Anaximander of Miletus | Milesian school


Anaximander of Miletus
 (c. 610 BCE–546 BCE)

Anaximander is the first Greek scientist and philosopher whose thought is known to us in any detail.

He was born in Miletus c. 610 BCE and died shortly after 546 BCE. He was thus in his twenties in 585 BCE, the year of the famous solar eclipse that Thales is said to have predicted.

According to the ancient tradition, Anaximander was the “pupil and successor of Thales”;

but in view of our ignorance of Thales’ real achievements, it is perhaps Anaximander who should be considered the founder of Greek astronomy and natural philosophy.

Nothing is known of his life except an unverifiable report that he led a Milesian colony to Apollonia, on the Black Sea.

His lifetime corresponds with the great age of Miletus, when it was the richest and most powerful Greek city in Asia Minor.

His scientific achievements are said to include the first Greek world map, the first Greek star map or celestial globe, and the invention, or rather adaptation, of the gnomon (the vertical pointer of a sundial) for use in measuring the hours of the day and annual variations in the course of the sun.

According to Pliny, he also traced the sun’s annual path in the ecliptic and noted its inclination with regard to the celestial axis.

This last discovery may really belong to a later age, but there is no doubt that Anaximander conceived (and almost certainly constructed) a spherical model for the heavens, in the centre of which was placed Earth, as a disk or cylinder whose height was 1/3rd its diameter.

The ratio 1:3 seems also to have been used in the spacing of the celestial circles or rings assigned to stars, moon, and sun: The conjectural sizes for these rings are 9, 18, and 27 Earth diameters, respectively.

Anaximander is thus the author of the first geometrical model of the universe, a model characterized not by vagueness and mystery but by visual clarity and rational proportion, and hence radically different in kind from all known “cosmologies” of earlier literature and myth.

The highly rational character of the scheme is best indicated by Anaximander’s explanation of Earth’s stable position in the centre:

It remains at rest because of its equal distance from all points of the celestial circumference, having no reason to move in one direction rather than in another.

This argument from symmetry contrasts not only with all mythic views but also with the doctrine ascribed to Thales: that Earth floats on water.

Here Anaximander is clearly the precursor of the mathematical approach to astronomy developed later by the Pythagoreans, Eudoxus, and Aristarchus.

The book of Anaximander, quoted later under the standard title On the Nature of Things, seems to have contained a description of his map and celestial model, as well as an account of how the natural world functions and how it reached its present form.

Beginning from a first principle called the Boundless or Infinite (to Apeiron: see below), he describes how

“something capable of generating Hot and Cold was separated off … and a sphere of fire from this source grew around the air in the region of earth like bark around a tree.

When this sphere was torn off and enclosed in certain rings, the sun and moon and stars came into existence”.

These heavenly bodies are “wheel-like, compressed masses of air filled with fire, which exhale flames from an orifice at one point”.

Eclipses and lunar phases are explained by obstruction of the orifices.

The sea is what remains of the primeval moisture, the rest having been evaporated as air or dried up by the celestial fire to form Earth.

Land, sea, air, and heavens are thus all explained by a continual process of separating off from the primeval pair of Hot (dry) and Cold (wet).

Wind, rain, lightning, thunder, and related phenomena are explained by the interaction of these elemental principles (water, air, fire) and opposite powers (hot, cold; dry, moist; thick, thin; light, dark).

The origin of living things is explained as part of the same process:
They arose as aquatic beings in moisture and later transferred to dry land.

The first examples of each species developed to maturity within a protective membrane.

In an interesting anticipation of modern ideas, Anaximander remarked that the first human beings could never have survived as helpless infants, but must have been born:

“from living things of another kind, since the other animals are quickly able to look for their own food, while only man requires prolonged nursing”.

The one quotation from Anaximander’s book that seems to have been preserved in very nearly the original wording is his famous statement on cosmic justice:

“Out of those things whence is the generation of existing things,
into them also does their destruction take place, as is right and due;
for they make retribution and pay the penalty to one another
for their offense [or “injustice,”], according to the ordering of time.”

The interpretation of this oldest surviving philosophic text has been a subject of much controversy:

The earlier commentators (including Friedrich Nietzsche) interpreted the “injustice” as the separation of individual things from their infinite source and saw the eventual reabsorption of all things back into the Apeiron as their only fitting atonement.

This fails to explain how the things that perish can pay the penalty to one another, or why the source of generation is referred to in the plural.

It is now generally agreed that offense and compensation must both refer to the strife of opposing principles (such as the hot and cold), and that the “ordering of time” stands primarily for periodic regularity in the daily and seasonal variation of heat, moisture, daylight, and the like.

Whether there is also a reference here to a larger cycle in which the cosmos itself would perish into its source is more doubtful.

Anaximander’s fame rests chiefly on his doctrine of the Boundless as the archē, the starting point and origin of the cosmic process:

For him, the term Apeiron meant “untraversable” or “limitless” rather than “infinite” in any precise mathematical sense.

He described this principle with the Homeric epithets for divinity, calling it “ageless and immortal,” and probably even “the divine”:

This Apeiron surrounds and embraces all things and apparently “steers” or governs them as well.

It seems to have been conceived as uncreated as well as imperishable, and thus contrasts in every respect with the limited, perishable world it engenders.

The Boundless transcends this process of world creation, circumscribing each individual world in space, outlasting all of them in time,

and providing the inexhaustible material source, the eternal motive power, the vital energy, and (presumably) the geometrical form and cyclical regularity for the cosmic process as a whole.

In its archaic complexity, the Apeiron is thus both a physical and a metaphysical or theological concept, and points the way not only to the infinite void of the atomists but also to the cosmic deity of Xenophanes, Aristotle, and the Stoics.