milesian thought that once the separation of the mutually hostile opposites has begun, the process of cosmogony is continued by the natural exercise of their respective powers: heat dries up moisture and so on. Interesting also, after Aristotle's and our own conjectures about Thales, is the immediate prominence of moisture and heat as soon as fertilization and generation are to take place. Heat especially has an important part to play as a first agent of genesis, and at a later stage it is the action of heat on moisture which produces animal life. These features of Anaximander's system strengthen the case against those who have disparaged Aristotle's conjecture as arising out of the later progress of physiological and medical knowledge in Greece. We find rather, as might be expected, certain points of contact between the two who were fellow-citizens and fellow-workers in their field.

The next stage in the same continuous process explains the formation of the heavenly bodies. In addition to evidence already quoted, we have the following:32

(a) Hippolytus, after the words quoted…, adds: 'and the moon is seen to wax and wane according as the passages close or open'. There follows a sentence in which some words have probably dropped out of the manuscripts, but which seems to say that the circle of the sun is twenty-seven times the diameter of the earth33 and that of the moon eighteen times, and adds that the sun is the highest of the heavenly bodies, and the stars are the lowest.

(b) Simpl. De Caelo 417.4 (DK, A19, speaking of the planets): Anaximander was the first to discuss their sizes and distances, according to Eudemus, who attributes the first determination of their order to the Pythagoreans. The sizes and distances of the sun and moon are reckoned to this day by taking eclipses as the starting-point of our knowledge, and we may reasonably suppose that this too was Anaximander's discovery.'

(c) Aët. 11, 15, 6 (A18): 'Anaximander, Metrodorus of Chios and Crates held that the sun was situated highest of all, next the moon, and beneath them the fixed stars and planets.'

(d) Ibid. 20, 1 (A21): 'According to Anaximander, the sun is essentially a circle twenty-eight times the size of the earth, shaped like a cartwheel. The rim is hollow and full of fire, and at a certain point allows the fire to be seen through an orifice like the nozzle of a bellows: this is the sun.'

(e) Ibid. 21, 1 (A21): 'Anaximander says that the sun is the same size as the earth, but the circle in which is its blowhole, and by which it is carried round, is twenty-seven times the size of the earth.'

(f) Ibid. 24, 2 (A21): 'According to Anaximander the sun is eclipsed when the orifice through which the fire escapes is shut up.'

(g) Ibid. 25, 1 (A22): 'According to Anaximander, the moon is essentially a circle nineteen times the size of the earth, resembling a cartwheel with the rim hollow and full of fire like that of the sun, lying obliquely as does the sun's and having a single blowhole like the nozzle of a bellows. It is eclipsed according to the turnings of the wheel.'34

(h) Ibid. 29, 1 (A22): 'Anaximander says that the moon is eclipsed when the orifice in the wheel becomes blocked.'

(i) Ibid. 28, 1 (A22 omits last phrase): 'Anaximander, Xenophanes and Berosus say that the moon has its own light, in some way rarer [than the sun's].'35

In spite of minor discrepancies, we may accept the following account as probable. The fiery, spherical membrane about the new-born cosmos parted (doubtless under increasing pressure from the mist or steam caused by its own action in evaporating the watery centre) into separate circles, around each of which the dense mist surged and closed. Where there are apertures in this surrounding envelope, we see the heavenly bodies themselves. Thus the sun and moon are really rotating wheels of fire going right round the earth, but encased in tubes of mist except at one point where there is a hole, through which the fire streams like an ignited jet of gas through a leak in its pipe. (The modern simile is closer than the Greek one of air escaping through the nozzle of a pair of bellows.) The circles of the stars are not so easy to visualize from our fragmentary authorities, but one would suppose that each contained many holes.36 Mention of the Milky Way, as by some modern authorities, hardly gives an adequate explanation, though its appearance may possibly have helped to put the idea of the wheels into Anaximander's head. They were evidently all regarded as lying in the same spherical plane, nor are the planets yet distinguished in this respect from the fixed stars. (Eudemus, in passage (b) above, attributes the deter mination of the planetary orbits to the Pythagoreans. Simplicius's introduction of Anaximander in the context of the planets is confusing, as is his apparent suggestion that Anaximander himself might have calculated the sizes and distances of the sun and moon from the observation of eclipses.)

To suppose that the stars are nearer the earth than either sun or moon is contrary to later Greek astronomy, according to which the fixed stars are—as seems most natural—in the plane of the outermost circumference of the spherical cosmos, and the sun, moon and planets revolve in different orbits beneath them. Anaximander's order raises the question in a modern mind how the rings of the stars avoid obstructing, at least at times, the light of the sun and moon, but it is very doubtful whether this consciously troubled him.37

We may assume that the rings are one earth-diameter thick. The variants in the reported sizes (diameters) of the rings of sun and moon (27 and 18 or 28 and 19 times the size of the earth) were, since Burnet's time (EGP, 68), accounted for as measurements to the inner or outer surface of the rings, until Kirk pointed out the simple fact that this requires a difference of two earth-diameters, not one. He suggests that 'the larger figure might represent the diameter from outer edge to outer edge, the smaller one that from points half-way between the inner and outer edges of the actual felloe of air' (KR, 136). In any case the larger figures are likely to have been some commentator's refinement on the simple scheme of Anaximander expressed in multiples of three. No statement of the size of the star-rings is preserved, but since the diameter of the earth is said to be three times its height…, it looks as if these numbers have a conventional or sacred origin which Anaximander has not outgrown; in which case the missing number seems to be nine.38

The statement that the visible sun is the same size (of the same diameter) as the earth is, for Anaximander's time, most remarkable. (In the next century Anaxagoras could be prosecuted for saying that it was an incandescent stone larger than the Peloponnese.) It also causes a difficulty if we try to correlate it strictly with the distance of the sun from the earth, i.e. the diameter of its wheel.39 This need not have presented itself forcibly to his mind, and all the evidence confirms that he was a fearless and original thinker. Perhaps, however, the possibility that the statement is not authentic cannot be altogether excluded.

The well-attested explanation of eclipses, and of the phases of the moon, as due to alternate contracting and opening of the holes in the tubes of mist through which the heavenly bodies are seen, is another indication of the inchoate state of Anaximander's astronomy, and puts out of court the charitable guess of Simplicius that he might already have been capable of using these phenomena to calculate the sizes and distances of the sun and moon.

One can hardly extract further detail on this part of his system with any approach to certainty. Aëtius speaks of the circles of the sun and moon as 'lying obliquely', presumably to the celestial equator, and the phrase is no doubt, as Heath says, an attempt to explain the annual movement of the sun and monthly movement of the moon. Ingenious ways have been suggested in which Anaximander may have intended to explain the solstices,40 but all are conjectural. It is not even certain whether the word 'turnings'…, occurring in passages which are evidently meant to apply to Anaximander among others, refers to the solstices41 or simply, as it sometimes does, to the revolutions of the heavenly bodies.42 In [a] passage of the Meteorologica…, Aristotle states that the action of the heavenly fire in drying up the water caused 'winds and the turnings of the sun and moon'. Commenting on this Alexander says … :

From it [that is, that part of the original moisture which was vaporized by the sun] arose winds and turnings of the sun and moon, the notion being that the turnings (revolutions?) of those bodies too are accounted for by these vapours and exhalations, since they turn in those regions where they receive a plentiful supply of the moisture.

Here is a clear reference to the early idea that the cosmic fires, or heavenly bodies, are 'nourished' by moisture….43 Further than that this second- or third-hand description will hardly allow us to go. Anaximander may have been supposing the limits of the sun's path in the ecliptic to be fixed by the abundance, in a certain region of the sky, of the moisture on which it depended for its existence; or he may have been trying to produce a theory to account for the whole fact of the cosmic revolutions, suggesting that the motion was started and maintained by these currents of air which the evaporating process somehow set up. We are not offered any other explanation of the revolving motion of the cosmic circles, and the only alternative is to suppose that the movement was somehow implanted by the 'eternal motion' of the Boundless, the nature of which is not specified. In 'giving birth' to its 'offspring' the cosmos, it produced no stillborn child. Language like this has been shown to be appropriate to Anaximander's thoughts in no merely metaphorical sense. Ingenuous as it sounds, this explanation is on the whole the more likely. Enough remains to show that astronomy was still in its infancy among the Greeks. The strength of someone like Anaximander lay in the bold flight of imaginative reason with which he sketched the outlines of a cosmos, and we may agree with Dreyer that 'probably the system never advanced beyond a mere sketch and was not worked out in detail'.

The evidence for the shape and position of the earth is as follows:

(a) [Plut.] Strom. (A 10…): 'And he says that the earth is cylindrical in shape, with a depth three times its breadth.'

(b) Hippolytus, Ref. 1, 6, 3 (A11): 'The earth hangs freely, not by the compulsion of any force but remaining where it is owing to its equal distance from everything. In shape it is rounded [see below for this word], circular, like the drum of a column; of its surfaces one is that on which we stand, and there is another opposite.'44 Aëtius (A25) repeats that the earth 'resembles the drum of a column'.

(c) The reason why the earth remains at the centre had previously been more fully given by Aristotle (De Caelo, 295b10, A26): 'But there are some who name its "indifference"45 as the cause of its remaining at rest, e.g. among the ancients Anaximander. These argue that that which is situated at the centre and is equably related to the extremes has no impulse to move in one direction—either upwards or downwards or sideways—rather than in another; and since it is impossible for it to accomplish movement in opposite directions at once, it necessarily remains at rest.'

(d) Eudemus, Astronomy, quoted by Theo (p. 198.18 Hiller, A26) via Dercyllides: 'Anaximander says that the earth is freely suspended and moves around the centre of the universe.'

The exact meaning of the word γυρᾳν (translated by 'rounded' in passage (b); it is a correction for the impossible ύγρᾳν of the manuscripts) is difficult to determine. The lexica gloss it as both 'round' and 'convex', and it is used of a round-shouldered person in the Odyssey (XIX, 246). Anaximander, if he used the word, may have meant that the surfaces of the earth are not flat but convex, as observation might suggest, though this would make the comparison to 'the stone of a column' less appropriate. The corresponding noun (γύρᾳς) is used of something ring-shaped, as for example a trench dug round a tree, and another possibility is that Anaximander meant to indicate that the earth had a hole at the centre, thus bringing its shape into line with the circles of the heavenly bodies around it. Column-drums often had such a hole.46

The statement quoted from Eudemus in passage (d), that the earth is in motion, need not be taken too seriously. In the same passage Eudemus is credited with a probably exaggerated account of Thales's astronomical knowledge and with saying that Anaximenes discovered the cause of eclipses of the moon and the fact that its light is derived from the sun. As Zeller suggests, and Alexander seems to have suspected, there has probably been a misunderstanding of the words in which Anaximander expressed his highly original notion that the earth floats freely in space with nothing to keep it stationary.47

Anaximander's most striking contribution to cosmological theory was undoubtedly to emancipate himself from the idea that the earth needed a support. The belief that it floated on water was, as we saw, an inheritance from mythology perpetuated by Thales, and intellectually it was a leap forward when the argument from 'indifference' was invoked in favour of the view that it remained unsupported at the centre of a spherical universe, and that the heavenly bodies revolved in complete circles below as well as above it. Nothing shows more clearly the independent quality of Anaximander's mind, and, as we shall see, the advance was too rapid for some of his successors. Nearly two centuries later, Plato paid him the compliment of making Socrates adopt his view, when he said in the Phaedo (108E, trans. A. J. Church):

In the first place then, I believe that the earth is a spherical body placed in the centre of the heavens, and that therefore it has no need of air or any other force to support it: the equiformity of the heavens in all their parts, and the equipoise of the earth itself, are sufficient to hold it up. A thing in equipoise placed at the centre of what is equiform cannot incline in any direction, either more or less: it will remain unmoved and in perfect balance.

Clearly the recognition of the earth's sphericity could not be long delayed, but it did not appear first in the Milesian tradition, and the mention of air is a reminder that later Ionians went back to the more simple-minded notion that the earth needed material support, for they supposed it to be buoyed up by air.

We are told (and might in any case have assumed) that just as the world-order had a beginning out of the apeiron, so also it will have an end, fading back, as it were, into the formless state from which it came. Only the apeiron itself is 'eternal and ageless', 'immortal and indestructible'. So Aëtius (A14):

Anaximander of Miletus, son of Praxiades, says that the first principle of existing things is the Boundless; for from this all come into being and into it all perish. Wherefore innumerable worlds are both brought to birth and again dissolved into that out of which they came.

But our sources nowhere explain how this will occur. It looks as if Anaximander were less interested in the end of a world than in its beginning. The one sentence of his which we possess (if indeed this first part of the sentence is his) has been commonly held to refer to it in the words: 'Things perish into that out of which they have their being': but in fact this obviously describes the transformation of the elements into one another, which, far from signifying the destruction of the world, is the process by which it is maintained.48

What seems more relevant is the mention of a time when there will be no more water left, since fire, its opposite, will have prevailed completely and dried it all up.49 This will clearly upset the balance of the universe which is maintained by the alternate and mutual encroachment of the opposites on each other, followed by their recession as 'penalty' for their 'injustice'. One cannot suppose this cyclic process, taking place as Anaximander says 'according to the ordinance (or assessment) of time', to be anything other than the annual alternation of the seasons. The permanent victory of the hot and dry would obviously disorganize the whole world-order. Cornford connected this possibility with the archaic idea of a 'great summer' and 'great winter', and assumed 'alternate destructions of the world by the Hot and by the Cold moisture'. Our world will be ultimately destroyed by fire, the next by flood.50 This may have been what Anaximander meant, but if so, it is something different from reabsorption into the apeiron, and it is difficult to see how the Hot, having once been allowed to gain the supreme victory—or commit the supreme injustice—could ever be forced to give up its ill-gotten gains. A cosmos starts from a neutral state, not from an extreme. If that is not the thought from which Anaximander started out, which impressed on him the need for an apeiron as the arche rather than water or anything else, then we have indeed failed in our interpretation of him and there is little chance of success.

(7) Origin of animal and human life

After the formation of a world-order by the separation of the opposites, or elements, into their proper stations, the next stage is the emergence of animal life. This is explained with remarkable consistency (and complete disregard for religious or mythological modes of thought) as due to a continuation of the same process of 'separating-out' through the action of the hot and dry on the cold and moist: for life arose in the moist element through the action on it of the sun's warmth. This theory was probably connected with the persistent belief that even in the present world life is generated 'spontaneously' from the warmth of putrescent matter, a belief doubtless based on observation—'an observation', as Dr W. P. D. Wightman has remarked, 'which must have been only too familiar, though misinterpreted, in a warm climate'.51

The testimonies are as follows:

(a) Hippolytus, Ref. 1, 6, 6 (A11): 'He said that living creatures arose from the evaporation of the moist element by the sun; and that man originally resembled another creature, namely a fish.'

(b) Aëtius V, 19, 4 (A30): 'Anaximander said that the first animals were born in moisture and surrounded by prickly integuments, but that as they grew older they emerged on to the drier part, the integument split off, and they lived on52 for a short time.'

(c) [Plut.] Strom. (A10…): 'He says moreover that originally man was born from creatures of a different species, on the grounds that whereas other creatures quickly find food for themselves, man alone needs a long period of suckling; hence if he had been originally what he is now he could never have survived.'

The references to the origin of mankind are naturally of particular interest. So far we have nothing inconsistent with the supposition that Anaximander was describing its gradual evolution, on Darwinian lines, from some marine species. Indeed the statement of Hippolytus, that man 'originally resembled another creature, namely a fish', would, by itself, hardly allow a different interpretation. Yet this does not seem to have been in fact what he meant. Plutarch in his Quaestiones Conviviales (730E, A30) says that at first men were born in fish, and makes this meaning clearer by contrasting it with the more plausible view that they are related to them. The guests are discussing the custom of abstaining from fish on religious grounds. One of them mentions examples of people who do this because they worship Poseidon as Fosterer and Ancestor, believing, like the Syrians, that man arose from the wet element. 'For this reason,' he continues, 'they reverence the fish as kindred and foster-brother, displaying a more reasonable philosophy than Anaximander; for he does not class fish and men together, but declares that men were first born in fish, and having been nurtured in the manner of galei and become capable of looking after themselves, they emerged and occupied the land. And so just as fire devours the matter in which it was kindled and which is father and mother to it (as the writer said who interpolated the wedding of Ceyx in Hesiod), so Anaximander, having shown the fish to be the common father and mother of men, put us off eating it.'53

The Latin writer Censorinus gives an even clearer account to the same effect (IV, 7, A30):

Anaximander of Miletus said that in his opinion there arose out of water and earth, when warmed, either fish or creatures resembling fish. In these creatures men were formed, and the young were retained within until the time of puberty; then at last the creatures were broken open and men and women emerged already capable of finding their own nourishment.

The theory of Anaximander seems then to have been that human embryos grew inside the bodies of the early fish-like creatures, and later emerged as fully-formed men and women. His account proceeds in the first place by deduction from the hypothesis that all life had its origin in moist slime acted on by the heat of the sun, this being in its turn only a particular stage in the evolution of the cosmos by the interaction of the opposites. It would acquire seeming confirmation either from observation or from the lore of Egyptians or Orientals. The first living creatures must therefore have been of a kind suited to a moist habitat, perhaps rather like the prickly sea-urchin. A human infant could hardly have survived under these conditions unless some special protection were devised, and here the example of the galeus came to his mind as a possible solution. This name was applied to dogfish or sharks, and Plutarch, commenting on the parental affection of galei, says (De Soll. Anim. 982C): 'They produce an egg, and then the creature itself, not outside, but within their own bodies, and nurse it there and carry it as if there had been a second birth. Then when they have grown larger they put them forth'; and more clearly in De Amove Prolis 494C: 'The galei in particular reproduce viviparously, and allow their young to issue forth and feed, then take them back and enfold them in the womb to rest.'

The species that Plutarch has in mind is no doubt the smooth dogfish (mustelus levis…) a viviparous variety which forms 'the subject of one of Aristotle's most celebrated descriptions, and a famous example of his anatomical erudition'.54 Aristotle (HA, 565b1) refers to the remarkable peculiarity that 'the young develop with the navel-string attached to the womb, so that, as the egg-substance gets used up, the embryo is sustained, to all appearances, just as in the case of quadrupeds. The navel-string is long, and adheres to the under part of the womb (each navel-string being attached as it were by a sucker), and also to the middle of the embryo where the liver lies.' He also associates himself with the common belief that 'galei in general can extrude their young and take them back again' (565b24), a belief which persisted in the middle ages. Burnet (EGP, 71, n. 2) thinks that Anaximander's comparison is sufficiently accounted for by the anatomical details of the placenta and umbilical cord, and that there is no need to associate him with the other belief. Much as one would like to discover such faithfulness to observed fact in the first youth of Greek natural philosophy, it seems hardly likely that Anaximander disowned a belief which was still seriously held by Aristotle, and which undoubtedly provides the best illustration for his purpose.55

(8) Meteorology

Anaximander's reported views on meteorological phenomena provide further illustration of his principle of consistency, that events in the present world must be attributed to the continued operation of the same forces and processes that brought about its formation in the beginning. This is especially obvious in his explana tion of wind, which he regarded as a flow of air, or as air in motion.

(a) Aëtius (A24): 'Wind is a flow of air, occurring when the finest [and most moist] elements in it are set in motion [or liquefied] by the sun.' …

(b) Hippolytus, Ref. 1, 6, 7 (All): 'Winds are produced when the finest vapours of the air are separated off, and being gathered together are set in motion; rain out of the evaporation given off from the earth by the sun's action.'56

As O. Gilbert remarked (Meteor. Theorien, 512), the brief note about Anaximander inserted by Aëtius in his section on winds seems to have conflated Theophrastus's reports of his explanation of winds on the one hand and rain on the other. Comparison with Hippolytus suggests that the cosmogonic process of apokrisis is still at work. After water had been separated from earth, the sun drew vapour up from the water to form the atmosphere. This in its turn, as the 'separating-out' continues, divides into two substances, a lighter (finer, drier) and a heavier (wetter). The former is set in motion as wind, the latter precipitated as rain. It is all part of the same operation of peripheral heat on the moist centre which in due course was responsible for the emergence of life.57

Once the air has been separated into wind (the light and dry part) and rain-cloud (the heavy and wet), these, and in particular the wind, are made to account for thunder and lightning. Thus Aëtius (A23), in his section on thunder, lightning, meteorites, waterspouts and whirlwinds:

Anaximander says that all these are caused by wind. When it is imprisoned in thick cloud and forces a way out by reason of its fine texture and lightness, then the tearing makes the noise, and the contrast with the blackness of the cloud produces the flash.58

It would appear that, in the process of 'separating-out' of the air into wind and cloud, some of the lighter and finer sort may find itself so completely surrounded by the denser that it cannot easily complete the process of 'gathering together' with its like. The result is a violent explosion of the cloud, perceived by us as thunder and lightning.


1 On the date of Anaximander cf. Heidel in Proc. Am. Ac. 1921, 253f.

2 Hippocr. De Vet. Med. 20 (1,620 Littré), Plato, Lys. 214B, Phaedo, 96A, Eur. fr. 910 Nauck, Xen. Mem. I, I, 11, Ar. Gen. et Corr. 333b18, Phys. 185a18 (quoted by Verdenius, loc. cit. below). On the strength of some of these, Heidel (Proc. Am. Acad XLV (1910), 81) said: 'It is reasonably certain that philosophical works were familiarly quoted as bearing the title [On Nature] some time before the close of the fifth century', and Verdenius (Mnemos. 1947, 272—3): 'In the fifth and fourth centuries [On Nature] was obviously regarded as the authentic title of early philosophical works.'

3 Sext. Adv. Math. VII, 65 ([Diels-Kranz, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker; hereafter DK], 82B3)

4 For supporting passages in the Greek geographical tradition (D.L. II, 2, Agathemerus in DK, 12A6, etc.) see Heidel, op. cit. 247; and for conjectural details about the nature of Anaximander's map, Kahn, Anaximander, 82-4.

5 Cicero denies that this was an act of divination, and compares it to the forecasts made by doctors, seamen and farmers by reason of their special skill and experience, calling Anaximander 'physicus'. It would be interesting to know how Anaximander did it: perhaps by observing the behaviour of the storks, like the inhabitants of the Larissa neighbourhood in the earth-quakes of 1954. (The Times, 3 May 1954: "We have watched the storks all day; it is the best way to know when it is coming.')

6 Burnet had no doubts ([Early Greek Philosophy, hereafter EGP] 52), but see now W. Darsow in Jb. D.A.I. 1954, 101-17: the statue, it appears, is female, and the name must be that of the donor or dedicator.

7 In spite of McDiarmid, Theophr. on Presoc. Causes, 96ff. McDiarmid is of course right in saying that 'recompense to one another for injustice' can have nothing to do with the relation of generated things to the apeiron.

8 … Aristotle here groups Anaximander's 'boundless' with the 'mixture' of Empedocles and Anaxagoras, whose conceptions were in fact different, since they represented conscious attempts to escape the dilemma posed by Parmenides. After him, philosophers were conscious of distinctions and difficulties of which Anaximander had no inkling….

9 Cf. Heidel, [Classical Philology; hereafter CP], 1912, 215-16. McDiarmid (Theophr. on the Presoc. Causes, 138ff.) has cast legitimate doubt on this final point…. See also on this point Jaeger, [Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers; hereafter TEGP], 26f., Kahn, Anaximander, 30-2.

10The World-View of Physics, 30.

11 Simpl. 150. 24, DK, A9. We may note that although by Plato's time the abstract nouns 'heat' or 'dryness' are currently distinguished from 'hot' and 'dry', he still has to apologize for the general term 'quality' … as an uncouth neologism (Theaet. 182A).

I cannot agree with the reasoning of Hölscher (following Reinhardt; see Hermes, 1953, 266) that the opposites enumerated as Anaximander's by Simplicius are not 'anaximandrisch' …. 'Because', says Hölscher, 'it stands not for a quality (like the hot), but a phenomenon like fire.' But the hot was also for Anaximander a material phenomenon.

12 So Heidel, 'On Anaximander', CP, 1912, 233-4, and Proc. Am. Acad. 1913, 684-5; Vlastos, CP, 1947, 172; Cornford, Princ. Sap. 168.

13 Vlastos (CP, 1947, 170) thinks the plural … 'is strange, for the reference is obviously to the Boundless', but concludes that 'the Boundless is explicitly thought of as a plurality'. This is much less probable than that the reference is not to the Boundless at all. The view of H. Fränkel (Dichtung u. Philos. 345-7) is subtle and interesting, but as Woodbury says (CP, 1955, 154f.) it credits Anaximander with a more developed sense of the distinction between possible and actual than he is likely to have possessed. The view here taken is now supported by Kahn, Anaximander, 167f., 195f.

14 Another meaning of arche, as Heidel has illustrated in CP, 1912, 219ff.

15Od. x, 303, the 'bodily form' of a plant. See Kahn, Anaximander, 4, n. 1 and 201, n. 2.

16 'Nomos und Physis', Hermes, 1953, 426. For a good discussion of the meaning of the word see [G.S. Kirk, Heraclitus: the Cosmic Fragments; hereafter HCF] 42-3, 228-31.

17 Very possibly at this stage with a limiting genitive … though Heraclitus (fr. 123 DK) already uses it absolutely.

18 For reasons in favour of supposing that the whole argument goes back to Anaximander himself see C. H. Kahn in Festschr. Kapp, 1958, 19-29.

19Phys. 203b20….

20 What follows goes against the opinion of Burnet (EGP, 57), Cornford (Princ. Sap. 173), [H.] Cherniss ([Aristotle's Criticism of Presocratic Philosophy; hereafter ACP] 379) and others.

21 Eur. Or, 25 (cf. Aesch. Ag. 1382), Aesch. fr. 379 Nauck. (These and other examples are cited by Cornford, Princ. Sap. 176f.)

22 The fact that this is an ancient formula, going back beyond the beginning of philosophy, is our best guarantee that in calling the earliest philosophers monistic in intention we are not (as some modern interpreters have argued) foisting on them the misconceptions that we have absorbed from Aristotle….

23 It is no wonder that later writers, both ancient and modern, have been puzzled to know whether Anaximander's apeiron is a single substance or a mixture. (Cf. Cherniss, ACP, 375 ff., McDiarmid, Theophr. on Presoc. Causes, 100.) Probably the explanation given above comes closer to the mind of Anaximander than an outright denial of Aristotle's supposition that the opposites were in the apeiron, which was therefore a mixture. He had not faced the question. The distinction which some have emphasized between separating out and separating off … seems to me of little significance in this connexion. (For Hölscher's contrary view see [G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers; hereafter KR] 130).

Perhaps the explanation which shows most insight is that of Kahn (Anaximander, 236)….

24 Cf. Jaeger, TEGP, 29 ff.

25 It must be stated in fairness that Prof. G. Vlastos has written ([Philosophical Quarterly; hereafter PQ] 1952, 113): 'There is no good conclusive evidence that either Anaximander or Anaxagoras called their cosmogonic principle "god" or even "divine".' I can only say that for me the evidence of Aristotle makes it much more probable than not….

But whether or not Anaximander called his principle 'divine', it is of course true and important (and this is Vlastos's main point) that it had nothing whatever to do with the gods or cults of popular religion.

26 Aristotle is in the context drawing a distinction, from his own point of view, between two kinds of early physical theory, those involving an alteration in the nature of the primitive stuff…, and those—of which Anaximander's was the first—which speak only of a separating-out of what was there all the time. Thales he leaves out of the account, probably on the grounds that too little was known about him. Following him Simplicius says (Phys. 150.20): 'Another way is not to adduce a change of matter as the cause, nor to account for the generation of things by the alteration of the substratum, but by separation…. Thus Anaximander says that the opposites were in the substratum, which was an indeterminate … body, and are separated out.' …

27 Or 'the'; but cf. Diels, Dox. 579, crit. n.

28 Perhaps the simile is intended to compare the breathing-holes to the holes in a (musical) pipe. This would be appropriate, but cannot be said to be a certain translation of the Greek.

29 [Classical Quarterly; hereafter CQ] 1932, 29f. There is admittedly an element of speculation in this, and for a more cautious view the reader is referred to Kirk in KR, 132f., but I should certainly not go further in that direction than to agree with Kahn that though the phrasing may be more recent, nevertheless the idea is old (Anaximander, 57).

30 The word meant sometimes the soft inner rind rather than the outer bark…. In Hellenistic times Nicander uses it for the skin of Marsyas (Al. 302) and of serpents (Th. 355, 392).

31 A11 (Hippolytus), 12 (Hermeias).

32 I omit (a) the passage from Achilles (DK, A21), as being obviously an unintelligently garbled version of what is described more clearly by Aëtius, (b) Aët. 11, 16, 5 (A18), which as Kahn has seen (Anaximander, 59) is only an accidental repetition of the preceding reference to Aristotle.

33 Though Dreyer (Planetary Systems, 15, n. 1) would take the text as it stands.

34 The last sentence, which occurs in Stobaeus but not in Plutarch's Epitome (Dox. 355), is obscure (and perhaps corrupt: Kahn, Anaximander, 60), but cannot be held to be a valid contradiction of the next passage quoted.

35 This must be preferred to the statement of D.L. 11, 1 (DK, Al) that it gets its light from the sun. The correct view was in later antiquity attributed even to Thales…, and also to Anaximenes, in whose somewhat fantastic astronomy it can scarcely have found a place. It seems to be first clearly attested in Parmenides (fr. 14), but Health (Aristarchus, 75 f.) is sceptical about this line and would credit the discovery to Anaxagoras….

36 For Burnet's suggestion that there is only one 'wheel of the stars', and that it is intended to explain the motions of the morning and evening stars alone (not yet recognized as one), see EGP 69 and Taylor, Timaeus, 160, n. 1. Even though this would explain why the 'wheel of the stars' was smaller than those of sun and moon, it does not seem to be supported by our texts.

37 See on this point Health, Aristarchus, 31, Burnet, EGP, 68, Kahn, Anaximander, 89f. Burnet suggests, referring to Homer, that in early Greek thought aer could be seen through, although it had the property of rendering invisible anything enclosed in it. Dreyer (Planetary Systems, 14) remarks that astronomical observation must have been still so backward that Anaximander had never noticed the frequent occultation of a bright star by the moon. According to the doxography (D.L. IX, 33), Leucippus also placed the path of the sun furthest from the earth, but with the stars between it and the moon. A single statement in the Placita (DK, 28 A 40 a) seems to credit Parmenides with having placed the fixed stars nearest the earth….

38 So, e.g., Tannery, Burnet, Health, Cornford. In a predominantly sceptical period of scholarship, there is some pleasure in recording the contrary view of R. Baccou (Hist, de la sc. gr. 77): 'Quelle impossibilité y at-il à imaginer qu'il a mesuré, de manière plus ou moins approximative, l'angle du diamètre apparent du soleil, et que, d'après l'idée qu'il se faisait de la grandeur de la terre—idée naturellement restreinte à l'oikumene—il en a déduit les chiffres plus haut cités?' H. Gomperz, in an interesting discussion of the various types of analogy employed by the Presocratics, connects it rather with the sense of fitness and proportion exhibited by a Greek architect or planner in designing a city or a temple (Journ. Hist. Ideas, 1943, 166-7). Cf. also W. I. Maison, Rev. Metaph. 1954-5, 447: 'Prima facie, however, we have here an early example of the insistence that Nature must conform to reason, i.e. a sort of embryonic metaphysics of the mathematizing sort. One is presumably supposed to accept the figures because of their inherent reasonableness (v. the Pythagorean harmonies)…. Moreover, we must not overlook the fact that these figures occur in the context of an astonishingly rational account of the nature of things, which is by no means devoid of references to observation, as Cornford admits.' (The reference is to Cornford, Princ. Sap. 165 and 170.) Kahn (Anaximander, 94-7) emphasizes the rational element in Anaximander's scheme.

39 The question is discussed by G. B. Burch in an article on Anaximander (Rev. Metaph. 1949-50, 137-60), though not all of his ideas are acceptable.

40 For which see Heath, Aristarchus, 32 ff. Heidel (CP, 1912, 233, n. 4) thought it very probable that the 'ordinance of time' in the one extant fragment of Anaximander refers to the obliquity of the ecliptic, which, he says, Anaximander is said to have discovered. He notes how well this would fit with the designation of the litigants as the opposites—hot and cold, wet and dry.

41 And to a parallel phenomenon of the moon, of which, however, Zeller considered that it was most unlikely that Anaximander would have been aware. Dreyer Planetary Systems, 17, n. 1) disagrees.

42 Arist. Meteor. 353b8 (quoted above, p. 92), 355 a 25. In the latter passage Zeller pointed out that according to the most natural meaning … Aristotle is speaking of the 'turnings' of the heaven, not of the sun. ([E. Zeller, Die Philosophie der Griechen, ed. W. Nestle; hereafter ZN], 298, n. 4, Health, Aristarchus, 33, n. 3.) For the contrary view see Chemiss, ACP, 135, n. 544.

43 Cherniss, op. cit. 135, n. 544, disagrees, mainly because Meteorol. 355 a 24-5 'shows definitely that it is air and not moisture which causes the turnings'….

44 This translation depends on several corrections of the received text, for which see Diels's apparatus, and cf. Cornford, Princ. Sap. 166, n. 2.

45 So Burnet and Stocks translate … ; see Stocks's note ad loc. in the Oxford translation. The context makes the meaning clear.

46 It is interesting that the Babylonian map illustrated by Kahn as a probable prototype of Anaximander's (Anaximander, pl. 1) not only shows the world as circular but has a round hole in the middle. This is explained as 'probably left by the scribe's compass', but only because 'there is at any rate no other good explanation' (op. cit. 83).

47 ZN, 303, Alex. ap. Simpl. De Caelo, 532. 6ff. Burnet's contrary view (EGP, 66) is bound up with certain other preconceptions which are not necessarily correct. We need not avail ourselves of the emendation of Montucla….

48 Heidel saw this, CP, 1912, 233-4. As to the destruction of the world, Heidel says (234, n. 3): 'No doubt Anaximander believed in the destruction of the world, and so of the opposites also; but he doubtless thought of this as a question of nutrition.' This is very possible, but we are not told.

49 Ar. Meteor. 353b9….

50Princ. Sap. 183f. Certainly, as Cornford says, 'the notion of alternate destruction of at least a great part of mankind by fire and flood was deeply rooted in Greek thought'….

51Growth of Scientific Ideas, 14. Spontaneous generation seemed an incontrovertible fact to Aristotle (unfortunately for him, since it made an awakward exception to his general theory of the workings of nature), and the belief lingered on in Europe until the nineteenth century. See Guthrie, In the Beginning, 41f. J. A. Wilson in Before Philosophy, 59, says that the modern Egyptian peasant still believes in the life-giving power of the mud left behind by the retreating Nile. (Both these last writers quote further illustrations of the belief.)

52 Or 'lived a different life' (i.e. on land). See KR, 141, 142.

53 The last sentence is troublesome. Its logic seems to require, if Anaximander acted 'just like' the fire, that he did eat fish, or approve of eating it. This would also be a satisfactory reason why his philosophy was less … ('humane') than that of the Syrians and others. Plutarch no doubt knew nothing of Anaximander's actual habits of diet. But again, if this were so, he would be more likely to assume that like most ordinary men he ate fish than that he preached an abstention for which there is no other evidence at all. Yet the negative sense … seems undoubted, however much one would like it to mean 'he mistreated as food'…. If the text is sound, it must be intended to convey that Anaximander deprecated the eating of fish because it resembled the action of fire in devouring parents, and the 'unreasonableness' of his philosophy consists simply in the fact that he justified the ban by his queer idea of men coming out of fish …. But if so, it is not very well expressed.

54 D'Arcy Thompson, Glossary of Greek Fishes, 41….

55 After all this discussion, it must be pointed out that the appearance of the [galei] in Plutarch's reference to Anaximander depends on an emendation of the MS. text…. Kirk however believes (KR, 142) that the comparison may not be Anaximander's, but put in by Plutarch as throwing light on Anaximander's theory. This is of course possible, but I do not agree with Kirk that the knowledge which it displays is 'unlikely' for Anaximander. Inhabitants of an ancient seaport probably knew more about the facts of life among fishes than do the unscientific among ourselves.

56 Reading uncertain….

57 The theory bears a superficial resemblance to Aristotle's, and might therefore come under suspicion of having been brought into conformity by our sources under Peripatetic influence. Starting from his assumption of two sorts of exhalation, a dry and a wet, Aristotle continues (Meteor, 360a11): 'Of these the exhalation containing the greater quantity of moisture is the origin of rainwater, whereas the dry one is the origin and substance of winds.' But he goes on to emphasize that, since the two exhalations are specifically different, the natural substances of wind and rain are also different, and from that to criticize those who claim that the same substance, air, becomes wind when set in motion … and rain when condensed…. This was inevitably the view of the monist Anaximander….

58 Briefer statements are found in Hippolytus (A11) and Seneca (A23). Kahn (Anaximander, 108) has pointed out how authentically this theory is reproduced by Aristophanes in the Clouds (404-7).

Edward Hussey (essay date 1972)

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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 partly on the strength of mere tradition. Usually, the deficiencies of tradition are supplied or corrected by Hesiod from considerations of what is reasonable. Sleep, for instance, is clearly an important god; it is reasonable that he should appear in the genealogy, and clearly reasonable that he should figure as the son of Night.

What Hesiod does in the Theogony is like Presocratic thought in many ways. He attempts to create a complete, unified and reasonable picture of the workings and history of the universe. He employs a single basic mechanism (the begetting of gods by gods) to achieve this picture. He is by no means constrained by tradition, and he is open to non-Greek ideas. Yet between Hesiod and even the earliest Presocratics there is a great gulf, created by a revolution in thought.

In order to see more clearly what this revolution was, it will be helpful to move on nearly two hundred years to look at the theological opinions of Xenophanes of Colophon, an Ionian born about the mid-sixth century. Xenophanes is probably not an original thinker, but he is important because the surviving fragments of his works contain the first certain statements of a theology which in sixth-century Greece was new and revolutionary:

One god there is, greatest among gods and men, in no way like mortal creatures either in bodily form or in the thought of his mind (fr. 23).

The whole of him sees, the whole of him thinks, the whole of him hears (fr. 24).

He stays always motionless in the same place; it is not fitting that he should move about now this way, now that (fr. 26).

But, effortlessly, he wields all things by the thought of his mind (fr. 25).

Corresponding to these positive statements, there is sharp criticism of traditional views, including those of Hesiod:

But mortal men imagine that gods are begotten, and that they have human dress and speech and shape (fr. 14).

If oxen or horses or lions had hands to draw with and to make works of art as men do, then horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, oxen like oxen, and they would make their gods' bodies similar to the bodily shape that they themselves each had (fr. 15).

The Ethiopians say their gods are snub-nosed and black-skinned, the Thracians that they are blue-eyed and red-headed (fr. 16).

Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods everything which brings shame and reproach among men: theft, adultery and fraud (fr. 11).

For the source of this radical monotheism, so foreign to the traditional Greek religion, it is reasonable to look first to the Near East. There seem to have been monotheistic tendencies both in Iranian and in Hebrew religious thought at this time as well as in Greece itself. Yet whether or not any inspiration came from these quarters, Xenophanes' theology is still something quite new. In attacking head-on the traditional beliefs and putting forward utterly different ones, Xenophanes makes no appeal to the authority of a prophet or teacher, still less to any personal revelation. He relies entirely on certain general principles—certain conceptions of what it is reasonable or fitting that a god should be. Further indications of this way of argument are preserved in other reports about Xenophanes: he argued, for instance, that it cannot be that one god is ruler of other gods (as in traditional religion), since it was 'contrary to divine law' that gods should have masters.

This way of thinking, it must be repeated, was something quite new. For the first time, a conscious and deliberate attempt had been made to set up a standard of what was and was not 'reasonable' or 'fitting' in theology. Everything was to be judged in terms of this standard alone, and the authority of tradition, or of a general consensus, or of a great teacher, was to count for nothing. By the application of this method, a doctrine of great generality and coherence was produced.

Xenophanes … has been introduced here … because it is by working back from his fragments that one may best hope to understand the intellectual atmosphere of the earliest Presocratics, the thinkers of sixth-century Miletus….

Miletus, commercially the leading city [of early Ionia] shared in these developments as well as being particularly accessible to Near Eastern influence. What seems especially important for the revolution in thought is the emergence of the concept of law as something determinate, impartial, and unchanging, and the spread of political equality. A debate between equals, in the popular assembly or the law-courts, must be conducted by appeals to general, impartial principles of law or reason—otherwise the parties will not be equal. The notion of 'reasoned argument' will begin to develop. There will grow up a habit of seeing particular situations as applications of a superior, abstract law. And law of this kind will be seen as the necessary arbiter of any complex whole in which order is apparent.

In this way, the new kind of thinking apparent in Xenophanes can be plausibly linked with the equally new political and social developments of seventh- and sixth-century Greece. One would expect the Milesian thinkers to fit into the same sort of context. As far as can be seen from the evidence, which is sparse and difficult to interpret, they fit extremely well. What follows is a reconstruction of Milesian thought which tries to take account of the evidence but which necessarily goes beyond it in places, and which is guided by the ideas which have been outlined.

Over some period in the first seventy years of the sixth century was spread the active life of three citizens of Miletus: Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, of whom Anaximenes was at least slightly younger than the first two. Hardly anything is known about the lives of these men. They must have been known to one another, and it is reliably reported that Thales and Anaximander were close associates. These three produced the systems of ideas about the nature of the universe which, at least since Aristotle, have been recognised as a new beginning. Anaximander and Anaximenes set out their systems in writing—two of the earliest Greek prose treatises—but Thales wrote nothing. In consequence, very little reliable information indeed is to be had about his ideas: our best informant, Aristotle, makes it clear that what evidence he could find was meagre and at second hand; at best, it came from the other Milesians. Before the three are considered separately, the main lines of the 'Milesian' view of the universe will be given. If an opinion or idea is described, in what follows, as 'Milesian', this will mean that it appears in Anaximander or Anaximenes and was, for all we can tell, common to all three thinkers.

For the theological beliefs of the Milesians, the only reliable direct evidence is in a passage of Aristotle's Physics (203b 3-15). This suggests that the early natural philosophers, and Anaximander in particular, held that there was a single boundless all-powerful and immortal divinity which encompassed and controlled the universe. A theology of this kind would be close to that of Xenophanes, and it is reasonable to suppose that the arguments by which it was supported were similar.

It is clear that this kind of theology, supported by this kind of argument, will have far-reaching consequences for cosmology. The method of Hesiod's Theogony, in particular, will no longer be an acceptable way of producing a coherent account of the structure and workings of the universe. Since these are now dependent on the power of the unique supreme god, it is necessary to discover, if possible, the ways in which that power is exercised; to discover, therefore, the plan upon which God controls the universe. There were those who thought the enterprise hopeless: the mind of God was inscrutable and of infinite complexity, so that the order of the universe was inexplicable by man. This was the belief, for example, of the author of the book of Job, in the fifth century, and, in Greece of the same period, of the poet Pindar, whose poetry is permeated by a feeling for the sheer irreducible complexity of phenomena both physical and mental. The Milesians were of another mind: they supposed, equally with some support from observed facts, that the universe, being controlled by a supreme divinity worthy of the name, must necessarily be a universe of order, of lawlike regularity, and of intellectually satisfying construction. To hold this belief inevitably inclines men to be naively optimistic and to underrate the subtlety of nature. Their constructions are doomed always to turn out crude by comparison with reality. As Pindar said, 'They pluck the fruit of wisdom when it is unripe' … and with these words he dismissed the first century of Presocratic thought. The sneer, coming from Pindar, is no cheap one; but it applies if at all to the whole history of all sciences, not only to the first Presocratics.

The problems that most concerned the Milesians can be reduced to the question: what are the relations between the supreme power in the universe, 'the Divine', and the observable world-order? The Milesians aimed to find an answer which would square both with the observed facts and with what they held to be necessarily true about the supreme god.

The observable world-order is, for them, a bounded system of earth, sea, murky lower atmosphere, translucent sky, and the heavenly bodies, together, probably, with a hard outer shell to which the fixed stars may have been thought to be attached. This system behaves, in broad outline, with regularity, the principal changes repeating themselves in daily and yearly cycles. These easily observable cycles must have been the best guarantee for the Milesians of the existence of a controlling law in the universe: the parallel with the periodic rotation of political office necessary among equals was close at hand. Beyond this system, and unlike it not bounded in space or in time, is 'the Unbounded' (to apeiron) which is the supreme divinity and controls the whole universe. Being alive, it is perpetually in motion.

This concept of 'the Unbounded' is so important that something more must be said about its history and significance. The word apeiron is a negative adjective in the neuter formed from the noun peirar or peras. This noun has various applications in early Greek, most of which can be summed up by saying that the peras of X is that which completes X in some respect or marks the completion of X. So 'to apeiron' is 'that which cannot be completed', without any necessary specialisation to a spatial or a temporal sense. But the spatial and temporal senses were the most natural for it to bear at this time, namely, 'spatially unbounded' and 'unending in time'.

The most obvious role of 'the Unbounded' in the Milesian scheme was that of sustaining the observed world-order. What is beyond the edge of the observ able region, and why does everything not fall down? The Unbounded is 'outside' and keeps the world-order in its place. What keeps the orderly cycle of change going, and moves the heavenly bodies in their courses? The Unbounded, which never gives out, supplies the necessary motive power. In giving such answers to such questions, the Milesians were looking at the observed world-order 'from outside', and contrasting its finitude in space and time with the boundlessness of God. This contrast is encapsulated in another important word, kosmos (plural: kosmoi). As a technical term, meaning a 'world-system' containing the components of the visible world-order, this was current in the fifth century, and there is no reason why it should not have been coined in this sense by the Milesians, who would certainly have felt the need for a term of this meaning.

To look at our kosmos from the outside is to become aware that it may be not the only kosmos in the universe. The Milesians almost certainly held that there existed at any time an unlimited number of kosmoi, dotted about in the Unbounded, and their reasoning has probably been preserved by Aristotle (Physics 203b 25-8), though he does not attribute it: if there is a kosmos here, in the Unbounded, then why not elsewhere, since there are no privileged places in the Unbounded? It is an appeal to the equality under cosmic law of all places in the universe, or (as we should say) to the principle of Sufficient Reason, of which Anaximander made striking use in another connection (see below).

A kosmos, by contrast with the Unbounded, was essentially not divine, though it was produced by creation by and from the Unbounded; it was finite, both in space and in time, having both an origin and an end. Here the obvious problem is to explain how a kosmos is created and how it is kept going, agreeably with the observed facts and with theology. All the Milesians were concerned with this problem, and gave different answers which can be partly reconstructed with greater or less probability. It becomes necessary to take them one by one.

Thales, the first Milesian thinker, was obviously a remarkable figure in public life, who by the fifth century had become legendary as a man of practical ingenuity. About his ideas, as has been explained, hardly anything can be counted certain. All that is possible is more or less plausible speculation, which must begin from the reports of Aristotle (esp. Metaphysics 983b 20-7) that Thales was the 'pioneer' of natural philosophy, that he was said to have held that water was the origin of all things, and that the earth was supported by water. The emergence of the whole universe from an original mass of water, and a cosmic scheme in which there are waters both below the earth and above the firmament, are ideas which appear throughout the ancient Near East, and no doubt Thales drew from that source. But it is still necessary to explain why he took up these particular Near Eastern ideas, and what he used them for. Here a suggestion of Aristotle seems relevant. What water is needed for is life, and the dependence of life upon water is starkly obvious to every inhabitant of the Mediterranean region. This would indicate that Thales was primarily concerned to account for the life in the universe, and in particular the motive power that created the kosmos and kept it going. Another scrap of evidence says that Thales equated being alive with the possession of motive power, and, applying this principle, concluded that lodestones were living things (Aristotle, de Anima 405a 19-21). Water, then, may have been identified as the fuel or the mover of the universe; things in the kosmos that could cause change had originated from water and retained its properties, some more than others. That even hot and dry things might be 'nourished' by water was suggested by the idea that the sun draws up water from the sea to feed itself—this idea was certainly current in the fifth century. And that moisture could create even dry and solid things was suggested not only by the facts of animal reproduction, but by the apparent turning of the sea to dry land at Miletus itself—a phenomenon due to the deposition of silt by the river Maeander.

This is at best conjecture, and any suggestions about the theological ideas of Thales must be equally conjectural. Aristotle (de Anima 411a 8) attributes to him the saying 'all things are full of gods', which suggests that he was prepared to regard all forces in nature as equally divine—a view which would clearly fit in with the derivation of all forces from a divine wateriness.

Such speculations about Thales are not entirely in the air. They derive some degree of confirmation from what can be known of Anaximander, the friend of Thales. About Anaximander's opinions there is at least evidence which can be presumed reliable, within limits, derived from two witnesses, Aristotle and Theophrastus, who had read the book in which Anaximander had set down these opinions. This evidence is still very difficult to handle: it is often hard to separate what Aristotle and Theophrastus found in Anaximander's book from the interpretation they put upon it. For such reasons, there is wide divergence of opinion about fundamental questions in Anaximander. The following account is put, for convenience of exposition, rather dogmatically; much is controversial, as may be seen from any of the books referred to in the notes.

The foundation of Anaximander's system, as has been said, was the contrast between the Unbounded and the world-systems (kosmoi). Now for Anaximander the most important forces at work in the kosmoi were what were later called 'the opposites': pairs of opposed entities of which the most frequently invoked were 'the hot' and 'the cold', 'the wet' and 'the dry'. These were conceived of neither precisely as substances nor precisely as qualities, these distinctions being post-Socratic. The 'opposites' were above all forces, agents of physical change, each present in varying degrees at different places. There is no reason to think that Anaximander went beyond ordinary observation in what he said about the relations of these 'opposites' to such obvious constituents of the world as earth or water or fire. There is, further, every reason to suppose that he did not make clear in any precise way the relation of the 'opposites' to the Unbounded out of which they came. For if he had done so, Aristotle and Theophrastus would not have been as puzzled as they were about how to fit him in to their own scheme of classification. The Aristotelian scheme of classification of previous 'physical speculators' (phusiologoi) demanded that something like the Aristotelian concept of 'material cause' should have been in the minds of those classified. It was then possible to ask whether a particular thinker had taken the universe to contain one or more material causes. Anaximander might be pressed in either direction. Aristotle himself takes, in two places (Physics 187a 20-1; Metaphysics 1069b 18-24), the view that Anaximander's Unbounded (taken to be the material cause of what was in the universe) was meant to be a mixture of all the 'opposites', which Aristotle seems to have thought of as playing the role of material causes in Anaximander's system. Yet Aristotle noticeably does not venture to include this interpretation of Anaximander in the first book of the Metaphysics, which contains his most considered remarks on the early thinkers. And Theophrastus ([H. Diels and W. Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 6th ed., Berlin, 1951; hereafter DK] 12 A 9a) recognised (as it seems) that there was not sufficient evidence to decide between this interpretation and another one, according to which all the 'opposites' were simply modifications of the Unbounded, and there was only one material cause, namely the Unbounded itself, whatever that might be.

The difficulty in which Aristotle and Theophrastus found themselves in trying to classify Anaximander is instructive in several ways. It is an excellent example of the classic pitfall in the history of philosophy, conceptual anachronism. It shows the limitations of Aristotle as a historian of thought. Again, the vagueness of Anaximander on the point at issue shows that not merely the Aristotelian concept of 'material cause' but even a more informal concept of 'matter' or 'material substance' was as yet not in use, and thereby sets in relief the achievements of Anaximenes, Heraclitus and their successors in working forwards to such a concept. Those to whom it seems paradoxical that the notion of a thing's 'matter' or 'substance' should be less immediate than that of its origin or past history should look at the questions that God puts to Job out of the whirlwind (Job chs. 38 and 39). These are good examples of the kinds of question that would be put to the Presocratics. Many are about the origins and motive powers of things, none about their 'matter' or 'substance'.

It does not follow that Anaximander said nothing about the relation of the 'opposites' to the Unbounded, only that he is likely to have concentrated on saying how the opposites came out of the Unbounded to create a world-system. For this part of Anaximander's account there is some evidence, though as usual it is difficult to interpret and coordinate it. We are told that the cause of the separation-out of the 'opposites' was the perpetual movement of the Unbounded. This is very vague, and the report (in DK 12 A 9) is of doubtful standing. Firmer ground is provided by indications in Aristotle (esp. de Caelo 295a 9-14) that a 'whirl' (dinē), a vortex movement, was important in the creation of a kosmos. It looks as if the dinē was used to explain both the separation of the kosmos into heavy and light components and the circlings of the heavenly bodies. When water containing particles of varying kinds has been stirred in a bowl, the heavier particles tend to sink and to congregate about the axis of rotation, while the lighter ones execute their revolutions higher up and further from the axis. On this model it was posible to account for the formation of the earth 'below' and the movements of heavenly bodies 'above'. Whether the 'whirl' had the more general function of separating out the 'opposites' is uncertain. It seems unlikely in view of the other evidence. A doxographical fragment derived from Theophrastus gives this account of the first stage of cosmogony:

He [Anaximander] says that, at the origin of this world-system, that which, coming from the Eternal, was generative of hot and cold was separated off, and that this produced a kind of ball of flame which formed around the mist in the region of the earth, like the bark around a tree (A1O).

If the simile of the tree and its bark goes back to Anaximander, as seems probable, he was being guided here by an analogy with the formation of living things. The word 'generative' (gonimon) points in the same direction. In addition to these clues, there is the general reflection that for the creation of a kosmos from the Unbounded it is difficult to think of any natural analogy except from animal reproduction, and that Thales may have used analogies of this kind. All this suggests that the origin and development of a kosmos may have been thought of as like that of an egg or an embryo. The idea that this kosmos began as a 'worldegg' certainly appears in 'Orphic' poems which are probably later than Anaximander and in the comic cosmogony in Aristophanes' Birds, not to mention certain Hindu scriptures in which an original deity impregnates itself. More generally, an analogy between the kosmos and an animal was taken seriously by several thinkers of the Presocratic period, as will be seen.

It must not be thought that there was any essential conflict for Anaximander between the 'mechanical' model of the dinē and the 'biological' model of the egg or embryo. Anaximander was not committed to explaining exclusively by analogies of one sort or another, and did not (in all probability) press any of his analogies very hard. Even in the last Presocratics the process of cosmogony is explained only in rather vague, intuitive terms. Yet the inherent disparity between biological and mechanical explanation was to become a source of confusion.

In the developed kosmos, the working of each of the 'opposites' is thought of as a continual struggle against its opposed twin. Each gains ground at certain times in certain places, and loses ground correspondingly at other times and places. It is natural to ask whether these gains and losses involved the transformation of one 'opposite' into another, the destruction of one by another, or merely the advance of one 'opposite' and the retreat of the other. Theophrastus seems to have asked this question, and to have answered it by claiming that Anaximander's 'opposites' turned into one another. Unfortunately, the passage derived from his report on which this conclusion is based does not suggest that Theophrastus had any very strong grounds for his claim. The passage runs as follows:

[Anaximander says that] the destruction of things that are takes place by their turning back into those things from which they had their origin, according to necessity; for they make requital and recompense to one another for their injustice, according to the assessment of Time. (Such are the rather poetical phrases he uses in speaking of them) (A9 and Bl).

This passage cannot well refer to anything except the struggle of the 'opposites', and if so it is evidence that Theophrastus saw this struggle as a succession of transformations, but does not explain why. It may very well be that Theophrastus' reasons have been lost in abridgement.

Nevertheless, this passage is still very interesting. The comment at the end shows that at least some of the less prosaic expressions used were quoted by Theophrastus from Anaximander's book. It follows that the phrases rendered by the words italicised above are probably Anaximander's own phrases. They bring us back to the problem of how the Undoubted controls the events in each kosmos, and thus to the idea of the kosmos as governed by law. It is clear that 'injustice' consists in the encroachment by one 'opposite' on the other, and that the 'requital' is the restitution of the unjust gains and a corresponding loss as well. There is an overall regulation of the fight; however it may go in small areas of space and time, it is evened up in the long run over the whole kosmos, the cycles of day and night, and of the seasons, being the most obvious evidence for the existence of such a law. This law is not guaranteed by some inherent equipollence of forces, but imposed externally, by the intervention of the Unbounded. This at least is the most reasonable conclusion from various indications. We know in general that the Unbounded 'governs' the universe, and so is the natural source of physical law. Moreover, the lawlike behaviour occurs 'by necessity' (kata to chreōn), which implies a power imposing the necessity, and 'according to the assessment of Time' (kata tēn tou chronou taxiri). The significance of this last phrase is, unfortunately, disputable, but it is quite possible that 'Time' is here thought of as the name of a divine power, namely the Unbounded. For the idea of Time as a divine power occurs, not only in Iranian religion, but in other Greek sixth-century writers: Solon, Pherecydes and Heraclitus.

Each kosmos lasted only a finite time, but on the later stages of its existence there is no direct information. Presumably it aged like an animal or ran down like a clock, the rotatory movement which was its life and gave it its form slowing down and eventually stopping, whereupon its contents would be reabsorbed into the Unbounded.

Within this grandiose framework, Anaximander filled in a great number of smaller details about our kosmos as it now is. Here is a list of some of the questions to which he offered answers (it is again worth while to compare Job chs. 38 and 39): how the heavenly bodies were formed; at what distances they are from the earth; what is the cause of eclipses; why the earth remains in the same place; what is the shape of the earth; what are the causes of winds, rain, thunder, lightning, earthquakes and the annual flooding of the Nile; what was the origin of animals and mankind. He also constructed a map of the earth's surface. Space does not allow treatment of all these details, but two points of particular significance must be mentioned here.

One is the explanation of why the earth remains in the same place. This problem, as Aristotle remarks, exercised all the Presocratics, just as it did many other people. With the single exception of Anaximander, all the early Presocratics (and most later ones) supposed that the earth had some material support: a pillar of solid earth (Xenophanes) or a cushion of air (Anaximenes) or water (Thales), on which it floated. Anaximander appealed instead to symmetry. There was no reason why the earth should move downwards rather than in any other direction, since it was symmetrically placed in the middle of the kosmos. This explanation might seem to imply that Anaximander took both earth and kosmos to be spherical; in fact we know that his earth was cylindrical, as befitted the product of a cosmic vortex. The appeal to symmetry may therefore have proceeded in two stages rather than in one, using first a symmetry about a horizontal plane through the earth, and secondly a radial symmetry around the axis of the cosmic rotation. If this is right, he ought in consistency to have maintained that the flat surface of the earth which, relatively to us, was the under surface, exhibited the same features as the 'upper' surface—rivers, mountains, animals and so on; and that there was correspondingly another set of heavenly bodies 'below'. A faint trace of this doctrine appears in the doxography.

In any case, this explanation is the earliest certain instance of an appeal to the principle of Sufficient Reason—a principle which, as has been suggested, is characteristic of the spirit of Milesian cosmology.

The second important point of detail is Anaximander's account of the origin of animal and human life on the earth. Animals, including human beings, he supposed to have been originally produced by spontaneous generation from mud, by the action of the sun's heat on moist earth. Of the beginnings of the human race he held a remarkable theory, which was clearly designed to take account of the fact that the new-born human infant is unable to fend for itself. The prototypes of human beings were originally produced as fish-like creatures, encased in a spiny bark, and inhabiting the water; in due course, on reaching maturity, they took to the dry land and shed their fish-like exterior, emerging in human form. This striking 'anticipation' of modern theories of human phylogeny suggest that Anaximander may have known something of the development of the human embryo. If so, this would add some plausibility to the attempt to find biological analogies in his cosmogony.

Anaximander's system was, naturally, open to objections on points of detail, since it offered solutions to all the problems of cosmology which most interested his contemporaries. It is more important that it was in danger of internal incoherence. Not only did Anaximander give no clear explanation of how the 'opposites' existed in the Unbounded, or of how they alternately prevailed in the kosmoi. He left it unexplained how, if everything was regulated by divine law, there could occur even local and temporary 'injustice'. All these difficulties may be comprehended in the general problem: how far is the deity identical with the worlds it creates and governs, how far are they distinct from it?

As soon as Anaximander's ideas were discussed in the spirit in which they were propounded, this question must have begun to emerge. It is therefore not surprising that the main innovation of the third Milesian thinker, Anaximenes, is an attempt at a new kind of answer to the problem. Remaining within the 'Milesian' framework outlined above, Anaximenes declared that the contents of the world-systems that emerge from the Unbounded deity are produced from it, and are interconvertible with it and each other, by processes of condensation and rarefaction. In other words, some notion approximating to that of Aristotle's 'material cause' is invoked or constructed.

This point deserves further precision. If we are to be able to say that Y is the 'same thing' as X, what seems to be required is not merely that X should change into Y in a fairly continuous fashion, but also that this change should be intelligible and lawlike, in other words that it should appear explicable in familiar terms, and should proceed according to definite laws which place restrictions on the ways in which X may change and what it may change into. Further, the change should ideally be reversible, so that X can be recreated from Y; and at any rate we must be able to reidentify in Y those properties of X which we take to be most essential and characteristic of X. All these features can be found in Anaximenes' theory. It is not suggested that he identified each of them, still less that he made a self-conscious conceptual analysis. Rather, the the whole nexus of conditions will have emerged as 'natural' in the circumstances, given the need to produce, within the Milesian framework, a lawlike process of change linking the deity to the kosmoi.

If this account is on the right lines, then an essential step in Anaximenes' construction was an appeal to certain facts of experience. Anaximenes seems to have been guided by the observation that the more closely anything is compressed, the harder and more solid it becomes. This suggests that we may explain solid, liquid and gaseous things by the varying degrees of compression of one basic material. It is natural to take as a leading fact here the interconvertibility of water and snow or ice; Anaximenes did so, and stated more generally the principle that heat was associated with expansion or rarefaction, cold with compression or condensation. Going on from this, he constructed a spec trum in which all the main components of our kosmos were ranged according to their degree of condensation. The spectrum was: fire, air, wind, cloud, water, earth, rock.

This theory gave each kosmos an internal coherence far beyond what it had had for Anaximander. But the internal coherence only reflected the external coherence between the kosmoi and the unbounded deity. For Anaximenes gave the deity too a place on the spectrum, by declaring that it existed in the form of air. The consideration that determined this choice was almost certainly the fact that animals must breathe in order to live. This fact had long been connected with the popular conception of the psuchē or life-principle as the 'breath of life' which left the body at death. There is in the doxography a report (DK 13 B 2) that Anaximenes made an explicit analogy between the role of psuchē in the living body and that of the divine air in the kosmos. The report shows clear signs of having been influenced by Stoic ideas, but this does not mean that its kernel is not authentic; the Stoics embroidered the doxography rather than invented it. If this is right, the divine air of Anaximenes is another sign that, for the Milesians, the most characteristic property of the controlling deity was that he was alive and could initiate movement.

This new general theory of physical change was Anaximenes' sole important contribution. It seems unlikely, to judge by the doxography, that he worked it out in much greater detail or made applications of it to particular problems. Some details of his cosmological speculations are preserved, but they bear no obvious relation to the general theory.

This chapter has been focused, up to this point, upon the ideas and attitudes of the Milesian thinkers, with some suggestion of how they are to be related to the political and economic developments sketched in the first chapter. But it is interesting, and may be important, to consider the relations of Milesian thought to the whole intellectual history of the ancient Near East. The very brief survey of Ionian horizons in the first chapter showed, at least, the great variety of possibilities for fruitful transmission of ideas from the barbarians, and especially from the old urban civilisations of the 'Fertile Crescent'. The evidence in detail for such transmission has been growing gradually stronger in the last hundred years as the written records of those civilisations have been unearthed and interpreted. Fresh documents may yet be found which will warrant new conclusions.

If we assume, however, that the evidence so far available is not seriously misleading, and if the view of the Milesians taken in this chapter is correct in general, then it can be said that they were indisputably influenced from the Near East, but that such influence was of an incidental, secondary kind, in a sense to be explained. The core of the Milesian revolution, namely, the development of a reformed theology based on general principles, and the correlative vision of a universe governed by universal law, cannot be paralleled, as yet, from anywhere outside Ionia. The earlier Hebrew prophets, and the Iranian prophet Zoroaster, may have had a vision of the nature of God as austere as that of Xenophanes, but their expression of it is enmeshed in the particular circumstances of themselves and their society. And because they lack such a vision, the cosmogonies of Babylonia, Canaan, or Egypt contain intelligent speculations and inferences, as well as the general notion of an established world-order, but are unable to free themselves definitely from the entrenched belief in the arbitrary power of an uncoordinated multiplicity of gods, and their world-systems evolve in a sequence of events without any internal necessity.

When this is granted, it may be readily admitted that on many great and small points of cosmogony and cosmology, the fact of borrowing is as certain as such things can be. One would expect the Milesians to have turned to the Near East as a source of ideas and of knowledge, and they did. But because they were borrowing for purposes of their own, they borrowed selectively and never wholesale. So Thaïes was stimulated by a cosmogony widespread in the Near East to see water as the origin of all and the support of the earth. Anaximander's Unbounded has been traced both to Iranian and to Babylonian sources, and there may well be something in both conjectures. Certainly there are several other points which point to Babylonian or Iranian influence on Anaximander, and equally certainly the religious ideas of the Iranian peoples will have had much to appeal to a Milesian thinker. Less certain is the attempt to connect details of Milesian cosmogony with those of the cosmogony attributed to 'Sanchuniathon' and other Phoenician speculations. 'Sanchuniathon"s ideas are preserved only in a later Greek translation, but they are alleged by the Greek source to be of Phoenician origin and of great antiquity. This claim has come to seem more and more reasonable as knowledge of the ancient Near East has increased. 'Sanchuniathon' seems closer in spirit to the Milesians than any other Near Eastern cosmology—perhaps it is significant that he is Phoenician. However this may be, in spite of the many points of possible contact, there is no convincing proof that the cardinal ideas of Anaximander's system were anticipated inside or outside Greece, and still more is this true of Anaximenes.

A special question is that of borrowings of mathematical and astronomical knowledge from Babylonia and Egypt at this time, by the Milesians or by other Greeks. The nature of the Babylonian and Egyptian knowledge has been briefly indicated in the first chapter. It would be in keeping with the general character of the Milesians that they should take over and assimilate this knowledge if it was available to them. Unfortunately the evidence for the astronomical speculations of the Milesians, or of any sixty-century Greeks, is sparse and difficult to handle. The subject remains highly controversial, but it seems rather likely that some very rudimentary astronomical (and mathematical) knowledge was transmitted to Ionia at this time.

In connection with the question of Near Eastern influence, it is right to mention what is known of other cosmogonies produced by Greeks in the late seventh and early sixth centuries. The poet Alcman, writing in Sparta not much if at all later than 600, incorporated in one of his choric songs a set of cosmogonical ideas in which there are things suggestive both of the Milesians and of the Near East. And in the sixth century Pherecydes of Syros composed a prose theogony which related in turn: the origin of the gods from three original gods who 'always existed'; the constructing of the rest of the world as it now is by one of those three, the creator-god Zas; and the final establishment of order by Zas after he had overcome a snaky monster representing the forces of confusion. These two examples show that, as is not surprising, interest in cosmogony was strong throughout the Greek world at this time, and they are good evidence of an openness to Near Eastern ideas. But it would be very misleading to class Pherecydes, and still more Alcman, with the Milesians as 'Presocratics'. For if the label 'Presocratic philosopher' has any point, it is that it marks off the Milesians and their successors as something new in the history of thought. Pherecydes and Alcman are, in this classification, on the same side as Hesiod and the ancient Near East. To put it more sharply, in the history of the human mind the Milesians are of cardinal importance, and Alcman and Pherecydes not at all. It has been the object of this chapter to explain where the difference lies.

Charles H. Kahn (essay date 1974)

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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

According to Simplicius, the entities which make reparation to one another for their wrongdoing are the elements. Is there any good reason to reject this view?

The "elements" for Anaximander are the opposite powers of cold and heat, moisture and dryness, darkness and light, and also the main portions of the visible world, regarded as embodiments of these universal factors.2 Now it was long ago pointed out that only such opposing forces could reasonably be said to inflict damage on one another, and to make recompense "according to the ordinance of Time."3 The opposites indeed are inevitably and continually at war with one another, and the advantage of one is the disaster (phthora) of its rival.4 Nothing can be more in harmony with this vivid picture of cosmic strife than to speak of the vanquished party as "offended," and of his periodic triumph as "revenge" or "compensation."

Since the old cosmological texts are lost, it is above all from the medical literature that we can illustrate such expressions. The doctors regularly refer in this way to the internal struggle of forces in the body, as well as to the action of external factors upon the microcosm. Thus the verb adikein describes the effect of a morbid agent: "One should continue to make use of the same modes of regimen, when they clearly do no harm (ouden adikeonta) to the man's body" (Nat. Horn. 9; Jones, Loeb ed. IV, 28). The excessive strength of any power is considered a wrong (hamartēmd) for which punishment is due,5 hence one factor is said to chastise another (kolazein), or to avenge its intemperance (timōrein).6 The wronged party is in this case not so much the weaker element, as the healthy state of the whole body. The aggressor may be conceived either as the hot or moist within the body, or as its cosmic "ally."7 Hence it is the spring which kills men in an epidemic, and the summer which "benefits" them.8 Plato's doctor in the Symposium is speaking the language of the medical textbooks when he refers to "the hot and cold, and dry and wet," which, when blended and harmonized with one another, bring a season of health and prosperity to men, animals, and plants, "and cause no offense" (puden ēdikēsen). But when hybris reigns among the seasons of the year, these same powers

destroy many things and are cause of harm…. For plagues generally arise from such circumstances, and many other irregular diseases for beasts and for plants as well. And indeed frosts and hailstorms and plant blights come from the excessive and unruly lust of such things for one another. (Symp. 188a-b)

The doctors are, of course, concerned with the damage inflicted by these powers upon the human body. The fragment of Anaximander speaks instead of the wrong (adikia) perpetrated by the cosmic powers upon one another. His words suggest an exchange of crimes like that which Herodotus presents as the antecedent for the Persian War, in which Greeks and Orientals are alternative offenders against one another: "this was the beginning of the wrongs done (adikē matōn) … after this the Greeks were guilty of the secondary wrongdoing (adikiēs)" (Hdt. 1.2.1). In such a context, the balance is restored when the wronged party retaliates in full ("now this was equal for equal"). The crime establishes a debt, which the guilty party must "pay"; hence the phrase for rendering compensation…. In the fragment, the conditions of payment are fixed by the arbiter Time, and his law is a periodic pendulum of give and take.

In this second, unmistakably authentic portion of our text, there is no real ambiguity. In a general way the relevance of the first part also seems clear: it is in the alternate generation and corruption of things that both wrong and retaliation must be found….

But what are the onta whose generation and destruction represent such a relentless treadmill of offense and compensation? It is here that the problems of a literal interpretation become acute. Most modern commentators assume that ta onta must be the individual things of the visible world: the men, animals, and plants whose waning occurs after a fixed period of growth, and whose death balances their birth. These may, of course, be said to return back "into those things from which they came to be," and the expression is classic in Greece from an early period. Xenophanes insists that all things arise from earth and all return there in the end (B27); he is probably thinking of the fate of mankind. That is certainly the case for Epicharmus: "Earth to earth, pneuma aloft" (B9)—a thought that finds many echoes in the fifth century.10 The author of De Natura Hominis formulates the doctrine in general terms. The genesis of things, he says, can take place only from an equitable blending of elemental opposites:

And it is necessary that they return each to its own nature when the man's body comes to an end: wet to wet, dry to dry, hot to hot, and cold to cold. Such is the nature of animals and of all other things; all come to be in the same way and end in the same way. For their nature is composed out of all the aforesaid things and ends, as was said, in the same thing whence each was composed…. (ch. 3; Jones, Loeb ed. IV, 10)

Clearly this gives us a possible sense for the "out of those … into these" of the fragment. But such an interpretation of ta onta, as individual beings such as men and animals, encounters a serious obstacle in the explanatory particle gar, "for," which follows. For the statement introduced by this word says nothing of particular, compound things, but refers instead to a reciprocal action of the elemental powers upon one another (allēlois). How can an exchange of offense and penalty between the elements explain why compound things are dissolved back into the materials of which they were composed? In this view, the apparent parallelism of the two clauses loses its raison d'être, as does the binding gar. We would have two independent propositions, and no clear logical link between them."11

One may, of course, imagine various devices for bridging the gap which this view opens up. We might assume, for example, that the excerpt of Theophrastus has suppressed one or more steps of the original reasoning which is represented in our text by the particle gar: Anaximander may have argued that the formation of individual things involves the temporary supremacy of one power over another, perhaps in the form of a debt to be paid back when the compound is resolved into its elements.12 Yet even with a great deal of ingenuity, we will hardly succeed in explaining why the payment is then made, not by compound things back to their elements, but by the latter "to one another." Furthermore, the use of a pronoun such as ᾲυτά … naturally leads us to suppose that the things which exchange wrong and reparation are the same as those whose generation and destruction has just been mentioned. Can this have been the original thought of Anaximander, distorted by the doxographical citation?13

Now there is another interpretation of the words ta onta which would permit us to understand the text in just this way, without any additional conjectures and without supposing the sense to have been altered by Simplicius or Theophrastus. Simplicius, we remember, thinks that the fragment refers to the transformation of elements into one another, and the idea of a seasonal (as well as of a cosmogonie) cycle of elemental change was familiar to the Milesians. It would be natural for them to speak of the formation of moisture in the rainy season as a birth of the wet out of the dry, just as the fiery element of summer is born and nourished from the moist.14 May not these very principles be the onta which, in the process of elemental change, perish again into the things from which they have arisen?

The expression ta onta is so general that it may just as well apply to natural compounds as to the elements of which they are formed. Strictly speaking, the text of the fragment is compatible with either view. On the other hand, a glance at the oldest recorded usage of the term in philosophical contexts will suggest that it refers to elemental powers rather than to unique, individual bodies…. The "things which were all together" of Anaxagoras B1 are of course not the individual bodies of men and animals, but air, aithēr, and the various powers and materials of things yet to be produced. For him also "the things in the one cosmos" are exemplified by the hot and the cold (B8). Anaxagoras is the philosopher whom we would expect Protagoras to attack, and it is probably in terms of such physical elements that we must understand the latter's opening reference to "all things, those which are and those which are not" (Bl). When Plato propounds the Protagorean thesis in the Theaetetus, his first example is precisely the difference between a hot and a cold wind. So the pretended onta which Melissus is concerned to refute, and "which men say to be true," are not individual things but "earth, water, air, fire, iron, gold, the living and the dead, dark, bright, and the rest," including hot and cold, hard and soft (B8).

It is therefore most probable that the expression ta onta in the fragment also refers to such elemental powers. It is they who are one another's source of generation, just as they are the mutual cause of death. On the grammatical level, it is these opposing principles, and these alone, which are implied by the neuter plural pronouns…. The wet is generated from the dry, the light from the darkness. But the birth of such a thing involves the death of its reciprocal, and this loss must eventually be repaired by a backward swing of the pendulum. Thus it is that "from a single necessity all things are composed and nourished by one another."15

This compensation of death for birth is absolutely necessary…. The following gar shows that this very inevitability is expressed again in the idea of didonai dikēn. The archaic view of adikia is just this, that one who is guilty will always pay the penalty. It is probably misleading to lay too much stress on the moral or eschatological aspect of "cosmic injustice" for Anaximander. If the dominion (kratein) of one party over another is described as a wrong, this need not imply a different, pre-mundane or post-mundane state of harmony such as is dreamt of by Empedocles. The victory of one element over another is adikia because the weaker party suffers, and because of the disastrous consequences which must ensue for the offender. The words and imagery of the fragment indicate above all that the exchange of birth and death is sure, remorseless, inescapable, like the justice which the gods send upon guilty men. It will come at last, when its hour is full. For Necessity enforces the ordinance which Time lays down.

According to the interpretation here proposed, the meaning of the two portions of the fragment is one and the same. The first member states the necessary return of mortal elements back into the opposite powers from which they are generated; the second clause explains this necessity as a just compensation for the damage done at birth. The elements feed one another by their own destruction, since what is life to one is death for its reciprocal. The first law of nature is a lex talionis: life for life.

Thus the fragment does not announce a last end of things, when the elemental powers will return into the Boundless from which they have arisen (despite the number of modern interpretations which presuppose this view). Neither does it contain a particular reference to the dissolution of men and animals back into the materials of which they are composed, although such an idea was frequently expressed by other Greek thinkers. This brief text of Anaximander most naturally refers simply to that continuous change of opposing forms or powers into one another which is the common theme of Heraclitus (B126, B88, etc.), Epicharmus (B2), Melissus (B8), and Plato (Phaedo 70d-72). The most significant case for a Milesian cosmologist was no doubt the interchange of the major elements. "It is death for water to become earth," says Heraclitus, "but out of earth water arises" (B36); the death of fire is birth for air, and the death of air is birth for water (B76). "These live the death of those, and die their life" (B62, B77).

Anaximander must have seen this exchange transacted daily, in the alternation of light and darkness, of the fresh morning dew and the parched heat of noon. He must have recognized essentially the same process at work in the production of the fiery thunderbolt out of wind and cloud, themselves in turn produced from evaporating moisture. The downward return of quenched fire and condensing rain cloud will counteract the upward surge of dryness and heat, and thus preserve the balance of the whole. The waxing and waning of the moon's light fulfills in turn the lawful interchange of generation and corruption. If the celestial equilibrium was conceived by Anaximander as a stable sphere, it is the turning circle which best symbolizes this rhythm of elemental change. The image is preserved in our own terminology, which is in this respect still that of early Greece: "cycle" from kyklos (originally "wheel"), "period" from periodes ("revolution"). In the Ionian view, the predominant cycle is that of the sun, since it is in step with this yearly movement that the seasons of heat and coolness, drought and rainfall succeed one another, while the dominion of daylight gives way before the long winter nights.16 In Greece, even the winds are generally "opposite according to the opposite seasons" (Arist. Meteor. 364a34). And the mortal sea-sons of youth and age, growth and decay, exemplify the same periodic law.17

It is possible that Anaximander projected this pattern upon a still more majestic screen, and spoke (like Plato and his followers) of a Magnus Annus, in which the great astronomical cycles are to be accompanied by catastrophic transformations on the earth. Like Xenophanes, Anaximander may have taught that the progressive drying-up of the sea would eventually be reversed, so that the earth will sink back into the element from which it has arisen.18 This would constitute the necessary "reparation" required by the fragment for any type of excess. The periodic destruction of mankind by fire and flood, to which Plato more than once alludes, seems to form part of the symmetrical pattern of this sixth-century world view.19

Did Anaximander envisage an even greater cycle, in which the appearance of this differentiated universe out of the Boundless would itself be periodically balanced by the return of all things, including the elements, back into their original source? This doctrine is ascribed to Anaximander by some doxographers, but there is no definite statement to this effect in our most reliable sources.20 On the other hand, it seems difficult to deny such a view to the Milesians, if their belief in an "eternal motion" is to be taken seriously.21 A peri odic destruction of the world order might well follow from Anaximander's conception of symmetrical action and counter-action, continuing unhampered throughout endless time. But there is no place for this doctrine in the text of Anaximander's fragment, which does not mention the generation of things out of the apeiron. There is therefore no reason whatsoever to suppose that the destruction of the world is an "atonement" to be made for some kind of wrongdoing.

On the other hand, if a cycle of world formation and dissolution is not implied by this brief text, everything else we know about Anaximander's cosmology has its place here: astronomical cycles, the succession of the seasons, the phenomena of the atmosphere, the origin of dry land and living things, all coverage in the element doctrine of the fragment. There is another idea which we may expect to find here, in view of our earlier discussion of Anaximander's theories, and that is the principle of geometric proportion. In order to see how Anaximander's mathematical conceptions are related to his statement in the fragment, we must consider some Aristotelian passages in which a similar view is described. It is not difficult to recognize the Milesian doctrine in Aristotle's reference to those who declare that there is "an infinite body, one and simple … besides the elements, out of which they generate the latter."

For there are some who make the apeiron not air or water, but a thing of this sort, so that the other elements should not be destroyed by the one of them that is infinite. For they are characterized by opposition to one another; air, for instance, is cold, water is wet, fire is hot; if one of these were infinite, the others would now have perished. Hence, they say, the apeiron is something else, from which these things arise. (Phys. 204b22)

There is no reason to doubt the substantial accuracy here of Aristotle's report.22 This argument against the infinity of any single element corresponds exactly to the view expressed by the fragment: if there were no limits assigned to the supremacy of one of the participants in cosmic strife, its victory would never be compensated by the statutory defeat. It is this same idea which Aristotle has just adapted in his own proof that no element can be infinite: "The opposites must always be in a relationship of equality"; for an infinite elemental body will always exceed and destroy one that is finite (Phys. 204b13-19). Much the same principle is invoked by him in the Meteorologica against those who believe that the entire celestial region is filled with fire and air (340al ff). That cannot be, says Aristotle, for, in view of the relatively small dimensions of the earth in comparison with the whole heavens, fire and air "would then exceed by far the equality of a common proportion with regard to their fellow elements."23 Aristotle is prepared to admit that there is more air than water in the universe, for he knows that water expands when evaporated. What he requires is therefore not a simple arithmetic correspondence, but an "equality of power"—a geometric relationship which joins different quantities in a single proportion, just as a fixed amount of water produces a corresponding amount of steam (340a16).

Aristotle feels himself entirely justified in using this principle against his predecessors, for he is conscious of having taken it from them. He discusses elsewhere (De Gen et Corr. 333a18 ff.) the statement of Empedocles that the elements are "equal in every way": Love is "equal in length and breadth" to the others, just as Strife is their "equipoise at every point" (Emped. B17.19-27). For Empedocles as for Aristotle, this geometric equality between the elements is an expression of their equal power.24 Such an equilibrium between opposing principles is no less important in the view of Anaxagoras, for whom "all things are always equal" (B5; cf. B3). To preserve this necessary balance, his aēr and aithēr must each be infinite, for they are the two greatest things in bulk (Bl). The same is true of the two symmetrical forms which together fill the cosmic sphere of Parmenides. They too are opposite to one another, and "both equal" (B9.4). Although the form which this idea assumes for Anaxagoras and Empedocles may be due to the direct influence of Parmenides, the general principle is not new with him. For we also find it in the "measures" which regulate elemental transformation according to Heraclitus: when Fire in the turnings of its cycle (tropai) has become sea and then earth, once more "sea is poured out, and measured back into the same logos as before it became earth" (B31).25 This logos of elemental exchange is precisely a geometric "equality of common propor tion" such as that which Aristotle postulates in the Meteorologica. It guarantees that the fundamental order of the universe will persist unchanged, despite its periodic transformations. From the modern point of view, it represents the earliest formula for the conservation of both energy and matter, since at this period bulk (megethos) and power (dynamis) are conceived as the two faces of a single coin.

The old Ionic theory of the elements is thus characterized by the same geometric symmetry which prevails in Anaximander's celestial scheme. The equilibrium of the earth at the center of a spherical world is reflected in the mathematical proportion by which the elements are bound to one another. These parts belong together in a unified whole, a community whose balance of power is maintained by periodic readjustments, in accordance with that general law of astronomical cycles which Anaximander conceived as an immutable taxis of Time.

This is, I suggest, the conception which lies at the root of the Greek view of the natural world as a kosmos, an admirably organized whole. The term kosmos is interpreted by Plato as implying "geometric equality,"26 and the word is bright with the combined radiance of the moral and aesthetic ideals of early Greece. No ancient author, it is true, tells us that Anaximander spoke of the world as a kosmos. But the new philosophic sense of this term is as familiar to Heraclitus and Parmenides as it is to Anaxagoras, Empedocles, and Diogenes.27 It is difficult to see where such a widespread notion could have arisen, if not in sixth-century Miletus—the mother city from which, like so many colonies, all the philosophic schools of early Greece are sprung.

Precisely considered, the kosmos is a concrete arrangement of all things, defined not only by a spatial disposition of parts, but also by the temporal taxis within which opposing powers have their turn in office. It is the spatial aspect (in which the kosmos, identified with the ouranos, appears as a body whose limbs are the elements) which tends more and more to obscure the temporal order that prevailed in the earlier conception. Both ideas, however, are inextricably linked from the beginning to the end of Greek philosophy. The cosmos has not only an extended body, but also a lifetime aiōn), whose phases are celestial cycles.28

Two Hippocratic texts may serve to illustrate this conception in the minds of men penetrated by Ionian science. The authors of the De Natura Hominis and the De Victu both employ the word kosmos for the universal order, and apply this notion in detail to the structure and function of men's bodies. It was no doubt towards the end of the fifth century that Polybus, the son-in-law of Hippocrates, wrote as follows:

The body of man always possesses all of these [the four humors, characterized by the four primary opposites], but through the revolving reasons they become now greater than themselves, now lesser in turn, according to nature. For, just as every year has a share in all, in hot things as well as cold, in dry things as well as wet (for no one of these could endure for any length of time without all of the things present in this kosmos; but if any one of these were to cease, all would disappear; for from a single necessity all are composed and nourished by one another); just so, if any one of these components should cease in a man, the man would not be able to live. (Nat. Horn. 7, Jones, Loeb ed. IV, 20-22)

The year and the kosmos each constitute an organized body, from which no vital member may be removed without catastrophe. Writing perhaps a few years later29 the author of the De Victu holds a similar view of the interdependence of natural factors. A good doctor, he claims, "must be familiar with the risings and settings of the stars, that he may be competent to guard against the changes and excesses of food and drink, of winds, and of the kosmos as a whole, since it is from these [changes and excesses] that diseases arise among men" (ch. 2; Jones, Loeb ed. IV, 228). Such vicissitudes of nature, he says, are due to the alternate dominion not of four principles, but of two alone: fire and water.

Each one rules and is ruled in turn, to the maximum and minimum of what is possible. For neither one is able to rule altogether…. If either were ever dominated, none of the things which now exist would be as it is now. But as things are, these [fire and water] will be the same forever, and will never cease either separately or together (ch. 3, Jones, Loeb ed. IV, 232).

For this author too the kosmos takes the form of a rhythmically repeated cycle, executed by a system in dynamic equilibrium.

Perhaps the most striking expression of this old view of cosmic order is to be found in a relatively late text. Diogenes Laertius quotes from Alexander Polyhistor a cosmology which the latter is said to have found in certain "Pythagorean notebooks" (hypomnēmata). We do not know who these Pythagoreans were, or when they lived.30 But the doctrine that follows clearly reflects the same conceptions that prevail in the Hippocratic Corpus:

Light and darkness, hot and cold, dry and wet obtain equal portions in the kosmos; it is from their dominance that arises summer, from that of the hot, and winter, from that of the cold.31 But when their portions are equalized, the year is at its finest; its flourishing season, spring, is healthy, but its waning season, autumn, productive of disease. Indeed, the day itself has a flourishing period at dawn, but wanes at evening, which is therefore the most unhealthy hour. (D.L. VIII.26 = DK 58Bla)

The medical theory of these three texts is, as far as we know, the creation of Alcmaeon and of the founders of the Hippocratic method. But the cosmology on which it is based—and of which it is a faithful reflection—is the common heritage of all Greek philosophers after the sixth century. Its earliest expression is to be found in the fragment of Anaximander.

There are other traces of this view in the extant philosophical fragments. Anaxagoras, for example, declares that Nous "has set all things in good order" (B12). It is clear from the context that the chief instrument of this order is the cosmic revolution (perichōrēsis) performed by the heavenly bodies, the source of a differentiated universe. Further details concerning the "order" brought about by Nous have been lost, but may to some extent be supplied from the doctrine of Diogenes. Like Anaxagoras, he too praises the intelligence (noēsis) of his cosmic principle, which "arranges all things" (B5), and in his case, we have a text that states the concrete evidence of this ordering:

For it were not possible for all things to be so distributed (dedasthai) without intelligence, that there should be measures of all things, of winter and summer, of night and day, of rainfall and winds and clear weather. And if one is willing to reflect on other things, he will find them also so disposed as to be the best possible. (B3)

For this fifth-century Ionian, as for the Milesians before him, it is the seasonal regularity of celestial and meteorological processes which best exhibits the organic structure of the universe.

Here, at the starting-point of Western science and philosophy, we find the Order of Nature clearly conceived as an "ordinance of Time." This oldest formula of natural law thus emphasizes that same notion of periodicity which, in a much more elaborate form, plays such an importantrole in modern physical thought.33 The early appearance of this idea is no cause for surprise;indeed the great periodic occurrences have never passed unnoticed. The cycle of the stars and seasons is the fundamental fact in any agricultural society, which must strive to establish some harmony between the works of man and the motions of the heavenly bodies. Such is the theme not only of Hesiod's poem, but of all ancient religions.

What is new in Anaximander's doctrine is neither the concern for seasonal repetition, nor the application of moral and legal concepts to the natural world. The idea that "man lived in a charmed circle of social law and custom, but the world around him at first seemed lawless,"33 is based upon a total misconception. The earliest civilizations had no notion of the distinction between Nature and Society which has become habitual to us. In Homer, for example, no boundary is recognized between human usage and the order of the universe. In front of man stands not Nature, but the power of the gods, and they intervene as easily in the natural world as in the life of men. Poseidon is lord of the sea, shaker of the earth, but he stands in battle next to the Greeks before Troy. Zeus is god of the storm, and was once the personified power of the sky itself, but when he casts his thunderbolt, it is to exact punishment from perjurers.34 The Horae, who are the Seasons, and will become the astronomical Hours, have for sisters the Moirae, the "fated portions" of mankind. Their common mother is Themis ("lawful establishment"), and their names are Justice, Peace, and Good Distribution (eunomiē) (Hes. Theog. 901).

These ideas are from the beginning so intimately linked that, in lands where mythic speculation is highly developed, a single term for "law" normally applies to ritual, to morality, and to the natural order. Such, for instance, is the case for the Vedic concept of rtà, literally, "what is adjusted, fitted together" (from the root *ar- also found in Greek arariskō, harmos, harmonid). The word designates not only ritual correctness—like Latin ritus, from the same root—but moral order, and the regular arrangement by which the gods produce the dawn, the movement of the sun, and the yearly sequence of the seasons. The annual cycle itself is pictured as "a twelve-spoked wheel of rtá which turns unaging round the heaven."35

Such ancient conceptions show that it is not the assimilation of Nature and Society which philosophy was called upon to establish, but rather their separation from one another. These two ideas were first defined, by mutual contrast, as a result of the fifth-century controversies regarding physis and nomos.36 But the concept of the world as a kosmos or well-ordered constitution of things dates from the earlier period, when the two realms were still counted as one. It was then easy and natural for Anaximander to transfer terms like dikē, tisis, and taxis from their social usage to a description of that larger community which includes not only man and living things on earth, but the heavenly bodies and the elemental powers as well. All philosophic terms have necessarily begun in this way, from a simpler, concrete usage with a human reference point. For example, the concept of a "cause," aition, is clearly a development from the idea of the "guilty one, he who is to blame," aitios. Language is older than science; and the new wine must be served in whatever bottles are on hand.

The importance of the imagery of cosmic strife in early Greek thought should make clear that the rational outlook on the world did not arise by mere negation, by the stripping away of some primitive veil of pictures in order to lay bare the facts. In the historical experience of Greece, Nature became permeable to the human intelligence only when the inscrutable personalities of mythic religion were replaced by well-defined and regular powers. The linguistic stamp of the new mentality is a preference for neuter forms, in place of the "animate" masculines and feminines which are the stuff of myth. The Olympians have given way before "the boundless, the necessary, the encompassing, the hot, the opposites," all expressed by neuter forms in Greek. The strife of elemental forces is henceforth no unpredictable quarrel between capricious agents, but an orderly scheme in which defeat must follow aggression as inevitably as the night the day.

The philosophic achievement of Ionia was no doubt made possible by the astral and mathematical science accumulated in the age-old Mesopotamian tradition. It is indeed the principles of geometry and astronomy which define the new world view. But the unity and the rational clarity of this conception are as completely Greek as is the term "cosmos" by which it continues to be known.


1 [Diels-Kranz, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 6th éd., 3 vols., Berlin, 1952; hereafter DK] 12A9; from Theophr. Phys. Opin. fr. 2, Hermann Diets, [Doxographi Graeci, Berlin, 1879; hereafter Dox.Gr.], p. 476.

2 See Charles H. Kahn, Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960) [hereafter referred to as AOGC], ch. 2.

3 [John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, 4th ed., reprint of the 3rd ed., London, 1930; hereafter EGP], pp. 53 f; W. A. Heidel, "On Anaximander," [Classical Philology; hereafter CP], 7 (1912), 233 ff. Similarly F. M. Cornford, Principium Sapientiae (Cambridge, 1952), p. 168; G. S. Kirk, "Some Problems in Anaximander," [The Classical Quarterly; hereafter CQ], N.S. 5 (1955), 33 ff. (repr. in [David J. Furley and R. E. Allen, eds., Studies in Presocratic Philosophy, vol. 1: The Beginnings of Philosophy, London, 1970; hereafter Furley and Allen, I], pp. 323-49).

4 See AOGC, p. 130.

5 [See] Hippocr. De Hebd. ch. 19.31.

6 Wind and water inhaled in breathing cool the body, and thus serve as retaliation … against congenital heat (Hippocr. De Cord. 3, Littré, IX, 82)…. The thickness of the heart's wall serves as protection … against the strength of this heat (ch. 6, Littré, IX, 84). The same kind of compensatory action … is provided by the brain against moisture (De Gland. 10, Littré, VIII, 564). The comparison between these passages and Anaximander's doctrine was first drawn by Heidel, "Hippocratea, I," in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 25 (1914), 188 f.

7 Cf. Hippocr. De Hebd. 19.21.

8 Cf. Hippocr. Epid. 111.15, Jones, Loeb ed. I, 254….

10 See Eur. Fr. 839.8-11, cited DK 59A112; paralleled by Suppl. 532-34 and by the famous inscription for those who fell at Potidaea…. (M. N. Tod, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions, 2d ed. [Oxford, 1946], No. 59=I.G. I2.945). It is because of this return of like that, according to the "Orphic" gold plates, the dead arriving in Hades must say "I am child of Earth and of starry Heaven, but my race … is heavenly" (DK 1B17.6).

11 This apparent irrelevance of the two clauses to one another is emphasized by J. B. McDiarmid, "Theophrastus on the Presocratic Causes," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 61 (1953), 97 (repr. in Furley and Allen, I, pp. 178-238).

12 The loan of elements in the formation of the human body is alluded to by Plato Tim, 42e9 (cf. 41d3). The same metaphor seems to have been applied by Philolaus to the intake of air in breathing…. Anon. Lond. XVIII.23; W. H. S. Jones, The Medical Writings of Anonymus Londinensis (Cambridge, 1947), p. 72.

13 Thus Kirk suggests that the original assertion paraphrased by Theophrastus "might have been to the effect that each opposite changes into its own opposite and into no other, for example the hot is replaced by the cold and not by the wet or the soft" ("Some Problems," p. 35). I largely agree with Kirk as to what Anaximander said, but see no reason to believe that either Theophrastus or Simplicius interpreted his words in a different way.

14 See AOGC, p. 132.

15 Hippocr. Nat. Hom. 7, Jones, Loeb ed. IV….

16 In Hippocr. De Victu 5 the "divine necessity" according to which all things come to pass is just such a rhythmic oscillation between maximum and minimum, illustrated by the periods of day and night, of the moon, and of the annual solar motion. And see AOGC, pp. 104-06.

17 "Old age arises from the loss of heat" (Parm. A46a); "a man is hottest on the first of his days, coldest on the last" (Hippocr. Nat. Horn. 12, Jones, Loeb ed. IV, 36). This idea, according to which man's life is a reduced model of the cosmic year (ending at the winter solstice), is developed at length by the author of De Victu (ch. 33; Jones, Loeb ed. IV, 278), who adds the sequence wet, dry, and then wet again in increasing age (corresponding to the rains of both spring and fall).

In stating the general law of alternation between opposites, it is the seasonal changes that Plato mentions first (Rep. 563e9).

18 Xenoph. A33.5-6 (Hippolytus): "A mixture of earth with sea is taking place, and it will at length be dissolved by the moist … all men will be destroyed, when the earth collapses into the sea and becomes mud; then there will be a new beginning of generation; and this transformation occurs in all the κόσμοι. For the meaning of the last phrase, see AOGC, pp. 51 ff.

19 The alternate destructions of human societies by fire and water are mentioned by Plato at Tim. 22c; frequent destructions in the past, particularly by floods, at Laws 677a; similar cycles of human and cosmic transformations at Politicus 269a.

Democritus was author of a work entitled "Great Year or Astronomi "; very little is known of its contents….

20 The destruction of the world (or worlds) appears in DK A10, A14, A17; no mention of it occurs in Hippolytus (DK All) or in the primary excerpt of Simplicius (DK A12).

21 An "eternal motion" should imply that some change took place before the present world order began to arise, and that something else will follow its destruc-tion (if any). The expression would not have been used if Anaximander, like Anaxagoras, had avoided any reference to events before the commencement of our cosmic order, or implied that no changes took place during this time; cf. Arist. Phys. 250b24….

22 See Simpl. Phys. 479.32 ff., where the argument is expressly assigned to Anaximander. The doubts expressed in general terms by E. Zeller, Die Philosophie der Griechen, Part I, 5th ed. (Leipzig, 1892), p. 215, and developed in detail by Harold Cherniss, Aristotle'sCriticism of Presocratic Philosophy (Baltimore, 1935), pp. 27 f., 367, do not seem cogent. As Gregory Vlastos has pointed out ("Equality and Justice in Early Greek Cosmologies," CP, 42 [1947], 168, n. 121 [repr. in Furley and Allen, I, pp. 56-91]), the balance between the elemental powers is not a new idea with Aristotle, but everywhere presupposed in the early medical literature (see AOGC, p. 132 n. 4). Furthermore, a clear indication that the reasoning given here is not an invention of Aristotle may be seen in his reference to air as cold….

Hence it is peculiarly appropriate that Aristotle should refute Anaximander's thesis by an adaptation of his own principle: "There is no such sensible body besides the so-called elements. For all things are dissolved back into that out of which they are composed; so that this body would then appear in addition to air and fire and earth and water; but nothing of the sort is to be seen" (Phys. 204b32)….

23Meteor. 340a4. According to the pseudo-Aristotelian De Mundo, 396b34, the universe is preserved by such an agreement and balance of opposing forces.

24 See … Emped. B17.28 f., correctly interpreted by Vlastos in "Equality and Justice," p. 159, as a dynamic equilibrium.

25 It is because of these equal measures, by which Fire is exchanged for all things and all for Fire (Heracl. B90) that "the starting-point and the limit of the circle [of elemental transformations] are one and the same" (B103).

26 The wise, Callicles, say that both heaven and earth and gods and men are held together by community and friendship, by orderliness … and temperance and justice…, and for this reason they call this whole universe an Order … my friend, not disorder…, / … nor license…. But you have not noticed that geometric equality has great power both among men and among gods; and you think one should practice excessive greed…., for you neglect geometry" (Gorg. 508a).

27 See AOGC, Appendix I, p. 219.

28 This sense of … the world's lifetime occurs in Arist. De Caelo 279a22-30 and 283b28 (for the idea, cf. 285a29, 286a9; similar uses … in Bonitz, Index, 23b19,21). The meaning is probably the same in Emped. B16….

It is because Time…, as the sequence of astronomical cycles, was also conceived as the vital motion of the universe that it could be "inhaled" from outside like a breath-soul (in the Pythagorean view, DK 58B30), and be identified by some with the heavenly sphere itself, as well as with its motion (Phys. 218bl). Compare Tim. 38e4, where the stars "produce Time," and 41e5, where they are "instruments of Time."

29 The date of the De Victu has been much disputed. Most authors assign it to the end of the fifth century, but Werner Jaeger has put it in the middle of the fourth (Paedeia, trans. Gilbert Highet, vol. 3 [Oxford, 1945], 33 ff., with notes), and Kirk even sees Peripatetic influence here (Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments [Cambridge, 1954], pp. 27 ff.). Their arguments are scarcely decisive. In regard to questions of cosmology, there is no trace of any influence later than Empedocles and Archelaus. The author cannot have read the Timaeus, or even the Phaedo. In view of his otherwise receptive attitude to the ideas of his predecessors, this makes it difficult to believe that he is younger than Plato…. It will hardly do to claim the author of the De Victu as a "pupil" of Herodicus (as does Jones, Medical Writings, p. 48), since this is precisely the point where the writer insists upon his originality (ch. 69; cf. ch. 2). The argument of J. Jiitner (Philostratos [Leipzig, 1909], pp. 15 ff.), that the "biting scorn" for gymnastics in De Victu 24 could not come from a former trainer is one that cuts both ways. (Since this was written, the case for the earlier dating has been reargued by R. Joly, who doubts, however, the attribution to Herodicus. See his edition of Du Régime [Paris, "Les belles Lettres," 1967] and his Recherches sur le traité pseudohippocratique Du Régime [Paris-Liège 1961].)

30 Diels followed M. Wellman, Hermes, 54 (1919), 225, in assigning the doctrine to a contemporary of Plato; Festugière has argued for a late fourth-century date in Revue des études grecques, 58 (1945), 1.

31 The "emendation" of Cobet … (which is printed by Hicks in the Loeb Diogenes as part of the text) stands in flat contradiction to the following words: spring and fall are not subject to the domination of any power, but represent the "finest" time of the year because of their balance.

32 "The birth of modern physics depended upon the application of the abstract idea of periodicity to a variety of concrete instances" (A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, ch. 2). The achievement of the Greeks was, of course, just the reverse: to pass from the experience of concrete periods to the idea of one principle governing all transformations whatsoever.

33 Burnet, EGP, p. 9. Similarly R. Hirzel, Themis, Dike und Verwandtes (Leipzig, 1907), pp. 386 f.

34 See, e.g., Aristophanes Nub. 397.

35 Rigveda 1.164.11. On the conception of rtà, see A. Bergaigne, Religion védique, III, 210 ff.; H. Oldenberg, Religion des Vedas, pp. 195 ff. Compare the Egyptian and Babylonian points of view described in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Chicago, 1946), and the conclusion of the Frankforts, p. 26: "The life of man and the function of the state are for mythopoeic thought imbedded in nature, and the natural processes are affected by the acts of man no less than man's life depends on his harmonious integration with nature. The experiencing of this unity with the utmost intensity was the greatest good ancient oriental religion could bestow. To conceive this integration in the form of intuitive imagery was the aim of the speculative thought of the ancient Near East."

36 See the study of this antithesis by F. Heinimann, Nomos und Physis (Basel, 1945).

Allan S. Gnagy (essay date 1975)

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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 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 "ground." The dynamic emphasis is necessitated, in my view, by the general belief, traceable back to Aristotle, that they conceived the object of their search to be merely material, in the sense of an inert, passive matter—a belief which I do not think is supported by the strictest construction of the evidence.

A note is perhaps in order here, to clarify a possible source of confusion regarding the ancient sources named in the paper: the fragment was originally recorded, and hence preserved for us, by Theophrastus, who was Aristotle's main research assistant (fourth century B.C.); it was Theophrastus' dissertation on the already-ancient Presocratic philosophers upon which Aristotle depended in writing his own lecture-essays on Physics. Theophrastus' work is no longer extant, but portions of it were copied by Simplicius, in the sixth century A.D., as additional documentation for his own commentary on Aristotle's Physics; Simplicius' work was entitled, Of the Opinions of the Physicists, but is often referred to in modern scholarship as his Physics. The numberings used in references to Simplicius' Physics are the page-and-line numberings in the appropriate volume of the Berlin Academy's Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca. The numberings in references to Aristotle's works are the standard book-chapter-and-line numberings in the accepted Greek text adhered to in Sir David Ross' Collected Works of Aristotle.

References to "Diels-Kranz" are to the photographic reprints (1952 and 1954) of the fifth edition of Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, a monumental compilation and critical redaction of all the known quotations from the Presocratic Greek philosophers.

Part I: The Text

The fragment of Anaximander's writing is found in Simplicius' commentary on Aristotle's Physics: the commentary is entitled, Of the Opinions of the Physicists; at 24,13 (Diels-Kranz 12A9), it reads, in my own translation, as follows:

Anaximander … declared the endless (apeiron) to be the ground (arche) and element of things, he being the first one who applied this designation of "ground"; he says that it is neither water nor any other of what are said to be elements, but rather some other indeterminate (apeiron) nature, out of which all the heavens and the worlds in them come to be; out of which elements is the coming-to-be of things, and perishing into them occurs, "according to what should be, for they give compensation and reparation to one another for injustice, each in the proper time," speaking of them thus in more poetic terms. It is evident, then, that this one who had watched the transformation of the four elements into one another did not think it worth while to make any one of these that which underlies, but rather something else besides them.

(I have enclosed in quotation marks what I consider to be the fragment from Anaximander.)

1. The phrase, "ground and element" is not to be understood as a quotation from Anaximander, nor yet a paraphrase. In the context, taken by Simplicius from Theophrastus, the latter is reporting how the Peripatetic concept of arché is related to something Anaximander had said over two hundred years earlier. "Ground and element" appears to be a stock phrase in Peripatetic discourse, especially considering the fact that the Greek word for "element" (stoicheion) was not used philosophically until Empedocles,1 and in a systematic way only with Plato; but it is only with Aristotle that it received a precise definition, as "that out of which a thing is composed, which is contained in it as a primary constituent, and which cannot be resolved into something different in kind."2 As we shall see, Anaximander did not conceive of his "substrate" as a constituent of things. Aristotelean metaphysics regards the arché as a principle which is also a constituent of things, so that the word is yoked with "element", creating a phrase full of Peripatetic import, but which is not likely to be Anaximandrean.

2. According to most commentators, the "things" mentioned in the first sentence of our text are the concrete, compound individuals of the empirical world. However, Kahn raises questions about the phrase, and offers a different interpretation; he thinks the "things" are not the concrete individuals, but the very principles associated with the elements, and which characterize them, i.e., "the hot," "the cold," etc. These principles Kahn understands to "perish" into and arise out of one another, and he terms them "elemental powers." He goes on to say that passages from Diogenes and Anaxagoras support his thesis. Further, he claims that "the things" are the referents of the phrases later on in the text, "out of which," "into them," and which give compensation and reparation to one another.3

Interesting though this thesis may be, it cannot be supported, for several reasons. One is that the first part of the text is not a quotation from Anaximander, but Theophrastus' commentary, in indirect discourse; and an interpretation like Kahn's is not possible in the Peripatetic framework, where "things" are concrete individuals, and clearly not predicative principles such as "hot," "cold," etc. Furthermore, if what Kahn says were true, the rest of the fragment would be nonsense, because Anaximander's point is that genesis is from the "indeterminate nature," and it is not elements, nor the principles which characterize them, which are born and destroyed, but the things of which these are constituents. In this case, the evidence is in favor of the more general interpretation, that the "things" are the concrete individuals of the visible world. The "elemental powers" do not destroy one another, but exchange hegemonies, take turns dominating.

3. Apeiron, to make a bad pun, is the word in this text which has generated "no end" of controversy, and it is the central problem of this paper. Although it cannot be understood fully, apart from a study of the whole text, we shall try to consider the majority of problems arising in the commentaries, and in the second part of the paper, we will concentrate on a full discussion of it. As Kahn has forcefully shown, apeiron is an adjective with a distinctively verbal coloring, having to do with dynamic movement. Kahn gives the sense of it as "what cannot be passed over or traversed from end to end."4 While it is obvious that this sense can be applied to whatever is "spatially infinite," it is also applicable to other situations. And although it is true that Homer and others use the term as poetic exaggeration, to describe the immense sea,5 we shall see that it has other applications besides the poetic one. But before we come to that discussion, we must look at the oldest interpretation, that apeiron means "spatially infinite."

Spatial infinity is probably the meaning which Aristotle attached to Anaximander's apeiron, certain doubts notwithstanding.6 He at least implies this, when he argues that an infinite substance, such as air or water, would leave no room for any other kind of substance.7 Kirk argues that this could well have been Anaximander's reason for positing some other substance than, for example, Thaïes' water.8 Aristotle, however, explains the belief in an infinite source as a means of guaranteeing the continuation of the process of becoming, and although he argues against this reasoning, he does seem to attribute it to Anaximander.9 Interestingly enough, Aristotle's criticism is that a cyclical motion of becoming and perishing does not require an infinite source, because the destruction of one thing is the generation of another; a cycle need not be infinite, in the spatial sense. As we shall later argue, that is in fact the sense in which Anaximander employed the term, apeiron. It is, then, Aristotle's interpretation that led most of the historians of the 19th and early 20th centuries to attribute to the apeiron the character of a spatially infinite material substance.10

Kirk holds that spatial infinity was probably not exactly Anaximander's meaning, since the concepts of spatial and temporal infinity had not been fully distinguished before the Eleatic analyses of infinity, e.g., those of Melissos and Zeno.11 Kirk is correct, that Anaximander did not mean spatial infinity merely, though for different reasons than those Kirk puts forward. Kirk is also correct, that if Anaximander had meant simply a "huge, inexhaustible mass,"12 that would be unremarkable, and hence not Anaximander's thesis at all,13 even though that is the most common usage of apeiron in Greek literature before and after Anaximander. The concern of the Milesian nature-thinkers is process, becoming, and the idea merely of an infinitely extended substance is static, and does not accord well with a view of dynamic change. All in all, we must conclude that Aristotle was mistaken in classifying Anaximander's apeiron as some infinitely extended substances.

The above view, that the apeiron is a spatially infinite material, has been inferred from considering the word, apeiron, to mean "externally unbounded."14 Another possibility has been proposed, that the word means "internally unbounded," something like "containing no distinctions within itself." However imprecise this language may be, it seems to have at least two senses: it may mean that the arché is homogeneous and not analysable into parts, i.e., it has no internal divisions, it cannot be broken down into heterogeneous constituent forms; in this case, of course, it approximates the Aristotelean notion of element, the lower limit of analysis. But such an homogeneous substance would be identifiable, as having some determinate form, as distinct from other kinds of substance. The other sense of "internally unbounded" is "that which is not identifiable as any known, empirical substance," that is, "indeterminate." Its form in this case is to have no form of determination. It is evident that Aristotle and other ancient authorities also understood the arché of Anaximander in this sense of indeterminacy, for note the following passages:

(1) The passage further along in the text (p. 5): … neither water nor any other of what are said to be elements, but rather some other indeterminate nature …

(2) Aristotle, Physics 4,203a16: All the physicists make the infinite a property of some other nature belonging to the so-called elements, such as water or air or that which is intermediate between these.

(3) Aristotle, Physics 5,204b22: But yet, neither can the infinite body be one and simple, whether it be, as some say, that which is beside the elements, from which they generate the elements, or whether it be expressed simply. For there are some people who make what is beside the elements the infinite, and not air or water, so that the rest be not destroyed by their infinite substance; for the elements are opposed to each other (for example, air is cold, water moist, and fire hot), and if one of those were infinite the rest would already have been destroyed. But, as it is, they say that the infinite is different from these, and that they come into being from it.

(4) Simplicius, Physics 24,26: Anaximenes son of Eurystratos, of Miletus, a companion of Anaximander, also says that the underlying nature is one and infinite like him, but not indefinite (aoriston) as Anaximander says, but definite, for he identifies it as air …

These passages show that the ancient commentators understood Anaximander's express intention, not to identify his arché with any of the known substances, with their empirical attributes of "hot," "cold," etc. But at the same time, we have seen that those commentators understood the term, apeiron, to mean spatial infinity. It was Anaximander's refusal to identify the apeiron by any familiar, empirical form, along with the spatial interpretation, which led the historians of the past two generations to dismiss the question of the nature of the arché, i.e., its qualitative determinations, as unclear, hence as unimportant.15

If Anaximander was the first to apply the term, apeiron, to the arché, we are faced with the problem of how he intended it. As we have seen, traditional interpreters see it as meaning "spatially infinite," and its lack of positive characterization is a problem quite apart from its spatial properties. But more modern scholarship, stimulated by Burnet, has tended to construe it as having the primary sense of "indeterminate," "indefinite," in spite of the fact that the word is rarely used this way in Greek literature.16 To convey the sense of "indeterminate," another word, aoriston, is commonly used. Note Kirk's conclusion regarding this problem:

In any case, the lack of a positive identification was conspicuously implied. Either to apeiron meant "the spatially indefinite," and was implied to be indefinite in kind because it was not formally identified as fire, air, water, or earth; or Anaximander intended it to mean primarily "that which is indefinite in kind," but naturally assumed it to be of unlimited extent and duration—properties which, when expressed, would be expressed in terms of all-inclusiveness and divine immortality.17

With this analysis of the problem in mind, Kirk opts for the second interpretation, that Anaximander's primary meaning for apeiron was "indefinite in kind." But it must be said that Kirk's interpretation is strained, to say the least, for the Greek word, apeiron, does not mean "indefinite in kind"; it is used for either spatial or temporal infinity, "endlessness," and if we accept the limitation of choice stated above, that is, between just two alternatives, spatial infinity or indefiniteness, we should have to choose, on linguistic grounds alone, the former. Of course it is recognized from the earliest commentaries, that Anaximander's arché was indeterminate, but this meaning cannot be derived from the mere use of the word, apeiron, as it appears at this point in the text. But because Aristotle, and commentators since, have puzzled over the indeterminacy of Anaximanders' arché, we must look briefly at some of the possible reasons for it.

The reason which Aristotle offers for positing an indefinite substance, in Physics 5,204b22, rather than some definite one, is that if it were infinite and determinate, there would be but one substance and no others; there would be no distinctions, no plurality within the unity but only an omnivorous One; such a radical monism would of course be the end of the metaphysical pursuit, i.e., of searching out the unity and relatedness of the diverse facts of experience; it would be the denial of the kosmos, of the universe. Kirk may be correct that this probably was one of Anaximander's reasons for leaving his arché indeterminate. Kirk calls it a possible motive, along with Aristotle's reasoning in Physics 4,203b15, that infinity is necessary to ensure that "becoming shall not fail"; but Kirk notes also that the latter is an argument for spatial infinity, whereas the former is an argument for indeterminacy.18 Whether or not these were Anaximander's reasons, Theophrastus, further along in our text, uses the term, apeiron, to convey the idea of indeterminacy:

he says that it is neither water nor any other of what are said to be elements, but rather some other indeterminate (apeiron) nature….

This is clearly an unusual use of the word, and requires some investigation. Possibly, it is assumed by Theophrastus that since there are many "elements," it is clear that none of them can be infinite, according to Aristotle's reasoning noted above …; hence it might be argued that the existence of a multiplicity of elements of different but definite forms requires that each be spatially finite. In this way, definiteness and fini tude are inseparably bound together, and if we call some substance "spatially infinite," then we imply that it cannot have a definite form. But surely this is a strange and roundabout way for Theophrastus to speak of indeterminacy, only by "implication." We should rather conclude that he recorded it from Anaximander's writing, without clearly grasping its meaning in context. If he had intended to write "indefinite," surely he would have used aoriston, as indeed he does in Physics 24,26 … It is even remotely possible that Simplicius, in recording Theophrastus' words, mistakenly used apeiron where the latter had aoriston.

The difficulties noted above remain paradoxical and insoluble, so long as we suppose the term, apeiron, to have only two possible meanings, either "spatial infinity" or "indeterminateness." Another interpretation has been proposed, however, by scholars such as Cornford, Kirk, and Kahn, but in a rather tentative and incomplete way, without full emphasis and without a consistent carrying-out of the consequences. What Anaximander may have intended, it is suggested, is neither spatial infinity nor qualitative indeterminacy, but rather the endlessness of the cycle of nature, the coming and going of the seasons, the coming-to-be and perishing of things. We shall return to this notion later, after a more adequate look at the text.

As Cornford19 and others point out, the "older" historians of philosophy tended to accept Aristotle's contention that the Milesian nature-thinkers were concerned only with "principles of a material kind." As Seligman20 points out, Aristotle was influenced by his own philosophy of four causes, and in his survey of earlier thinkers, he was searching for their concepts of material cause. He found such a concept in Anaximander's arché, among others. The Aristotelean notion of matter involves not merely spatial properties, but logical ones, which fit into the Peripatetic philosophy of becoming—matter is the principle of potentiality, or the "power to become." Hence Aristotle thinks of the apeiron in terms of his own concept of prime matter, pure potentiality. One of his criticisms of it is that it is purely passive, and offers no motive principle, by which the potential can become actual.21 However, it must be pointed out here that this criticism does not touch the meaning of Anaximander's arché, since it is premised on the Aristotelean distinction between potentiality and actuality; this division naturally creates problems in any metaphysics, precisely because the two terms are not motive principles. It is evident, then, that the lack of a motive principle in the matter-form dichotomy is Aristotle's difficulty, not Anaximander's, since the latter articulated no such distinction. Aristotle had to look beyond matter and form for a motive principle, and it is clear that whatever is posited as the Mover is itself the arché. It is at least probable that Anaximander did not hold the potentiality-actuality distinction, and fur thermore, as we shall see, his apeiron is more akin to a motive principle than a material one, anyway. Theophrastus speaks of Anaximander's arché as "eternal motion,"22 and Aristotle attributes to it the functions of "surrounding and guiding all."23 At the very least, this implies that the arché is active in some sense, and if it guides all, then it is also an initiating source of motion. Aristotle attributes this phrase, "surrounding and guiding," to all those who posit an infinite primary matter, without a separate cause of motion, which surely must include Anaximander.24 But we must also recognize that Anaximander probably did not separate the problem of motion to the same degree as Aristotle did; rather, he was concerned to investigate the ground of motion and change itself, without distinguishing motion from that which is in motion. In Anaximander's thought, being and becoming are not so radically distinguished as they are in later Greek thought, that is, after Parmenides.

Another controversy of scholarship involves the interpretation of the clause, "being the first one who applied this designation of 'ground' (arché)." The tradi tional interpretation, held by recent scholars also, is that Anaximander was the first to use the term, arché. But Burnet claimed that the meaning of the clause is that Anaximander was the first to say of the arché that it was apeiron. Jaeger, particularly, spends considerable time discussing this point and concludes that Burnet is in error. It is true that arché, a distinctly technical term in Peripatetic thought, is not thus attested in other Presocratic writings.25 But Simplicius, in another place, states clearly that Anaximander was the first to use arché, i.e., in Physics 150,23. Jaeger also notes that Hippolytus, writing independently of Simplicius, says the same.26 Therefore, the testimony must go back to Theophrastus, who had direct access to Anaximander's writing, and the phrase in question must mean that Anaximander was the first to use arché. Jaeger goes on to raise the question, whether or not Anaximander might have meant the term, arché, in the Aristotelean sense of "principle." He brings forward two quotations from Melissos, who lived roughly between Anaximander and Aristotle, and who did employ the word, arché:

(1) Simplicius, Physics 110,3: Whatever has a beginning (arché) and an end is neither eternal nor infinite, (apeiron)

(2) Simplicius, Physics 29,22: Since, then, it did not come into being, it is now and always was and always will be and has no beginning (arché) nor end, but is infinite, (apeiron)

Jaeger believes that these passages point to an Anaximandrean arché principle, saying that the apeiron is arché, since anything that has a beginning cannot be eternal or infinite. I do not think that Jaeger has established by citation of these passages, that the Milesians, nor that Melissos, used the term arché to mean "principle," in the Aristotelean sense; but there is, in the quotations, a more important aspect to be noted for purposes of this paper: the word, apeiron, is weighted toward a temporal usage, more than a spatial one; at least, this is unquestionably true of the second quotation, if not of the first, and it is the thesis of this paper that Anaximander's use of apeiron is thoroughly temporal and dynamic.

Kirk, on the other hand, maintains that Burnet's interpretation is more relevant to the trend of Simplicius' argument,27 and also observes that Theophrastus used arché in talking about Thales, without noting that the latter did not use the word himself. He concludes that "no technical use of arché was implied by Theophrastus—the use he referred to was of to apeiron."28 But this conclusion is beside the point, since the question is not whether Anaximander used the term in a "technical" sense, but whether he was the first one to use it at all. Also, Theophrastus' failure to mention whether Thales used the term implies nothing at all; the entire passage is taken from Simplicius' treatise on the Aristotelean notion of arché, and in this context it is more natural to note who first used the word, than to say who did not. The fact that Anaximander first used the term, arché, does not, of course, imply that he used it in an Aristotelean sense.

Kahn's grammatical treatment lends support to Burnet's interpretation, though he admits that the evidence is fairly evenly weighted.29 Although Kahn takes note of Simplicius' clear attribution of arché to Anaximander, in Physics 150,23…, he also points out that the same Simplicius, in de Caelo 615,15, says that Anaximander was the first to posit an infinite substratum. Hence, Kahn's conclusion, with which I must agree, is that Anaximander was the first to employ the concept of apeiron, but there is no source to testify that he was the first to use the word. Hence, the evidence on the whole supports the traditional interpretation, that Anaximander was the first to use the term, arché30

The foregoing discussion must decide, against Burnet, Kirk, and Guthrie, that Anaximander was the originator of the term, arché; this does not detract from the originality of Anaximander's concept of apeiron, but rather focuses attention upon the fact that the apeiron is the ground of the elements, and not one more element among them. Then to this aspect of his thought we now turn.

When Theophrastus writes, "he says that it is neither water nor any other of what are said to be elements, but rather some other indeterminate nature," it is seen that Anaximander explicitly refused to identify his arché with any of the usual "elements" of the popular cosmology which figure so prominently in later Presocratic thought. Each of these elements is identifiable by some empirical property, e.g., the "nature" of water is to be wet, and this nature is definite. But the arché of Anaximander is of "some other nature," i.e., it does not have an empirically identifiable property, as do the others, or at least, its nature has not yet been determined. But Anaximander does not go on to try to determine its nature; rather he goes on to say that it is the source of all things, that is, it is ground of becoming—and it is in the context of becoming that we must understand the apeiron.

We now turn our attention to what I believe is the direct quotation from Anaximander's writing, viz.,

… according to what should be, for they give compensation and reparation to one another for injustice, each in the proper time, …

Although there is some disagreement among scholars regarding exactly where the direct quotation begins, there is general agreement, that what Anaximander is referring to is the conflict among the "elements," or what amounts to the same thing, among the qualities which characterize each of the four elements. Some modern writers, for example Kahn, argue that Anaximander does not restrict the elements to the four of the popular Greek cosmology,31 but this is not a matter of great importance for the picture presented by Anaximander. The conflict of the elements is most dramatically displayed in the cyclical changes of the seasons through the year, as Cornford, Kirk, and Raven, make clear; what one sees by a casual observation of the seasonal changes is the coming and going of certain dominant qualities, e.g., heat, cold, drought, and moisture, which take turns ruling over one another through the different seasons. It appears that the Milesians sought, among other things, to identify which particular quality dominated in any given event or object; hence, the qualities dominating summer are the hot and the dry, though the cold and the wet are not altogether absent; but the hot and the dry, because of their hubris, must repay the cold and the wet, by in turn being dominated by them—and this is the source of the seasonal cycle. With this in mind, we must reject a misinterpretation found in Seligman, that the elements "destroy" one another; Seligman says that the elements must pass away, or die for their injustices, that injustice is cumulative, and that this leads eventually to a catastrophic end to our world.32 His view is not borne out by the text, which explicitly states that the coming-to-be is of things out of the elements, and the perishing which follows is likewise of the things. It is not the elements which are created and destroyed, but concrete, compound things. Anaximander's point here is that the seasons return again, because the opposites never destroy one another, but they exchange hegemonies, and live again to return to dominance; first one rules, and then another, so that no single one can destroy the others. Imbalance is always compensated for by a counterbalance; the great figure of a balance-scale, constantly swinging, or a pendulum, may serve to illuminate this idea of an oscillating natural cycle. It is the constant movement of weight and counterweight which keeps the universe stable. On the momentary and partial view of things, there appears always to be imbalance, injustice, but "in the long run," sub specie aeternitatis, the universe is lawlike, balanced, and just. According to this view, individual things do not enter into the conflict of justice and injustice; they simply come to be and perish. But Seligman insists on arguing that Anaximander did not hold that the system is stable, and so makes nonsense out of the text. Since the system of nature is cyclical, i.e., each "element" always returns, it is incoherent to suppose that the elements are destroyed, or that injustice is cumulative. It is clear that Anaximander held to no doctrine of a catastrophic end of the world.

The "poetic" terms in which Anaximander couches the above fragment, that is, the use of legalistic and moral terms such as "compensation and reparation," "justice and injustice," lead some commentators to see in the text a belief in a "moral force" governing nature. Seligman, in particular, among the more recent writers, sees a moral law governing all becoming.33 Others, however, hasten to deny the view of a moral force, calling the use of "justice" and "injustice" a metaphor.34 But we need to go more deeply than the notion of mere "metaphor," in order to appreciate what is being said. "Justice," "injustice," "reparation," are intended to show an order in nature, a system of balance and counterbalance, but they are not meant as an argument for a moral force. We must recall that the dichotomy between nature and the peculiarly human sphere (convention) developed in Greek thought only with the sophists and with Socrates; there is no clear separation of the two realms, so Anaximander's usage is not "metaphorical" in the sense of a transference of reference from one class of entities to another. The Greek concept of justice is fundamentally a notion of balance, of equilibrium, of balancing one claim against another, so as to produce harmony. Justice is conceived thus as an emulation of nature, so that human justice becomes a "metaphor" derived from the equilibrium displayed by nature; the Greeks did not see nature anthropomorphically, but rather saw man physiomorphically. But surely for Anaximander, the distinction is not even this sharp. Human society was understood as an integral part of the great burgeoning, growing, breathing-and-dying hubbub of nature, with all of the latter's essential features, not as something in a class apart from nature.

Part II: What Is Anaximander's Apeiron?

As the foregoing discussion has shown, Anaximander's use of the word, apeiron, cannot be considered merely as meaning "spatially infinite," nor as "indefinite," though indefinite the arché was, independently of the use of apeiron. Anaximander's arché is not a "material" concept, either in the sense of a spatial entity, nor as Aristotelean potentiality. It is not an element, in the sense of all the other elements which constitute things, nor is it a mixture of elements. Neither is it the primeval Chaos, nor an intermediate element standing between every pair of opposites. It is not at all an analytic notion, as are all of the above, i.e., it is not the object of the search for the "parts" or the constituents of compound individuals. All such conceptions are static, and do not accord well with the force of the tiny quotation recorded by Theophrastus. To hold any of the above notions is to ignore the content of the fragment, to gloss over the central role of the verb, "to become," and of the all-important reference to time as the ordering principle. How striking a picture is the giving back and forth to one another, among the elements, of justice and reparation for injustice! And yet the static conceptions of the Anaximandrean arché do ignore this vision of ceaseless activity, of giving back and forth, of coming to rule and being overthrown, exhibited in the fragment. A dynamic, temporal interpretation of apeiron, one of endlessness through time, of an activity, is more consistent with Anaximander's words than a spatial one. But it must be stressed here that this is not the endlessness of a temporal "straight line," stretching back into an infinite past and forward into an infinite future. Such a spatially-conceived time needed to wait for later; the endlessness of Anaximander's apeiron is not the endlessness of a causal or a number series. It is the endlessness of an ever-turning wheel, of the ceaselessly-recurring cycle of birth and death, of creation and destruction, of coming-to-be and perishing. Aristotle himself attests, in Physics 207al, that apeiron was predicated of finger rings, and we have seen in the writings of Melissos … that it was used to signify temporal endlessness, quite as much as spatial. Anaximander's arché, then, is not a basic "stuff" or material out of which things are composed, but the very ground of process, change, and coming-to-be. It is difficult to overemphasize this point, and it has generally been underemphasized by recent scholars who, though they recognize it, are still too much bound by the older views to embrace it with resolve. Perhaps Cornford makes it more forcefully than most others, in his Principium Sapientiae. The apeiron of Anaximander is not so much substance, element, or principle of being, as the ground of becoming, the motive principle of coming-to-be and perishing, and this is the justification for my translation of arché as "ground."

In Part I, it was argued, in support of the traditional view, that Theophrastus attributes the first use of the term, arché, not apeiron, to Anaximander. If we understand the apeiron as the ground of process, of becoming, then it is not surprising that he should adopt a word like arché, with its distinctively temporal connotation, as "beginning." It appears a matter of universal agreement that Anaximander could not have intended the word to have the Peripatetic sense of "principle," and it hardly seems worth while arguing the point. However, granted that arché for Anaximander does not mean "principle" in an Aristotelean sense, it is evident that it means more than merely a temporal beginning. Obviously, if a ring or a turning wheel is "endless," it also is without an absolute beginning; or, to put it more precisely, any arbitrarily-chosen end-point is also a beginning, and vice-versa. On the cyclical interpretation of nature, we cannot identify any event within nature which is its beginning. Hence, Anaximander's refusal to identify the apeiron with any of the "so-called elements." This, then, stands as a clarification of the reason for the indefiniteness of the apeiron.

Now, the arché cannot be the "first member" of a linear series, for it is not any "part" of the series, and this is why it is more than a mere temporal beginning. Anaximander's use of the term, arché, was intended, not to locate a starting point, but rather to call our attention to the essentially temporal nature of his worldview. It is the view of this paper that, although his arché is not an Aristotelean "principle," it is nevertheless a principle, and more than a beginning of a series.

An aspect of Anaximander's worldview which is too often overlooked by modern interpreters is the order exhibited by nature, which suggests a turning wheel, a circle. This order is explicitly named by the phrases, "according to what should be," and "each in the proper time;" it is not merely that nature is cyclical, but that the seasons follow always in the same order, taking turns one by one, and that this order is "as it should be." What calls for explanation, in Anaximander's mind, is not the existence of "things," but the sequential order of events. The give and take of "compensation and reparation for injustice" is not chaotic; injustice participates in the ordered whole on an equal footing with justice. Imbalance requires balance—the pendulum, to keep swinging, must go past balance to imbalance. Beyond justice and injustice there is a rational order. But what is this order? Is it a deity or an impersonal entity? Is it Heraclitus' reified logos? Is it "mind"? None of these possibilities touches on what Anaximander named apeiron, because they are all definite, and he insisted on its indefiniteness. Let us return to our understanding of apeiron as the "endlessness" of a ring, a sphere, a turning wheel. The endlessness is a characteristic of the whole ring, not of any part, in the same sense that infinity is the property of the total number-series, and not of any single number. What is apeiron, endless, is nature in its overarching, synthetic wholeness. Nature as a whole is arché, ground, in the sense that before there can be parts, there must be a whole; before we can talk about a segment of a ring, we must have the whole ring; it is from the whole that any analysis must begin—Anaximander is embracing the doctrine of the priority of the whole to the parts. The apeiron, then, is the ground, in the sense that by virtue of its wholeness and orderliness, there are parts, and they are parts of a process. It is by virtue of an underlying and all-embracing unity that the elements may commit injustices upon one another, and make repayment. Opposites must be opposites on some common ground, or they cannot be opposites, they cannot be in conflict.35 The apeiron, then, is the ground upon which the ceaseless conflict of the elements is permitted to take place; it is at once the possibility of their conflict, and that which unifies them. It is not the sum of all that is in nature, but it is the intelligible order of nature. Anaximander is without a doubt deeply imbedded in the synthetic tradition of philosophy, insofar as that division into "analytic" and "synthetic" has validity, and most of the misinterpretations of his thought are due to approaching him analytically. Understood in this way, as synthetic unity, we can understand why Anaximander attributes "surrounding and guiding all" to his arché.


1 Kahn, C. H., Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology, New York: Columbia University Press, 1958, p. 121.

2Ibid., loc. cit.; quoted from Aristotle, Metaphysics 3,1014,a6f.

3Ibid., pp. 181 ff.

4Ibid., p. 232.

5Ibid., p. 233.

6 Kirk, G. S., and Raven, J. E., The Presocratic Philosophers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966, p. 108.

7"Ibid., p. 112.

8Ibid., p. 114.

9Ibid., p. 111.

10 For examples, note: W. Windelband, History of Ancient Philosophy, and A History of Philosophy, vol. I, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1958: and also, Zeller's Die Philosophie der Griechen, 7th éd., Leipzig, 1923.

11 Kirk and Raven, op. cit., p. 109; Guthrie, W. K. C, A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962, p. 85; also Kahn, op. cit., p. 233.

12 The wording is Kahn's, he. cit.

13 Kirk and Raven, loc. cit.

14 Guthrie, op. cit., p. 84.

15 See Windelband, A History of Philosophy, vol. I, New York: Harper, 1958, p. 33.

16 Kirk and Raven, op. cit., p. 109, and Kahn, op. cit., pp. 232f.

17 Kirk and Raven, op. cit., pp. 109f.

18 Kirk and Raven, op. cit., pp. 113f.

19 Cornford, F. M., Principium Sapientiae, New York: Harper & Row, 1952, p. 159.

20 Seligman, P., The Apeiron of Anaximander, London: University of London Press, 1962, p. 24.

21Ibid., p. 29.

22 Simplicius, Physics 1121,5.

23 Aristotle, Physics 4,203b7.

24 Cf. Kirk and Raven, op. cit., pp. 114f.

25 Jaeger, W., Die Theologie der frühen Griechischen Denker, Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer Verlag, 1964, pp. 37f.

26Ibid., p. 38.

27 Kirk and Raven, op. cit., p. 108.

28Loc. cit.

29 Kahn, op. cit., p. 30.

30Loc. cit.

31 Cf. Cornford, op. cit., p. 168; Kirk and Raven, op. cit., p. 119, and Kahn, op. cit., p. 150, where the latter argues that Anaximander did not restrict the elements to four only.

32 Seligman, op. cit., p. 72.

33Ibid., p. 111.

34 Kirk and Raven, op. cit., p. 119.

35 Cf. Kirk and Raven, op. cit., pp. 118f.

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

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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 solstices the shadow is respectively shortest and longest; on the equinoxes, the sun rises and sets due east and west, and the path of the shadow during the course of the day is a straight line. (On other days it traces a curved arc of a hyperbola.) With appropriate markings a sundial will show both time of day and distance from the solstices and equinoxes.

5.1 attributes all this to Anaximander, but the information must be treated with caution. Since Herodotus says that the Greeks learned the use of the gnomon and the twelve parts of the day from the Babylonians,2 Anaximander may have introduced sundials to Greece (without inventing them), though some sources3 credit Thales with determining solstices, which may point to his knowing about the gnomon.

Anaximander is also said to have been the first to construct a sphere,4 i.e., a celestial globe or map of the heavens, but it is doubtful whether he did so.


Anaximander was the first Greek mapmaker. He "was the first to draw the inhabited world on a tablet"5—an achievement that, though doubtless crude, will have drawn on knowledge gained from his own travels (we have already seen him in Sparta; he also led an expedition to found a colony on the Black Sea), and also from consultations with merchants and other travelers. Although his map was improved by a fellow Milesian, Hecataeus, who was active around 500, in the midfifth century their work was ridiculed by Herodotus, who gives us an idea of the design of such early maps.

5.2 I laugh when I consider that before now many have drawn maps of the world, but no one has set it out in a reasonable way. They draw Okeanos [the river Ocean] flowing round the earth, which is round as if made by a compass, and they make Asia equal to Europe.

(Herodotus, Histories 4.36, not in DK)


Cicero tells of Anaximander warning the Spartans of an impending earthquake and advising them to abandon the city and sleep in the fields.6 It is debated whether Anaximander knew some lore, such as the behavior of animals, on which to base a prediction, or whether the story was fabricated to enhance his reputation.

Physical Theories


Anaximander's views on the ARCHÉ (starting point, basic principle, originating source) are preserved in three sources, each derived from Theophrastus.7 I combine them as follows.

5.3 Of those who declared that the ARCHE is one, moving and APEIRON, Anaximander … said that the APEIRON was the ARCHE and element of things that are, and he was the first to introduce this name for the ARCHE [i.e., he was the first to call the ARCHE APEIRON.8 (In addition he said that motion is eternal, in which it occurs that the heavens come to be.9) He says that the ARCHE is neither water nor any other of the things called elements, but some other nature which is APEIRON, out of which come to be all the heavens and the worlds in them. This is eternal and ageless and surrounds all the worlds.

According to this account, for Anaximander the APEIRON is the stuff of which all things are composed. On this influential view, Anaximander's APEIRON replaces Thaïes' water as the Aristotelian "material cause" of all things. I have already called this interpretation of Thaïes into question; as we will see, for Anaximander it cannot stand. Theophrastus says Anaximander was the first to use the word APEIRON in this context, and that the APEIRON differs from water, fire, and other familiar materials identified by others as the basic stuff, but he does not describe it except to say that it is eternal, ageless, and in motion, and that a plurality of heavens and worlds arise or are born out of it and are surrounded by it.

The word APEIRON is a compound of the prefix A-, meaning "not," and either the noun PEIRAR or PEIRAS, "limit, boundary," so that it means "unlimited, boundless, indefinite," or the root PER-, "through, beyond, forward," so that it means "unable to be got through," "what cannot be traversed from end to end." Although in Aristotle it can mean "infinite," in dealing with the presocratic period it is misleading to understand the word in this relatively technical sense.10

5.3 contains three hints about what APEIRON means for Anaximander. Since it surrounds the heavens and worlds, it is (1) indefinitely (though not necessarily infinitely) large, spatially unlimited. Since it is eternal and ageless, (2) it is temporally unlimited. Since it is no definite substance like water, it is (3) an indefinite kind of material. All three interpretations have ancient authority. The first two correspond to reasons Aristotle cites for believing that something exists which is APEIRON,11 while the third results from an argument for making the original substance APEIRON that Aristotle cites and later writers attribute to Anaximander:

5.4 The infinite [APEIRON] body cannot be one and simple … if it is conceived, as some say, as that which is aside from the elements, and from which they generate the elements…. For some make the infinite this [i.e., something aside from the elements], rather than air or water, to keep the others from being destroyed by the one of them that is infinite. For they contain oppositions with regard to one another, for example, air is cold, water wet, fire hot. If any one of them were infinite, the rest would already have been destroyed. But as it is, they declare that the thing from which all come into being is different

(Aristotle, Physics 3.3 204b22-29 = DK 12A16)

If the Aristotelian ideas (especially the concept of elements and the identification of air, etc., as elements and the use of APEIRON in the sense of "infinite") are discounted, 5.4 may record Anaximander's own proof that the originative material differs from any definite substance. Water and other familiar materials possess definite properties, yet there are things that lack any given property and some with opposite properties. But if everything is made of or arose from water, everything must have the properties of water. Further, since, as Anaximander thinks, opposites conflict with one another, an unlimited amount of a material with definite characteristics would long since have destroyed things with opposite characteristics (even supposing that they existed in the first place), swamping them by the vastly larger quantity of their opposites. Thus Thaïes is refuted, whether he held that all things are composed of water or that all things have their ultimate origin in water.

This is a powerful argument for an originative substance with no definite characteristics. The APEIRON, then, is neither water nor fire, neither hot nor cold, nor heavy nor light, nor wet nor dry, nor light nor dark. As the ultimate source of all the things and all the characteristics in the world, it can be none of those things, can have none of those characteristics. It is thus difficult to describe. (Ancient complaints that he failed to specify what kind of material the APEIRON is are off the mark, as is Aristotle's belief that it is a substance of a definite kind, intermediate between fire and air, or between air and water.) When Anaximander says it is eternal, ageless, in motion, and that it surrounds and is the source of everything else, he may be describing it as fully as his language and concepts permitted.

Since it is eternal and in motion, the APEIRON possesses characteristics which, as we saw in discussing Thaïes, qualify it as divine.

5.5 This does not have an ARCHE, but this seems to be the ARCHE of the rest, and to contain all things and steer all things,12 as all declare who do not fashion other causes aside from the infinite … and this is divine. For it is deathless and indestructible, as Anaximander says and most of the natural philosophers.

(Aristotle, Physics 3.4 203b 10-15 = DK 12A15)

Being divine, immortal, and in motion, it is alive, like Thaïes' water, and thus capable of generating a (living) world. What kind of motion does it have? Three answers given by modern scholars are that it has a vortex motion like a whirlpool, in which the heavier parts move to the center and the lighter to the edge, that it has a circular motion, and that its motion is "shaking and sifting as in a sieve."13 None of these interpretations has substantial support, and it is best not to press the question. If the APEIRON had a definite type of motion, an analogous argument to the one above would apply: how could all the different kinds of motion we observe have arisen out of a primordial substance endowed with only one specific kind of movement? It is best to suppose that Anaximander thought the APEIRON was in motion because otherwise no change could occur and the world could never have originated, but that he said nothing definite about the nature of the motion.

Cosmogony: The Origin of the World

For Anaximander the existence and the interaction of opposites stand in need of explanation. This outlook is intelligible as a reaction to Thaïes' problem of accounting for the existence of fire given the priority of water. Anaximander believes that the opposites hot and cold are equally important in the structure and operation of the world and accordingly gives them a prominent position in his cosmogony.

5.6 He declares that what arose from the eternal and is productive of [or, capable of giving birth to] hot and cold was separated off at the coming to be of this KOSMOS, and a kind of sphere of flame from this grew around the dark mist14 about the earth like bark about a tree. When it was broken off and enclosed in certain circles, the sun, moon and stars came to be.

(pseudo-Plutarch, Stromata 2 = DK 12A10) (continuation of 5.11)

Since APEIRON is neither hot nor cold, it does not favor either opposite over the other, but how can something neither hot nor cold generate both opposites? Anaximander's solution is to declare that hot and cold arose from something capable of giving birth to hot and cold, and this thing is "separated off from the APEIRON. Neither hot nor cold will overwhelm the other since they are created at the same time and with equal power.

Other problems arise regarding the thing that generates hot and cold. It arises from the undifferentiated, uniform mass of the APEIRON through "separating off," a process found elsewhere in Anaximander's system, in which apparently part of an existing thing is isolated so as to take on an identity separate from the original thing, and as such behave differently from the thing from which it arose. But (perhaps because Anaximander said little about these crucial issues) we have no clues about how "separating off takes place, what the thing is that produces hot and cold, or how it produces them.15

5.6 identifies several stages in the formation of the world. First there is the APEIRON, referred to here as "the eternal." From the APEIRON, through the process of "separating off," arises something capable of giving birth to hot and cold. The hot and cold which arise from this are described concretely as flame and dark mist. The flame is a spherical shell that tightly encloses the mist "as the bark encloses a tree" (a simile possibly due to Anaximander himself). Since at this stage there are only two things, fire and mist, corresponding to hot and cold, the mention of earth refers to a later stage of differentiation which may occur simultaneously with the breakup of the sphere of flame into circles to make the sun, moon, and stars (cf. 5.8).

Anaximander's approach to his fundamental problem, which can be rephrased as "How does the determinate diversity of the world come out of the indeterminate uniformity of the APEIRON?" is already clear. The APEIRON appears only at the beginning of the process; afterwards things take their own course. The world's diversity is due not to the intervention of Olympian gods but to a small number of processes such as differentiation of one thing into many and "separation off of one thing from another. The dark mist is differentiated into the air we breathe and the earth we stand on, which was originally moist. Its currently dry state is due to a further process of differentiation.

5.7 They claim that at first all the region about the earth is wet. When it is dried by the sun, that which evaporated causes winds and turnings of the sun and moon, and the remainder is sea. For this reason they believe that it is being dried and becoming smaller and finally it will some day be dry.

(Aristotle, Meteorologica 2.1 353b6-11 = DK 12A27)

"Separating off is invoked again to account for the breakup of the sphere of flame to form the heavenly bodies (5.8).

Despite Anaximander's unclarity on some important points, his overall picture is impressive, as is his understanding of the logical requirements of generating a complex world out of a simple originative material.

Cosmology: The Articulation of the World

5.8 The stars come to be as a circle of fire separated off from the fire in the KOSMOS and enclosed by dark mist. There are vents, certain tube-like passages at which the stars appear. For this reason, eclipses occur when the vents are blocked. The moon appears sometimes waxing sometimes waning as the passages are blocked or opened. The circle of the sun is twenty-seven times and that of the moon <18 times>, and the sun is highest, and the circles of the fixed stars are lowest.

(Hippolytus, Refutation 1.6.4-5 = DK 12A11) (continuation of 5.12)

5.9 Anaximander says that the sun is equal to the earth, and the circle where it has its vent and on which it is carried is twenty-seven times the size of the earth.

(Aetius 2.21.1 = DK 12A21)

5.10 Anaximander says that the stars are borne by the circles and spheres on which each one goes.

(Aetius 2.16.5 = DK 12A18)

5.11 He says that the earth is cylindrical in shape, and its depth is one-third its breadth.

(pseudo-Plutarch, Stromata 2 = DK 12A10)

5.12 The earth's shape is curved, round, like a stone column. We walk on one of the surfaces and the other one is set opposite.

(Hippolytus, Refutation 1.6.3 = DK 12A11)

There are many interesting points here. First, there is no appearance of mythology or mention of the traditional divinities. Second, the heavenly bodies are made of fire, a substance familiar from human experience. Third, Anaximander boldly measures the size of the universe and adopts a terrestrial standard to measure it. Fourth, he assumes that the sizes and distances of the earth and heavenly bodies are related by simple proportions, with emphasis on the number three. Fifth, he assumes that the KOSMOS has a simple geometrical structure. Sixth, different phenomena (eclipses, phases of the moon) are due to a single mechanism.

Anaximander's universe has a simple symmetric structure. At the center is the earth, a cylinder one-third as high as it is broad. We live on one of the flat surfaces. Around the cylinder are rings of fire surrounded by mist which makes them invisible except where a hole in the mist lets the fire shine through. The stars are closest to the earth, the sun is farthest, with the moon in between. (Anaximander may have reasoned that since fire rises upwards, the purest fire must be furthest from the earth; the sun's brightness and heat are greatest, so the sun is made of the purest fire and thus is furthest from the earth. By similar reasoning the feeble light of the stars places them closest.) The sun is the same size as the earth. (Quite possibly he held that the moon has this size too; sun and moon appear roughly the same size in the sky.) Approximately once a day each star is carried round its circular path: either the mist together with the hole moves round the ring of fire, or the mist, hole, and fire all rotate together. The diameter of the moon's circle is eighteen times the size of the earth, that of the sun's is twenty-seven times.16 These figures make it likely that the distance of the stars from the earth was put at nine times the earth's size. Anaximander declares that wind is the cause of the sun's and moon's oblique paths relative to the stars, which shows that he knew of the obliquity of the ecliptic. As the sun and moon are different distances from the earth, their orbits can be oblique without colliding with each other or with the stars. The circles of the stars do not intersect, so there is no possibility of collision.17

Anaximander might have explained how the sun and moon can be seen through the mist which surrounds the stars by pointing out that mist can render some things invisible and yet not others. It can hide a nearby object from view while permitting a bright light much farther away to be seen clearly.

Anaximander holds that the earth is immobile at the center of the universe, a view shared by most of his successors18 until Copernicus. Unusual is the sophisticated argument on which he bases this belief.

5.13 Some, like Anaximander … declare that the earth is at rest on account of its similarity. For it is no more fitting for what is established at the center and equally related to the extremes to move up rather than down or sideways. And it is impossible for it to make a move simultaneously in opposite directions. Therefore, it is at rest of necessity.

(Aristotle, On the Heaven 2.13 295bl 1-16 = DK 12A26)

This too is to be understood as a criticism of Thaïes, who had the earth resting on water…. What, then, did the water rest on? As long as one thing needs to be supported by another, there is no end. Anaximander cuts off this infinite regress at the start with the first known application of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, according to which, in Leibniz' formulation, "no fact can be real or existent … unless it has a sufficient reason why it should be thus and not otherwise."19 In the present case, Anaximander reasons that the earth is at rest since its "equal relation to the extremes" implies that there is no sufficient reason for it to move in one direction rather than any other.

Further, the presuppositions underlying this argument have great methodological interest. On the basis of the senses we believe that all things move downwards and also that the earth, on which we stand, is at rest. Anaximander accepts the latter of these conflicting judgments and rejects the former as applying to the earth, and does so on the basis of symmetry and geometrical structure. On this account of his reasoning, Anaximander is intolerant of contradiction, adopts a critical stance towards sensory information, is ready to reject some sense-based judgments in favor of others, and appeals to mathematical and logical considerations in constructing his theory.

Anaximander is interested in meteorological as well as astronomical phenomena and sees no distinction between the two, but accounts for both by the same processes:

5.14 Winds occur when the finest vapors of dark mist are separated off and, while in motion, are gathered together. Rain occurs from the vapor arising from the things beneath the sun. Lighting occurs whenever wind escapes and parts the clouds.

(Hippolytus, Refutation 1.6.7 = DK 12A11)

5.15 [Concerning thunder, lightning, thunderbolts, waterspouts and hurricanes] Anaximander says that all these result from wind. For whenever it [wind] is enclosed in a thick cloud and forcibly escapes by its fineness and lightness, then the breaking creates the noise and the splitting creates the flash, in contrast with the blackness of the cloud.

(Aetius 3.3.1 = DK 12A23)

Once again "separating off is responsible for generation. The finest vapors become wind, leaving the thicker remains to become cloud. This time "separating off originates change not only in what is separated off but also in the remainder. The resemblance between this process and that which generates the sea and winds at the beginning of the world (5.7) makes it likely that that process, too, occurs through "separating off."

Anaximander's belief that thunder and lightning result from wind being enclosed in cloud and then breaking out is reminiscent of his account of the origin of the heavenly bodies. (If, as seems likely, lightning is fire bursting out from the cloud, it resembles the celestial bodies, which are fire surrounded by dark mist.)

The passages above make it clear that for Anaximander the world arose from the same processes that maintain it. He therefore deserves the title of the first uniformitarian, as the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century geologists were called who held that processes found today, such as erosion and volcanic activity, are responsible for the geological features of the earth.

Anaximander used his understanding of present-day phenomena to project future events (5.7). His belief that the earth is drying up could well have been based on the silting up of the harbor of Miletus.20

Anaximander also has an account of the origin of living creatures, including humans.

5.16 Anaximander says that the first animals were produced in moisture, enclosed in thorny barks. When their age increased they came out onto the drier part, their bark broke off, and they lived a different mode of life for a short time.

(Aetius 5.19.4 = DK 12A30)

5.17 He also declares that in the beginning humans were born from other kinds of animals, since other animals quickly manage on their own, and humans alone require lengthy nursing. For this reason, in the beginning they would not have been preserved if they had been like this.

(pseudo-Plutarch, Stromata 2 = DK 12A10) (continuation of 5.6)

5.18 Anaximander … believed that there arose from heated water and earth either fish or animals very like fish. In these humans grew and were kept inside as embryos up to puberty. Then finally they burst and men and women came forth already able to nourish themselves.

(Censorinus, On the Day of Birth 4.7 = DK 12A30)

The origin of animals is explained similarly to the origin of the universe and meteorological events; more complex things arise out of simpler things, and new things come into existence after being enclosed tightly in something else and breaking out of the container.

The distinction we feel between living animals and inanimate matter (such as heated water) is inappropriately applied to Anaximander, whose originative material is in some sense alive…, so that all its products, including earth and water, inherit its vital force. Animals and humans, with a greater concentration of vitality, differ in degree, not in kind, from the rest of theKOSMOS.

Particularly striking is Anaximander's recognition and solution of a problem arising from the helplessness of human infants. If the first humans came into this world as babies, they could not have lasted long enough to propagate the race. How, then, did they come into being? This "first generation problem" can be answered by positing a god who creates adult humans or by asserting that the world and the human race have always been in existence. However, both these solutions conflict with basic features of Anaximander's system. Accordingly, he takes an original and ingenious approach, having the first humans nurtured in other animals until self-sustaining.

For his claims that animals arose in the sea before they emerged to live on dry land and that humans developed from fish, and for recognizing the need for a different original form for humans and the difficulties of adapting to different habitats (perhaps implicit in the short lives of the animals who first moved onto dry land), Anaximander is sometimes called the father of evolution. This interpretation is wrong, however, since he says nothing about the evolution of species. His problem of how to account for the first generation of each kind of animal, to get each kind of animal established once and for all, is different from Darwin's. Moreover, he makes no mention of such Darwinian mechanisms as natural selection.

Anaximander's Fragment

How the World Works

Aside from a few words in the testimonia that have an early ring, all that survives of Anaximander's writings is one fragment which seems to have been quoted out of its correct context.

5.19 The things that are perish into the things out of which they come to be, according to necessity, for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice in accordance with the ordering of time, as he says in rather poetical language.

(Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle's Physics 24.18-21 = DK 12B1 + A9)

The last words of 5.19 show that some of the preceding is in Anaximander's own words, but the extent of the fragment is uncertain.21 I find it likely that the words from "according to necessity" to the end are Anaximander's and that the preceding words paraphrase his thought. We have a picture of a world full of change—things coming to be and in turn being destroyed. These changes are ordered in two ways: (1) when a thing (A) is destroyed A turns into something definite—the same sort of thing that perished when A came to be; (2) each thing has a determinate time span. In addition, comingsto-be and destructions are acts of injustice that one thing (A) commits against another (B) and for which A is compelled to make restitution to B.

The process here described seems to have nothing to do with the APEIRON but can easily apply to the opposites hot and cold, which we have seen are important in the beginning of the world and which are also important in the present state of things. The alternation of the seasons is an obvious case in point. In the region of Miletus it is reasonable to say that hot prevails in summer, cold prevails in winter, and spring and fall mark an even balance between hot and cold. When summer comes, hot commits injustice by driving out cold and occupying some of its territory. In due time hot must pay a penalty in which cold is recompensed for this injustice first by a return to an even balance (in the fall) and then by a period in which cold drives out hot (winter). But now cold has committed injustice against hot, and so must make recompense in turn. Hence there occurs an endless cycle of regular alternation between states where first one and then the other opposite dominates.

Deployment of other pairs of opposites such as wet and dry, light and dark, rare and dense, either singly or in combination, can account for many features of the world. The change of the seasons is also marked by orderly alternation between wet and dry, and between light and dark (reflecting the longer period of daylight in summer). Day and night can be analyzed in terms of light and dark; a more detailed account will also bring in hot and cold. The alternation of rare and dense can perhaps be seen in successive periods of wind ("the finest vapors") and cloudy or stormy weather ("thick cloud"). There is also a broad contrast between the sun as hot, dry, light, rare, and at the edge of the universe, and the earth (together with the sea) which is cold, wet, dark, dense, and at the center. Moreover weather can be seen as the interplay of these two groups of opposites.

If the argument in 5.7 that the world is drying up implies that when it is completely dry it will stay that way forever or cease to exist, it cannot agree with the fragment. Anaximander should hold instead that corresponding to the present period of increasing dryness there have been and will again be periods of becoming wetter,22 and he could have found mythological evidence that the world is inundated from time to time.23

This account of the fragment focuses on the opposites, which have special importance for Anaximander, but the fragment may be meant to describe other "things that are" as well, for example, animals and humans (along the general lines of "ashes to ashes and dust to dust"). However, Anaximander recognized that there are difficulties in extending it to some entities….

The fragment occupies an important place in the history of philosophy and science. It contains a general account that applies to a wide variety of phenomena. It contains the germs of the ideas of the conservation of matter and of a dynamic equilibrium in which opposed principles alternately preponderate over one another in such regularly repeated cycles as we find, for example, in a swinging pendulum and in a spring with a weight attached to it moving indefinitely up and down. Although the prevalence of hot over cold or of cold over hot changes from time to time, the system has an overall stability that continues without external interference. The fragment also contains the beginning of the idea of a law of nature which holds inevitably ("according to necessity") and operates uniformly and impersonally.

A notable feature of the fragment is its legal language: "pay penalty and retribution," "injustice," and "the ordering of time" (as if time plays the role of a judge assessing penalties in criminal trials). The legal language may strike us as no more than a colorful metaphor, but that response reveals our distance from Anaximander. To assume that it is a metaphor presupposes a radical difference between the world of nature (where injustice and the like are not really found) and the world of humans (where they are): humankind is somehow distinct from nature, and the two realms operate according to different principles. This interpretation, though congenial to those who hold that social, moral, and evaluative language applies only in the human sphere, is inappropriate for Anaximander and other presocratics, who place humans squarely in the natural world. The injustice which hot commits on cold is the same kind as that which a robber commits on a victim—taking something which is by right not its own—and the penalty assessed by a judge according to the law is of the same sort as that assessed by time according to necessity—restoration of what was taken and payment of an additional amount as a fine. In Greek, DIKE ("justice") and its opposite have descrip tive as well as evaluative force. Descriptively, injustice is taking something not one's own; evaluatively it is bad. This evaluation applies to all acts that, descriptively, are unjust, regardless of the nature of the agent. Further, the idea that justice or retribution comes inevitably accords with a view of justice expressed by other authors of the Archaic period,24 and the notion that the cosmic principle of justice is fair to the rival contenders is doubtless due to the ideal of justice on which the legal system known to Anaximander was based.

All Greek philosophers assume that the world we perceive is a world of change and motion. Anaximander expresses this idea in describing the world as the scene of opposites in a continuous conflict, which is governed by necessity and justice. Although hot and cold are the only opposites the sources mention, the fragment equally well accounts for the interaction of others. As other pairs of opposites are prominent in Pythagoras and Heraclitus, it would be excessively cautious to hold that Anaximander had only the one pair in mind.

We tend to think of opposites like hot and cold as qualities which belong to substances. There is something that is hot or cold—food, for example. Since "hot" sounds odd as a grammatical subject or object, let alone as an agent, we feel that the assertion "hot commits injustice against cold" requires explanation. In thinking this way, we are unconsciously following Aristotle, who was the first to distinguish clearly between qualities and substances and to say that (except in special contexts) substances are the only proper subjects of discourse. As he points out,25 one quality can be opposite to another quality, but substances do not have opposites. Hot is the opposite of cold, but fire is not the opposite of water. Calling them opposites is just shorthand for saying that they have opposite qualities. Again, to apply this analysis to Anaximander would distort his thought. Before Aristotle, hot food might have been conceived in various ways. For example, the hot might have been thought a part of the food, or something in the food.26 Since fire is preeminently hot, it might have been thought to have a special relation to the hot. Anaximander may simply have identified fire as the hot and (in the early stage of his cosmogony) identified dark mist as the cold, or he may not have spoken of the hot and the cold at all, only of their concrete embodiments fire and mist. Similarly, he may have conceived of the war between opposites not primarily in terms of qualities, but in terms of their manifestations: summer and winter, day and night, drought and flood, etc.

Finally, the fragment apparently describes the world around us as a stable, ongoing system that maintains itself without any limit in time. Summer and winter, it suggests, will alternate forever. The APEIRON may have acted only once, at the beginning of the world; once generated, the world went on without further depen dence on it. Alternatively, the APEIRON may play an ongoing role in the world, if the governing or "steering" function 5.5 refers to is correctly assigned to it. In that case, there will be some link between the APEIRON and the necessity mentioned in the fragment. In any case, Anaximander focuses on the world around him. He describes its origin (perhaps because Thaïes had given such an account, or because Hesiod had done so, or because of a more widespread Greek concern with origins and parentage) but not its destruction. Rather, on the present interpretation, the fragment suggests that the world will never be destroyed.

This interpretation of the fragment leaves some problems. A created but indestructible KOSMOS requires a sharp distinction between the one-time cosmogonie process and the ever-repeating processes of the developed world, a distinction which sits uneasily with the uniformities Anaximander posits between these two stages of the history of the universe. It thus requires a conspicuous exception to the symmetry which is so prominent in his accounts of cosmic phenom ena. It also requires that the fragment's account of "things that are" fail to apply to such notable things as the earth, sun, and other members of the KOSMOS that form the setting in which the regular changes take place.

Some of these problems can be solved by interpreting the fragment to cover the origin and destruction of the world as well as of things in the world, but at the price of abandoning the long-term stability the fragment favors and of leaving it unclear why the world will be destroyed. This dissatisfying situation may be due to gaps in the source material or to Anaximander himself, who probably did not ask the same questions modern interpreters do and whose demands for coherence and standards of what counts as a satisfactory account were surely different from ours.


1 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers 2.2 (= [H. Diels and W. Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 6th ed., Berlin, 1951; hereafter DK] 12A1).

2 Herodotus, Histories 2.109 (= DK 12A4).

3 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers 1.23 (= DK 11A1) and Dercyllides, cited in Theon of Smyrna, p. 198, 14 (Hiller) (= DK 12A26).

4 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers 2.2 (= DK 12A1).

5 Agathemerus 1.1 (= DK 12A6).

6 Cicero, On Divination 1.50.112 (= DK 12A5a).

7 Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle's Physics 24.13-18 (= DK 12A9); Hippolytus, Refutation 1.6.1-2 (= DK 12A11); pseudo-Plutarch, Stromata 2 (= DK 12A10).

8 This phrase is also translated "he was the first to introduce this very term of ARCHE," i.e., the first to use the term "ARCHE" itself. Simplicius makes this point at Commentary on Aristotle's Physics 150.22-25 (not in DK), and he may have meant to make it in the current passage (ibid., 24.13-18) too, but the translation given in the text best suits the Greek of the current passage.

9 This obscure sentence probably means that the heavens come to be in the APEIRON by means of its eternal movement.

10 In this [article] I usually translate APEIRON as "unlimited," except for passages from Aristotle and later sources (such as 5.4) in which "infinite" seems appropriate.

11 Aristotle, Physics 3.4 203b23-26, b16-17.

12 It is tempting to add "governing" or "steering" all things to the list of the APEIRON'S attributes given above, but it is not certain from 5.5 that Aristotle has Anaximander in mind when he uses this word, which he may have taken from other early philosophers, such as Heraclitus…, Parmenides…, Diogenes of Apollonia….

13 J. Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, 4th ed. (London, 1930), p. 61.

14 AER, the Greek word translated here as "dark mist," is discussed below….

15 The alternate translation in 5.6, "capable of giving birth," has led some to think that hot and cold were produced through some sort of biological process; but biological processes are inexplicable at this primitive stage of the world. At any rate, the word (which in any case was not Anaximander's) can mean "productive" without any biological overtones.

16 In fact the value of eighteen times for the moon is not attested. Aetius gives the value of twenty-eight times for the sun (2.20.1 = DK 12A21) and nineteen times for the moon (2.25.1 = DK 12A22), figures which may be due to an attempt to refine the system to take into account the thickness of the sun and moon.

17 Whether Anaximander had anything to say about the motions of the planets (which were well known to the Babylonians) is unknown. Planetary motions could have raised problems for his simple model.

18 Notable exceptions for our purposes are some Pythagoreans and the Atomists.

19 Leibniz, Monadology, sec. 32. Aristotle criticizes Anaximander's argument from the standpoint of Aristotelian physics at On the Heaven 2.13 295b16-296a22 (not in DK), comparing it to "a hair, which, it is said, however great the tension, will not break under it, if it is evenly distributed, or the man who, being extremely hungry and thirsty, and both equally, is equidistant from food and drink, and therefore bound to stay where he is" (b30-33).

20 This process, which is due to alluvial deposits of the river Meander at whose mouth the city was situated, has continued to the present, advancing the shoreline so far that the Aegean cannot now be seen from the site of ancient Miletus.

21 For discussion, see C. Kahn, Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology (New York, 1960), pp. 168-78, 193-96; and … G. Kirk, "Some Problems in Anaximander," Classical Quarterly 5 (1955):22-38; reprinted in Studies in Presocratic Philosophy, vol. 1, ed. D. Furley and R. Allen (London, 1960), pp. 323-49.

22 Xenophanes held a similar belief….

23 The myth of Deucalion's flood (in ways comparable to Noah's flood), which Aristotle accepted as based on fact (Meteorologica 1.14 352a32-35), is the most obvious source.

24 For example, Hesiod, Works and Days, lines 213-73, 280-85, 320-34….

25 Aristotle, Categories 5 3b24-25, 8 10b12-15.

26 Plato develops these ideas in connection with his theory of Ideas (Phaedo 96-107). They form an important part of the background of his treatment of the differences between statements like "the food is hot" and those like "the food is [identical with the] hot" (Sophist 250-57).


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Further Reading