In one of my previous articles on the ancient Greek philosophers before Socrates (the ‘pre-Socratics’) I wrote about the first one of them on record – Thales. Now it is time to explore the second of the ‘Milesian trio’ – Anaximander. All three lived in the city of Miletus in 6th century BCE, hence the name ‘Milesians’. Anaximander was a little younger than Thales and offered his own interesting views on the underlying nature of everything – the topic that busied the minds of all three Milesians. Despite roughly 2,600 years separating us, let’s try and get to know Anaximander a bit closer.
Anaximander – the infinite, the repayment of debt and the opposites
Like Thales, Anaximander searched for the fundamental force, the cosmic principle that governs all that exists. Unlike his older fellow thinker, Anaximander didn`t choose one element (for Thales it was water) but instead opted for something rather more abstract – apeiron. It is a Greek word that literally translates as “that which has no limit”. Therefore, Anaximander`s cosmic principle and the force behind all things can be called “the infinite”. For him, it was infinite both in space and in time – a boundless and eternal force that surrounds the cosmos we live in. He thought that everything with a definite nature (e.g. water) was “separated out” from the indefinite apeiron.
In addition, Anaximander also claimed that all such things that are separated out from the infinity will come into being and get destroyed “out of necessity”. This necessity arises because of “injustice” that needs to be retributed “according to the ordering of time”. The notions of justice, order (cosmos) and retribution for injustice to restore order were very important values in the ancient Greek culture – the majority, if not all, myths focus on or involve these themes. And myths were there long before philosophy. Bearing this in mind, it is easier to understand that Anaximander uses such language to describe his cosmic principle of all things.
Here is one way of looking at it. Destruction or death of something/ someone is necessary because it is a repayment of debt. What debt? Debt towards other things/ others that strive to come into existence. It is a debt of freeing up space and time for the new to come into being. Since all things with a definite nature are not the apeiron but are separated out from it, they are necessarily finite. It means they have their time and place to be. However, when that has been exhausted they must perish so that the new can come about. This process of creation and destruction keeps everything in balance over time (“according to the ordering of time”). Thereby justice is maintained.
Perhaps this was Anaximander`s conceptual way of explaining the ancient Greek sin of sins – hubris, going in excess of what is one`s natural place in the great order of cosmos. Like Thales, he might have taken the commonly accepted idea from the myths and tried giving it an explanation grounded in the natural instead of the supernatural world. Such reading of Anaximander`s thoughts may facilitate an understanding of his proposed theory of how the visible heavenly bodies and the sky came into existence.
At first, something capable of producing the opposites of hot and cold separated out from the infinite (apeiron). Then, from these opposite forces there appeared a sphere of fire (hot) that surrounded the air (cold) around the earth (which already existed). After some more motion, the flame of the fire sphere split into circles that we can partly see through the round holes in the air around the earth. For example, the moon. But if it is just a part of a flame that we see through a round hole in the sky, why does the moon wax and wane? Because, Anaximander explains, the hole opens and closes.
For our purposes, the important aspect of Anaximander`s cosmology theory is that it gives an implicit characteristic of his cosmic principle – the apeiron. Namely, this infinite does not itself create everything we see around us. Me and you, for instance, did not separate out directly from it. Instead, one of apeiron`s properties seems to be the generation of opposites. From these various opposites, all of which have their own powers and characteristics, everything else is created. Being opposites, they inevitably influence each other and in doing so create organised structures (note what this implies – there is no organised structure in the apeiron itself).
It is here, within these structures built on oppositions that the “justice” must be maintained, otherwise the order disintegrates. For this, there needs to be a balance between creation and destruction over time (not necessarily over one person`s lifetime). It is especially important since the fundamental cosmic principle is infinite both in time and in space, which means it will keep generating opposites forever and everywhere. That, in turn, signals that the balanced mutual opposition of creation and destruction is both eternal and necessary. Why necessary? Because the debt must be repaid, the injustice must be retributed to uphold the fundamental principle of infinity. Since this principle cannot be exhausted, it is arguably impossible to violate it. Balance over time, therefore, ensures justice and order in the organised structures.
Of course, there is no rule of necessity that would ensure that a single individual, a generation, a whole people, or even entire species should experience this just order. “The ordering of time” might well be beyond our limited perspective.
Hope you enjoyed exploring the curious ideas of Anaximander. Next time we will have a philosophical chat with the third and final Milesian, the youngest of the trio – Anaximenes.
Sources I used to write this article:
- Peter Adamson “Classical Philosophy”, the first volume in his series “A history of philosophy without any gaps”, Oxford University Press 2014
- Wilhelm Weischedel “Die philosophische Hintertreppe: Die grossen Philosophen in Alltag und Denken” (in German), 46th edition dtv Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG, Munich 2018
- Curd, Patricia, “Presocratic Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/presocratics/>
(1) By ancient Roman mosaic artist from the early third century AD – http://isaw.nyu.edu/exhibitions/time-cosmos/objects/roman-mosaic-anaximander, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67685513, PD-Art (PD-old-70)