In this article, I explore some of the core ideas of the ancient Greek philosopher Anaximenes. He was one of the ‘Milesian trio’ (of the city of Miletus) and the youngest of the three. You can read about the ideas of his older fellow citizens and thinkers here: Thales, the first recorded Greek philosopher, and Anaximander, the one with most abstract concepts of the trio (and my personal favourite). Now, on to our philosophical chat with Anaximenes.
Being the youngest of the three pre-Socratic thinkers of the city of Miletus, Anaximenes was likely to have been in touch with the ideas of both Thales and Anaximander, perhaps even with one or both of these men themselves (we are still in the 6th century BCE and they are rough contemporaries). This exchange of ideas is evident from the line of thought that Anaximenes takes in the search of his own suggestion as to what is the fundamental principle of everything. After all, that was one of the main questions these ancient philosophers asked.
Building on the theory of Anaximander, his similarly named younger compatriot agreed that the cosmic principle of all that exists is infinite but he didn`t stop at that and identified it specifically with air. Why choose air? There could be several reasons. Following Anaximander, perhaps Anaximenes was looking for something as dynamic as his predecessor`s opposing forces to account for the unceasing motion that is easy to observe in nature. Furthermore, he thought that air can be thinned to create fire or thickened to create water or even earth. From this point of view, air was a good candidate for being the in-between principle from which both hot and cold things can be ‘separated out’, to use Anaximander`s terminology. At the same time, it had the benefit of being easier to grasp as an idea, it was not so absolutely abstract as Anaximander`s apeiron. Also, it is easy to imagine how air would fit the requirement of being infinite and everywhere around us. Unlike water, fire, earth, and other natural elements or forces, we cannot see air.
Yet another potential reason for Anaximene`s fascination with air could be that he was partly inspired by the thinking of Thales, the first Greek philosopher on record. It is said that Anaximenes claimed that the soul is made of air, which identifies it with the breath. The idea that the soul is the breath will stick for a long time, so Anaximenes could have been the first one to say it. Today, if we look at the origin of the word psyche, we see that it came to us from Greek psukhē where it meant ‘breath, life, soul’. How does this idea of the soul being made of air bring Anaximenes closer in his thinking to Thales? We saw that one of the claims of Thales was that magnets have souls and we looked at the interpretation of it linked with the ability to generate motion as the life force. Anaximenes, like Thales, might have observed how important air and breathing is for all life (Thales for his part focused on the similar importance of water). From here, he might have easily made the connection between this crucial role of air to sustain life and the life force itself being ‘made of’ air – clearly represented by the breath.
Finally, Anaximene`s idea of the soul (and so the entire life force) being made of air and, at the same time, air as the ultimate cosmic principle might have served as inspiration for his thought that a human body is like a small version of the entire cosmos. In other words, a human body as a microcosm. Although it is not certain whether Anaximenes had such ideas, it seems plausible that these early thinkers, especially Thales and Anaximenes, might have entertained such or similar thoughts given their other contemplations. The microcosm idea will establish itself later on but it might just be that these first Greek philosophers had sown its seeds.
Indeed, it is not at all seldom that ‘new’ ideas have not simply sprung up in their entirety at once (this apparent pattern can be very deceiving). Rather, they have been long in the making and often without revealing their full scope until that last moment when we are finally able to perceive them as ‘new’ ideas.
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/>