Thales of Miletus is traditionally credited with having been the first philosopher because he was the first to put forward a nonmythological account of the origin and nature of things. However, we know no more of his views than that he claimed that all things originated from water, and it is unlikely that he worked out this thesis in detail. It remained for his “pupil and successor” Anaximander to produce the first comprehensive natural philosophy, a system of astonishing acumen and sophistication.

Anaximander conceived his problem to be that of explaining how the present constitution of the universe developed out of a primordial condition of simplicity. Apparently he did not consider the possibility that things had always been much the same. To this extent, he inherited the notion of evolution from Near Eastern mythologies, which all told of how the world had been fashioned out of a preexisting “chaos” or homogeneous matter, usually water. However, in rejecting divine personal agency and in substituting a (more or less) continuous process for separate acts of creation, Anaximander radically transformed the idea.

The Boundless

Anaximander postulated an undifferentiated stuff out of which the world arose, which he called the Boundless, or apeiron. This stuff was not any of the traditional elements, earth, air (mist), fire, and water, but “something intermediate.” Because it was no more wet than dry and no more hot than cold, it was presumably damp and tepid. In opposition to Thales, who had held the basic stuff to be water, Anaximander conceived it as neutral, on the ground that the elements “are in opposition to one another—air is cold, water moist, fire hot—and therefore, if any one of them were infinite, the rest would have ceased to be by this time.” This is the first recorded philosophical argument, a criticism of a predecessor’s view supported by an appeal to reason rather than to revelation or to a special mode of insight.

The Boundless was supposed to be infinite in extent and “ageless and deathless,” that is, infinite in time. Anaximander called it “divine” but only because of its agelessness and deathlessness; he did not attribute to it any characteristics of personality or (as far as we know) intelligent consciousness.

The Boundless was also said to “encompass all the worlds,” implying an infinite or at least indefinitely large number of individual worlds like the one we inhabit. The initial step in the generation of a world occurs when as a result of its eternal motion (we are not told how) “something capable of begetting hot and cold out of the eternal is separated off.” The hot and the cold (conceived as things, not as qualities of a substance) separate, and at the same time, a motion in rotation is imparted to them. The hot, which is fire, encircles—”like the bark around a tree”—the cold, which contains earth, mist, and water. In due course, earth, mist, and water separate, the earth remaining at the center of the whirl, the water collecting in a ring around the earth, which is in turn enclosed in a circle of mist. The fire around the mist and water heats them until pressure builds up and, combined with the centrifugal force of the whirl, results in a cosmic explosion. The mist causes the fire to be contained in gigantic hoops, resembling inner tubes, that circle around the earth.

Anaximander’s Cosmology

The earth in Anaximander’s cosmology is shaped like a drum, the diameter being three times as great as the depth. Human beings live on one of the flat surfaces. Though supported by nothing, the earth remains at the center “because of its equal distance from everything.” The surface of the earth, which was at first entirely submerged, is now partly dry, and it keeps getting drier through continued evaporation. “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.”

Fire-filled hoops of mist, at distances of eighteen and twenty-seven earth-radii, surround the earth and revolve around it. Each of these hoops has on its inner side one hole (“like the nozzle of a bellows,” or like the valve-hole of an inner tube) through which the fire shines. The hoop eighteen earth-radii out is the Moon; the outermost is the Sun. The diameter of the Sun—that is, of the opening in the sun-hoop—is as great as that of Earth. Eclipses and the Moon’s phases are explained as obstructions over the holes. (We are not told what blocks them.) The stars are the innermost hoops, presumably at a distance of nine earth-radii from the earth. Anaximander would understandably infer that they were the hoops nearest us, for otherwise the hoops of Sun and Moon ought to appear as black bands in the night sky; but these thin, faint star-hoops would not interfere with the greater lights of the Sun and Moon....

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A Scientific Thinker

If this conjectural restoration of Anaximander’s reasoning is correct, then Anaximander grasped the essential nature of theoretical explanation: of a law or natural regularity holding universally (in this instance, gravitation) and accounting for or generalized from observation (falling bodies on the earth’s surface), leading to the hypothesis of unobserved entities (the hoops) in order to render other observed phenomena (the Sun and Moon not falling) consistent with the law. This is nine-tenths of “scientific method” as now understood. Had he devised (or admitted the necessity of) some test of the hoop hypothesis, he would have had the other tenth. Even if he did not reason in this way, it seems that the hoops must have played this role of hypothetical entities in respect to some general theory, for there was no traditional or mythological incentive for supposing them. In consequence, the scientific nature of Anaximander’s thought is established.

An Evolutionary Theory

The power and originality of Anaximander’s thought are displayed preeminently in his biology. Mythmaking, even when it assumed a development of the cosmos as a whole, always conceived of animals, including humans, as having appeared on the scene from nowhere, in their latter-day forms, either as special creations of the gods or in some unexplained manner. In sharp contrast to this sort of facile storytelling, Anaximander worked out a theory of animal evolution based on the ideas of adaptation to environment and survival of the fittest.

His starting point was the observation 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.” That is to say, a theory of the world that in general is evolutionary is incompatible with the human species having appeared all at once (possibly as babies), for if it had, the species could never have survived in the “state of nature.” It follows that animals whose young are long immature must be the products of gradual development (presumably including socialization) from some other kind of life not so ill-fitted for the world.

Furthermore, the theory that in the beginning there had been no dry land suggested, if it did not require, that all life originated in the sea. Hence “living creatures arose from the moist element as it was evaporated by the sun.” The transition from marine to terrestrial life occurred thus: “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.” As for human beings, they too were “like other animals, namely fish, in the beginning. . . . At first human beings arose in the inside of fishes, and after having been reared like sharks, and become capable of protecting themselves, they were finally cast ashore and took to land.” The mention of sharks was not fanciful but based on the observation that certain sharks of the eastern Mediterranean hatch their eggs inside their bodies, which makes them seem akin to mammals.

The Father of Scientific Rationalism

Anaximander wrote a book, the Western world’s first scientific treatise, of which one sentence, or part of a sentence, has been preserved: Things return to their origins “as is ordained; for they give satisfaction and reparation to one another for their injustice according to the ordering of time.” It is clear from this that Anaximander’s philosophy made use of the concept of justice, pervasive in Greek thought, according to which there is an impersonal and inexorable force in nature charged with keeping things balanced. In society and in the world at large, every person, state, and element has its allotted portion, and “injustice,” the encroachment of anything beyond its bounds, is followed automatically and surely by restorative retribution. The notion lies at the root both of Greek moral ideas and the conception of “laws of nature”; in the fragment of Anaximander it is evidently being developed in the direction of the latter. It would be risky to infer anything more as to Anaximander’s worldview from this half sentence. In particular, it by no means shows that Anaximander viewed the universe as “inherently moral” in any sense that we would naturally give to that expression.

Even allowing for the fact that in Greek and other Near Eastern thought before the sixth century b.c.e. there existed a discernible tendency toward “rationalization” of traditional myths, and that the myths themselves contained...

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Additional Reading

Barnes, Jonathan. The Presocratic Philosophers. London: Routledge, 1993. This book includes a chapter on Anaximander, focusing on his evolutionary theory, his account of the stability of the earth, and his view of the apeiron, or the Boundless.

Brumbaugh, Robert S. The Philosophers of Greece. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1964. This volume contains a short chapter on Anaximander’s life and accomplishments. Emphasizes cartography and engineering. Includes a reproduction of the first map designed by Anaximander.

Burnet, John. Early Greek Philosophy....

(The entire section is 423 words.)