3. Anaximander
From Pre-Socratic Philosophers (1958)

Anaximander (born about 610 B.C.) was the first of the Greeks to write a book in prose. This book, though now lost, was available for a time to later philosophers. It is quite frequently referred to and its actual language is sometimes quoted. Those references (quoted by John Burnet) which have most relevance to Anaximander's general and original view of the problem which had been raised by Thales are as follows:

1. Anaximander of Miletos, son of Praxiades, a fellow-citizen and associate of Thales, 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-called elements, but a substance different from them which is infinite, from which arise all the heavens and the worlds within them.

2. He says that this is "eternal and ageless" and that it "encompasses all the worlds."

3. 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 says in these somewhat poetical terms.

4. And besides this there was an eternal motion, in which was brought about the origin of the worlds.

5. He did not ascribe the origin of things to any alteration in matter, but said that the oppositions in the sub-stratum, which was a boundless body, were separated out.

Now with regard to these references it should again be remembered that many of the terms ("material cause," "first element," for example) could not have been used by Anaximander himself. We may assume his actual language to have been "somewhat poetical" and can be sure only that he did use the words "infinite," "boundless" and that curious phrase about "injustice." Nevertheless it is still possible to imagine how he thought, if not precisely how he expressed himself. It would seem that, having accepted the view of Thales that there must be one primary substance, it occurred to him to wonder why Thales had picked on water. Water is just one of the kinds of things there are; so it, like every-thing else, must be merely one of the forms of some even more fundamental "stuff." And, so far as visible sub-stances are concerned, nothing else satisfies the required conditions even as well as water.

By describing his primary substance as "the Infinite" or "the non-limited," Anaximander meant something which was not only "unlimited" in extent, but was also "un-limited" in the sense that it had no precise characteristics or attributes. It was neither wet or dry, hot or cold, liquid or solid. These and other opposites with which we are familiar by means of our senses become "separated out" from the boundless substratum which, in itself, can never be observed or, except in its derivatives, experienced.

Now this doctrine of Anaximander is, in its own way, as revolutionary as was the original assumption by Thales that there actually was a substratum. It is certain that at this time there was no recognized distinction between philosophy and science; yet Anaximander, for the first time in history, is putting forward an argument which can be called purely philosophical rather than scientific. For the force of his doctrine rests only on logical argument and cannot be either proved or disproved by experiment. One can imagine experiments which could be designed to corroborate or to overthrow the theory of Thales. Water is visible and tangible. "The Infinite" or "the non-limited" is not.

It is interesting and important to notice that science itself could not have developed if scientists had not accepted this wholly "unscientific" argument of Anaximander. It is only very recently (not earlier than the seventeeth century) that scientists have found any good empirical evidence for the view that all the different things in the world are in some way "forms" of some unvarying substance which cannot be identified with any "thing" or "element." Yet, in spite of the lack of evidence, they continued to believe that this view must be the correct one. May it be that the distinction which we make, and which the ancient Greeks did not make, is a somewhat artificial one? Roughly, our distinction is this: science depends on observation and experiment and it produces "results"; philosophy depends on logical argument and need not produce "results" in any comparable sense. This is certainly not a distinction which Anaximander, or any other early Greek thinker, would have recognized. It is possible that their attitude may be more "modern" than ours.

Anaximander himself did not confine himself to "theory" — another word which had still to be either invented or invested with meaning. He was the first to attempt to draw a map and to construct a model which was intended to illustrate the movements and dimensions of the heavenly bodies. He decided, from his observation of or information about the breeding habits of sharks, that man, originally, was like another animal, namely a fish.

His mind was indeed far-ranging. He, rather than Epicurus, was the first to go "beyond the flaming barriers of the sky." Since "the Infinite" was, by definition, boundless, there were "innumerable worlds." They had come from and would disappear into "the unlimited." Some of them could be observed. Others could be imagined and many of their properties could be demonstrated. Certainly with regard to these worlds and to the other heavenly bodies he had definite ideas. He believed, for instance, that "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." He believed that the earth is suspended in space and, for some reason, that it is shaped like a cylinder. He had explanations for the phenomena of thunder, lightning and the winds. Altogether he is a fine example of that particular daring of thought, both in its penetration and in its wide horizons, which Lucretius so much admired.

« NEXT » « Pre-Socratic Philosophers » « The Greek Philosophers » « Philosophy » « Library » « A Plea »