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Anaximander (Greek: Αναξίμανδρος)(c.610 BC–c. 546 BC) also known as Aniximander, was the second of the physical philosophers of Ionia, a citizen of Miletus, a companion or pupil of Thales, and teacher of Anaximenes of Miletus. Little is known of his life and work. Aelian makes him the leader of the Milesian colony to Amphipolis, and hence some have inferred that he was a prominent citizen. The computations of Apollodorus of Athens have fixed his birth in 611, and his death shortly after 547 B.C.

Ancient sources represent him as a successful student of astronomy and geography, and an early proponent of exact science. He has also been said to have introduced such astronomical instruments as the sundial and the gnomon to ancient Greece. Furthermore, he is credited with having created the first map of the world, which was circular in form and showed the known lands of the world grouped around the Aegean Sea at the center and all of this was surrounded by the ocean.

Cosmology and the apeiron

Anaximander's reputation is due mainly to a cosmological work, little of which remains. From the few extant fragments, we learn that he believed the beginning or first principle (arche, a word first found in Anaximander's writings, and which he probably invented) is an endless, unlimited mass (apeiron), subject to neither old age nor decay, which perpetually yields fresh materials from which everything we can perceive is derived.

He never defined this principle precisely, and it has generally (e.g. by Aristotle and Saint Augustine) been understood as a sort of primal chaos. It embraced the opposites of hot and cold, wet and dry, and directed the movement of things, by which there grew up all of the host of shapes and differences which are found in "all the worlds"--as he believed there were many.

Out of the vague and limitless body there sprang a central mass — this earth of ours, cylindrical in shape, poised equidistant from surrounding orbs of fire, which had originally clung to it like the bark round a tree, until their continuity was severed, and they parted into several wheel-shaped and fire-filled bubbles of air.

Man himself and the animals had come into being by like transmutations. Mankind was supposed by Anaximander to have sprung from some other species of animals, probably aquatic. For, he thought, man with his extended infancy could not have survived, originally, in the manner he does presently. For this, even though he had no theory of natural selection, some people consider him to be evolutionary theory's most ancient proponent.

Anaximander offered up the theory of the apeiron in direct response to the earlier theory of his teacher, Thales, who had claimed that the primary substance was water. Anaximander reasoned that water cannot embrace all of the opposites found in nature — for example, water can only be wet, never dry — and therefore, it can not be the one primary substance. Nor could any of the other candidates, so Anaximander postulated the apeiron as a substance that, although it could not be perceived directly, could explain the opposites he could clearly see around him.

The one surviving fragment of Anaximander was transmitted as a quote by Simplicius and could be translated as

Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
As is the order of things;
For they execute the sentence upon one another
- The condemnation for the crime -
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.


Bertrand Russell in The History of Western Philosophy interprets the above quote as an assertion of the necessity of an appropriate balance between earth, fire, and water elements, all of which may be independently seeking to aggrandize their proportions relative to the others. Anaximander seems to express his belief that a natural order ensures balance between these elements, that where there was fire, ashes (earth) now exist. Anaximander's Greek peers echoed this sentiment with their belief of natural boundaries that not even their Gods could operate beyond.

Nietzsche, in his Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, claimed that Anaximander was a pessimist. Anaximander asserted that the primal being of the world was state of indefiniteness. In accordance with this, anything definite has to eventually pass back into indefiniteness. In other words, Anaximander viewed "...all coming-to-be as though it were an illegitimate emancipation from eternal being, a wrong for which destruction is the only penance." (Ibid., ยง 4) The world of individual objects, in this way of thinking, has no worth and should perish.

Known Works

On Nature, circa ?

Referenced in 
Simplicius in Phys., p. 24, 13sq.

Map, circa ? (lost)

(First?) Map of his Known World
Referenced in 
Agathemerus, Geographie informatio

Some of Anaximander's ideas were also preserved in Theophrastus's (lost) history of philosophy, and re-quoted by later authors.



Dirk L.Couprie, Roobert Hahn, and Gerard Naddaf, 2003. 'Anaximander in Context: New Studies in the Origins of Greek Philosophy', Albany N.Y.: State University of New York Press

See also

External links

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