Anaximander of Miletus and His Philosophy on the Origin of All Things
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.
-Anaximander on generation and destruction
Anaximander of Miletus was a Pre-Socratic philosopher. Many scholars regard him as the first metaphysician due to his belief in the “Boundless.” Despite their faults, his views opened up the cosmos for others and make him one of the first speculative astronomers.
This philosopher belonged to the Milesian school. As indicated by its name, this school of thought was based in the city of Miletus on the western coast of Anatolia, modern day Turkey. Anaximander is one of the three prominent figures in this philosophical school, the other two being Thales and Anaximenes, the former commonly thought to have been Anaximander’s teacher, and the latter, his student.
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A relief representing Anaximander of Miletus. (Public Domain)
Three Thoughtful Men with Little More than Location in Common?
These three early philosophers held quite distinct views on most subjects, so their grouping is based on geographical convenience rather than on shared opinions. Nevertheless, it may also be said that these pre-Socratic philosophers focused on questions regarding nature (for example, what is the quintessential substance of the universe?) which allows them to be grouped together.
Anaximander is thought to have been born in 610 BC. This year of birth is reckoned based on a piece of work known as ‘The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers,’ which was written by an ancient author by the name of Diogenes Laertius. Quoting another source, Diogenes wrote:
“And Apollodorus, in his Chronicles, states, that in the second year of the fifty-eighth Olympiad, he (Anaximander) was sixty-four years old.”
In other words, in the year 546 BC, Anaximander was 64 years old. Counting backwards, we may say that this philosopher was born in 610 BC. Using this piece of information, we may also determine if it was possible that Anaximander had studied under Thales, as tradition suggests.
Although Thales’ exact year of birth is not provided by the ancient sources, he is recorded to have predicted the occurrence of a solar eclipse in 585 BC. This would mean that at the time when the eclipse occurred, Anaximander was 25 years old. Therefore, it is entirely possible that Anaximander had been a student of Thales.
Very little is known about Anaximander’s life. Additionally, it is hard to ascertain if details about the philosopher’s life are true in the first place. In Diogenes’ work, Anaximander might have been the inventor of the gnomon, “the raised piece of a sundial whose shadow indicates the sun’s position,” as well as several other useful gadgets.
The gnomon is the triangular blade in this sundial. (Public Domain)
“He also was the first discoverer of the gnomon; and he placed some in Lacedaemon on the sun-dials there, as Favorinus says in his Universal History, and they showed the solstices and the equinoxes; he also made clocks. He was the first person, too, who drew a map of the earth and sea, and he also made a globe;”
Possibly what the lost first map of the world by Anaximander looked like. (Public Domain)
Another random piece of trivia mentioned by Diogenes shows us some insight into the philosopher’s personality. He is said to have acted solemnly, but had no issue with dressing ostentatiously. Apparently, when Anaximander sang children would laugh and when the philosopher heard about this he is reputed to have said:
“We must then sing better for the sake of the children.”
Anaximander is also believed to have been well-traveled and possibly the founder of a colony known as Apollonia on the Black Sea coast.
Anaximander’s Philosophical Views
Fortunately, we have a better idea of Anaximander’s philosophical views. Like Thales, Anaximander practiced material monism (a belief in which the physical world is explained by the idea that all objects in the world are comprised of a single element), and was interested in seeking the archê (‘origin’ or principle’) of all things.
According to Thales, this is water. Anaximander, however, disagreed with his teacher. One of the arguments against water, or any of the other elements as the archê is that none of the elements can include all the opposites found in nature. For example, water can only be wet, and never dry.
Detail of Raphael's painting The School of Athens, 1510–1511. This could be a representation of Anaximander leaning towards Pythagoras on his left. (Public Domain)
Therefore, Anaximander proposed that the archê is a substance known as apeiron, which may be translated either as “limitless, boundless, indefinite,” or “unable to be got through, what cannot be traversed from end to end.” It is unclear exactly which of these two meanings of the apeiron Anaximander sought to convey. That means that while some have argued that apeiron is a substance that is inexhaustible and undefined, other favors the idea that it refers to a spatial or temporal quality.
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Another difference between Thales’ and Anaximander’s philosophical views can be seen in the way they perceived the cosmos. Thales suggested that the earth rests on water. Anaximander, disagrees once more. One of the reasons he sees against that proposal is that if the earth rests on water, what does the water rest on?
If one thing needs to be supported by another, then there will be no end. Instead, Anaximander proposed that the earth is a cylinder with a flat surface. Around this cylinder are rings of fire surrounded by mist. As a result of the mist, the fire is almost invisible. There are, however, holes in these rings, allowing the fire to shine through.
Illustration of Anaximander's models of the universe. On the left, daytime in summer; on the right, nighttime in winter. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Anaximander, the Speculative Astronomer
This, according to Anaximander, allows us to see the stars, the Moon, and the Sun. More remarkable, perhaps, is his statement that the earth stays in equilibrium at the center of the cosmos. The reason for this, according to the ancient philosopher, is that there is no sufficient reason for it to be moving in one direction rather than the other.
This view and reasoning are said to have been accepted by most of Anaximander’s successors, until the birth of modern astronomy under Copernicus in the 16th century AD.
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