Anaximenes of Miletus Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Areas of Achievement: Philosophy and science Greek philosopher{$I[g]Greece;Anaximenes}{$I[g]Asia Minor;Anaximenes} Anaximenes posited the first theory to explain a single substance capable of changing its form and the first to attribute the nature of matter entirely to physical rather than moral laws.

Early Life

The writings of Anaximenes (an-ak-SIHM-uh-neez) of Miletus no longer exist. Thus, knowledge of Anaximenes is based on a few statements made by Aristotle and later writers on the history of Greek philosophy, some of whom quote earlier writers whose work is now lost. A few of these earlier writers show that they had access to Anaximenes’ writings, but it is difficult to determine the veracity of any of their statements. Thus, scholars have almost no reliable information about Anaximenes’ life; not even his dates can be accurately ascertained, and only the most general of assumptions can be made. These biographical assumptions are usually applied to Thales and Anaximander as well as Anaximenes. These men were the most famous thinkers from Miletus, then the largest and most prosperous Greek city on the west coast of Asia Minor.

While they are known only for their philosophical work, it is believed that all three were financially secure and that philosophical thought was for them an avocation. Apparently, Anaximenes was the youngest of the three. Some sources suggest that Anaximenes was the pupil of Anaximander, while others suggest that he was a fellow student and friend. Most scholars place the work of Anaximenes after the fall of Sardis to Cyrus the Great (c. 545 b.c.e.) and before the fall of Miletus (494 b.c.e.).

Life’s Work

Anaximenes’ work must be viewed against the background of contemporary Miletus and the work of his predecessors. Miletus in the sixth century was a flourishing center located between the eastern kingdoms and the mainland of Greece. The city was ruled by a ruthless tyrant, Thrasybulus, whose method of control was to do away with anyone who appeared threatening.

It has been suggested that the emergence of tyranny in Miletus was the crucial factor in the emergence of philosophy, that the need to overthrow the existing myth-centered system of values was behind philosophical speculation. It has also been said that the emergence of philosophy coincides with the emergence of participatory forms of government, the development of written codes of law, and the expansion of the role of nonaristocrats in government through oratory, which encouraged logical argument and objective reasoning. As attractive as these theories may be, they overlook the fact that Miletus itself was under the rule of a tyrant who discouraged participatory democracy absolutely.

It seems more logical to conclude that philosophy became a means of escaping the brutality of the immediate, political world. Travel brought Milesians in contact with Egypt and Phoenicia—and eventually Mesopotamia. Milesians developed an independence of thought that led them to use their knowledge of the pragmatic world gained through observation to see the contradictions in the mythologies of different peoples and to make the leap to a nonmythological explanation of causation and the nature of matter.

The work of Anaximenes was summarized in a single book whose title is unknown. In the fourth century, Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor, is said to have noted its “simple and economical Ionic style.” One supposes that this comment refers to the shift from writing in poetry to writing in prose. Clearly, Anaximenes was more concerned with content than with the conventions of poetical expression.

Anaximenes wrote that “air” was the original substance of...

(The entire section is 1550 words.)