Anaxagoras on Change: Everything Contains Everything

One of the last pre-Socratic philosophers of Ancient Greece, Anaxagoras hailed from the Ionian city of Clazomenae but is notable for being the first one to bring philosophy to Athens. There he taught and flourished for about 30 years until the mid-5th century BCE when he went back to Ionia due to charges brought against him in Athens. Presumably, they were politically motivated. Anaxagoras tutored the statesman Pericles who went on to develop Athens into both a political and cultural centre but, of course, not without gaining some opponents along the way. Anaxagoras captured his philosophy in a book, only short fragments of which have survived to our days. When still available in its entirety, this work is said to have influenced Socrates who was still a youth when Anaxagoras had to leave Athens.  

Anaxagoras1

Anaxagoras followed the Eleatic teaching that there is no real coming into being or ceasing of being. Being simply is. However, while Parmenides (the leading Eleatic) denies change and motion regarding them as sensory illusions that lead down a path of opinion as opposed to the way of truth, Anaxagoras tries to reconcile the theory of no-change with the appearance of change as experienced by us in everyday life. In other words, he endeavours to explain how is it possible that change is not real and yet we perceive it every day all around us? For example, he poses the question “How can hair come from what is not hair, or flesh from what is not flesh?” (fr.10) Only if both hair and flesh share something in common. 

This leads us to one of the core teachings of Anaxagoras. Namely, that “In everything there is a portion of everything” (fr.11) and all things “partake in a portion of everything” (fr.12). If everything contains a portion of absolutely everything else, how do things retain their distinctness? For instance, how is a rock a rock, if it contains a portion of the earth, water, air, sand, grass, trees, animals, and everything else? Anaxagoras’ answer to this is that it’s all about relative proportions. A rock is a composite of portions of everything that exists, but it so happens that it is the stuff of rocks that predominates in this composite. He explains that “while nothing else is like anything else, but each single thing is and was most manifestly those things of which it has most in it.” (fr.12) 

With this in mind, Anaxagoras accounts for what appears to us as coming into being or passing away as the variation in the prevailing sort of ‘thing’ in everything that seems to change. A rock is not ‘gone’ – its composite makeup has changed into, say, earth, a portion of which is always present in all the composites and has now gained dominance in this case. In effect, then, nothing new comes into being and nothing that exists passes into non-being. All things are compounds of portions of everything that is. What we perceive as change is explained by the shift of the prevailing ‘thing’, by things mixing together in a different way and separating from their previous form of composition. 

“The Hellenes follow a wrong usage in speaking of coming into being and passing away; for nothing comes into being or passes away, but there is mingling and separation of things that are. So they would be right to call coming into being mixture, and passing away separation.” (fr.17)

Anaxagoras

Indeed, since Anaxagoras believed that matter is both infinitely divisible and infinitely big (i.e. there is no ultimate smallness or ultimate greatness, there can always be a smaller or a greater thing), then there is no level of being where things reach their pure state, in which they are no longer composites and contain only their ‘essence’. If we think that something entirely new has come into existence (or passed away from existence), we are confused because “from the weakness of our senses we are not able to judge the truth” (fr.21). Our senses allow us to perceive only that which predominates in whatever it is we perceive. Truth, on the other hand, is that everything contains everything

Therefore, using modern terminology, everything that exists contains within itself different proportions of the entire reality on all complexity levels. There is no ultimately ‘simple’ level of things, everything is always mixed with portions of everything else. Anaxagoras makes just one exception to this rule – his cosmic principle of Nous (Mind) that is alone unmixed, pure and, because of this, has the greatest power and sets everything in motion. But more on this in a separate article.         

keep exploring!

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Resource used for quoting fragments of Anaxagoras: Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet (third edition)

1Image credit: Detail of the right-hand facade fresco, showing Anaxagoras. National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. By Eduard Lebiedzki, after a design by Carl Rahl – http://nibiryukov.narod.ru/nb_pinacoteca/nbe_pinacoteca_artists_l.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7552554

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