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Anaximander and Anaximenes: The Other Two Milesians (Part-II)

  • 15 Nov 2019
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In the previous article, we talked about the history and evolution of philosophy as a discipline and the first natural philosopher known to us, Thales of Miletus. The next presocratic natural philosopher we will be covering in this series is Anaximander, who was considered to be Thales’ star student. He is thought to be the first philosopher who chose to write his thoughts and theories down. Whatever we have about Thales is due to the detailed accounts of his disciples and later on, Aristotle. Like Thales, Anaximander follows his belief that the world and nature are governed by discoverable laws instead of entirely being run on divine power and intervention.

Anaximander had his interest in geometry and astronomy as well as with practical inventions and he was the first one to develop a cosmology, a philosophical view of the world. Much like Thales, a very small portion of his work survived. What we know of him comes from the accounts of different historical writers like, the 1st or 2nd century CE compiler of philosophical opinions Aëtius, the 3rd century theologian, antipope* Hippolytus, and the 6th century Neoplatonist philosopher Simplicius.

*antipope - a person who, in opposition to the lawful pope, makes a significant attempt to occupy the position of Bishop of Rome and leader of the Catholic Church;

He is credited for making the first map of the known world, possibly based on previous traveller’s notes. It was later corrected by his fellow Milesian, the author Hecataeus, a well-travelled man. He is also known to be the first one who introduced Greeks to the use of gnomon, which is somewhat of a sundial and it demonstrated the equinoxes and solstices and perhaps the hours of the day. He was also the first to think that the Earth was at the centre of the cosmos.

The shape of the Earth has always been a topic of great interest and even till now, there are groups (Flat Earth Society) who believe that the Earth is flat instead of the perceived and proven spherical shape of the planet. On the shape of Earth, Anaximander believed the inhabited land to be flat, like the top-flat shape that of a cylinder, whose thickness is one-third of the diameter. He proposed that the planet is poised aloft, and it stays in its place as it is equidistant from all the things and hence is not in the disposition of ‘flying off’. He also said that the Sun and the Moon were hollow rings of fire. Their disks are vents or holes in the rings, through which the fire can shine. The phases of the Moon, as well as eclipses of the Sun and the Moon, are due to the vents’ closing up. Now, it is understandable that the entire theory sounds too out there, however, we can find some sense in the concepts by comparing them to the ones we have today.

Anaximander thinking that the Sun and the Moon were filled with fire is far from what we know about them today but isn’t very far from the concept that the Sun is a ball of fiery gas. Or, his belief that living beings were evolutionary can also be considered an important theory. Since Man is a creature of nurture, he must have originated from some other organism because survival wouldn't have been possible as he was always in the state as he is now. It sounds like the foundational idea for the theory of evolution as we know it today.

While Anaximander and Thales agreed upon their natural and discoverable causes to the natural phenomenon theory, Anaximander did not agree with Thales’ water theory (discussed in the last article). He came up with the idea of 'Apeiron', as a part of his cosmogony. He believed that all of the opposites that existed on the earth could not have appeared from a single element, which Thales identified to be water. He explained it to be a formless initial state. Apeiron literally means unlimited, boundless, indeterminate, and infinite. It lacks any limit or boundary and it is undifferentiated. Apeiron wasn't an element, but it was primal formlessness. Unlike Thales who believed everything has originated from water, Anaximander believed that it came from the Apeiron. It is believed that he explained Apeiron as 'arche'.

  • Cosmogony, in astronomy, is the study of the evolutionary behaviour of the universe and the origin of its characteristic features.
  • Arche is an ancient Greek word that can best be described as the ‘beginning’, ‘origin’, and the ‘first cause’. It designates the roots of origin of everything that exists. Though people credit Aristotle for the postulation of this concept, some texts believed that it was actually Anaximander who came up with the concept.

Apeiron wasn’t an element to Anaximander, and he made that glaringly clear. As stated in Aristotle’s accounts, he used it to explain the opposite and destructive yet co-habitant nature of the elements of nature.

“Some have supposed... an unlimited something in addition to the elements, the matrix out of which they came. The reason for supposing this additional something, rather than air or water, for instance, to be unlimited, was that it seemed to evade the dilemma set out above. Since air is cold, water moist, and fire hot, and these properties are mutually destructive, an infinity of one of them would mean that the others would have perished this time, but this, they say, would not apply to an undifferentiated something out of which they all come.”

~(Physics 204b)

The Apeiron is different from the other elements and becomes necessary if the primary elements are opposed. Such opposition is evident in the interrelation of these elements in the world. Anaximander characterises the relationships of these elements of the world as the one in continuous opposition. If either one of them overpowers the other, it would be completely destroyed. Hence, his arche is not one of the four elements but maybe intermediate between them.

He also postulated the concept of eternal motion along with the theory of Apeiron to explain the creation of the earth. This idea of eternal motion is what made it possible to separate the feelings/sensations/states of opposites from each other. It was responsible for the experience of opposite properties like hot/cold, dry/wet, heavy/light, etc. The idea of earth being in eternal motion sounds like the foundational idea to the contemporary phenomenon of Earth revolving around the Sun and rotating on its axis causing weather and days to change, respectively.

The world to Anaximander was not eternal and it was supposed to go where it all came from, the Apeiron, which will then form new worlds. Thus, all existing things must “pay penalty and retribution to one another for their injustice, according to the disposition of time,” as he rather figuratively expressed it when he talks about 'cosmic justice'.

As I have already mentioned earlier, he was the first philosopher who had written his theories down to record them, he went ahead to create a unified account of nature and though his work was superseded very soon, he left an impact on the world with his questions and findings on the universe and its existence.

Moving on to our next philosopher, we come to Anaximenes who was believed to be a student of the philosopher we just discussed above, Anaximander. All of the three Milesians were contemporaries. They were not successors. Their theories were not identical either, however, they were often built on top of others. We see a lot of similarities between the works of Anaximander and Anaximenes.

Much like Anaximander, Anaximenes’ recorded his theories as well. And like Anaximander, his works also haven’t survived and can only be read about in the accounts of other philosophers who mentioned his work. His work didn’t make it past the Hellenistic Age (age that starts after the death of Alexander The Great).

While looking for arche, a unifying principle of diversity, Thales went with his water theory while Anaximander went with Apeiron. Anaximenes went with 'aer' (ancient word for the element air). While his two predecessors came up with theories about what came from what, none of them was able to provide an explanation for the process of the change from one element to another. However, Anaximenes did and it can be seen as his major contribution to the Milesian school of thought. He believed that land and rock arose from the water and he explained this process through two processes of rarefication and condensation.

"(Air) differs in essence in accordance with its rarity or density. When it is thinned it becomes fire, while it is condensed it becomes wind, then cloud, while still more condensed it becomes water, then earth, then stones. Everything else comes from these"

~(Simplicus, Physics 24, 13A5)

From the passage above, it becomes clear that he believed in degrees of condensation of moisture that corresponded to the densities of various types of matter. Aer is common as it is the ‘most evenly distributed’, as invisible air of the atmosphere. By condensation, it becomes visible, first as mist or cloud, then like water, and finally as solid matter such as earth or stones. If further rarefied, it turns to fire. Thus hotness and dryness typify rarity, whereas coldness and wetness are related to the denser matter. And part of this theory can be seen as a clear reflection of what we have today postulated as our water cycle, something that explains the basic and fundamental concept of rain through the methods of evaporation and condensation of water vapour (gas) to clouds which rain over the planet (liquid). It can be seen that Anaximenes was more or less correct when he explained how one element (water) changed into another.

However, a lot of people think of him as an ignorant, regressive and somewhat of a dumb philosopher. Here’s why, when Thales understood his arche to be the element of water, Anaximander went on to systematically explain how the contrasting elements of nature could not have come from one single element, Anaximenes with his theory of aer as the arche was regressive as instead of understanding or reasoning with Anaximander’s theory of Apeiron, he simply went a step back to Thales and changed the material arche to air from water. However, there are significant similarities between Anaximenes’ understanding of air as an arche and the concept of Apeiron. Anaximenes says that air is boundless and infinite, which is different from Thales’ understanding of water and similar to that of the Apeiron. He also believed that the earth floated in the air in space which was in agreement with Anaximander’s cosmology.

He didn’t see air as we see and perceive it to be today. He drew his ideas from the ancient belief of air being the soul, breath of life. Aetius in his accounts writes about Anaximenes’ idea of air.

"Just as our soul which is air holds us together, so breath and air surround the whole cosmos."

~(Aetius, I.3.4, B2)

From the line, it becomes pretty obvious that he is talking about the air we breathe but he is also talking about much more than that. According to Cicero, Anaximenes said that air was God, it is boundless and infinite and always in motion.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was an orator, lawyer, politician, and philosopher born in 106 B.C.E. His life coincided with the decline and fall of the Roman Republic, and he was an important actor in many of the significant political events of his time. His writings are a valuable source of information to us about those events.

Elaborating this point further, his assumption that aer is everlastingly in motion suggests that he thought it to possess life. Because it was eternally alive, aer took on the qualities of the divine and became the cause of other gods as well as of all matter. He took the inspiration from metaphysics, as suggested by Anaximander while being in regression of Thales’ ideas of the role of divinity, as explained in the previous article. The same motion accounts for the shift from one physical state of the aer to another. There is evidence that he made the common analogy between the divine air that sustains the universe and the human “air”, or soul, that animates people. Such a comparison between a macrocosm and a microcosm had also permitted him to maintain a unity behind diversity as well as to reinforce the view of his contemporaries that there is an overarching principle regulating all life and behaviour.

The importance given to Anaximenes is conflicted but personally, he can be seen as the third step in a dialectic triad. In a dialectic triad, two positions contradict each other, the thesis and antithesis. Anaximenes, the third position, is the synthesis. He takes the good elements from both of his predecessors’ theories and creates a new stance which resolves both into one. In the dialectic triad of the Milesian philosophers, Thales is the thesis who says that everything comes from a definable element, water. Anaximander is the antithesis who proposed that everything on the earth in the form of oppositional experiences couldn’t have come from one single element and that everything is made from something undefinable and boundless, something that is immaterial. Anaximenes is the synthesis when he says that everything is made up from something definable, but boundless; material, but divine. Hence, providing us with the perfect conclusion for not only the Milesian school of thought but this article too.

(Please Note: With this, we end the Milesian school of thought. The next article will focus on the philosophers Heraclitus and Democritus)

 Regards, Devyani 

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