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Anaxagoras - Biography

Anaxagoras is presumed to have lived during the years 500BCE and 428BCE, and is often considered to have been the progenitor that ignited Athens as the center for philosophy and learning in the early Western tradition, known at least to Pericles and Archelaus, and thus subsequently Socrates, the latter’s pupil; he was also known to playwrights, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Apparently, Anaxagoras was born into an aristocratic family in Clazomenae Ionia, what would now be considered the coast of Turkey. His major theories were materialist in nature and he became infamous for his belief that the sun was a ball of fire, stone and metal, a belief that cost him charges of impiety in which he received a sentence of death—a sentence he escaped from with the aid of his student Pericles (politically controversial himself, and perhaps more the reason why Anaxagoras was discredited). Anaxagoras lived in exile in Asia Minor, Lampsacus it is believed, until his death, presumably in 428 BCE.

Like all Pre-socratic philosophers, and Anaxagoras is considered the first active in Athens, there are very few direct traces of his work and activities. Some accounts locate the young philosopher in Athens around 480 BCE as a student; other accounts find him in Athens much later around 456 BCE. In either account it is not known where or by what means Anaxagoras achieved his education. It is commonly held that Anaxagoras produced just one book on the subject of natural philosophy as documented by Diogenes Laertius in his text, Lives of the Philosophers. And according to Plato’s Apology, Socrates claims that the book could not have cost more than “a drachma, at most,” i.e. it was short and dubious.

Simplicius is understood as being the primary source in delivering to the archives Anaxagoras’ text. And according to his transcription, Anaxagoras’ book began with an originary description of the cosmos as a primordial and eternal non-uniform mixture of its varying make-up, its “ingredients.” And the mixture (migma), at a certain evolutionary moment in time, through the Mind (Nous) is then put in rotation. The rotation produces shifts and varying densities of the ingredients of the mixture, which is referred to as “separating off,” but this does not mean a distinct cutting off. All things are within all things and ‘simply’ vary, shift and alter, essentially through the expanding rotation produced by the Nous, which thus produces the mind’s perception of the universe.

In this way, everything is in everything (except the Nous); nothing is too small or too large as everything is within everything ‘itself.’

And since the portions of both the large and the small are equal in amount, in this way too all things would be in everything; nor can they be separate, but all things have a portion of everything. Since there cannot be a smallest, nothing can be separated or come to be by itself, but as in the beginning now too all things are together. But in all things there are many things, equal in amount, both in the larger and the smaller of the things being separated off.

This aspect of Anaxagoras’ theory is quite enlightening, if understood in the sense of mathematical infinitude and how exactly Anaxagoras understood and meant his theory of such divisibility is certainly not known and variously contested. Yet, in the ‘simple’ notion that everything is in everything and that nothing is too small or too large, Anaxagoras speaks to a notion of infinite divisibility that, as scholars have pointed out, adheres to Parmenides’ standing Eleatic principle that what is, is, and what is not, is not (being and nonbeing). Therefore, there is no coming to be or passing away, but rather infinite divisibility through his notion of mixture and separating off.

Furthermore, this ideology, that everything is in everything, accommodates the understanding that nothing is transformed or produced even in a biological or chemical sense. There may be an alteration of course, but not a transformation or a generation because what is is already in everything that is, something cannot disappear into nothingness nor can something appear from nothingness. Therefore, based on such a concept, one could make the argument that in a reaction between two substances in which it may appear as though a third substance is generated, it is not. The “third” substance is already in existence as it is comprised of a proportional amount of everything already and is rather dependent ‘merely’ upon the mixture and separating off of the Nous.

As well, and as the cited fragment below attests to, Anaxagoras’ theory is dependent upon differentiation, of course, to account for what makes an apple an apple and not an orange, so-to-speak.

Everything contains a portion of everything else, and a large piece of something contains as many portions as a small piece of it, though they differ in size; but every substance does not contain all the infinite number of substances in equal proportions.

Basically, this is what has come to be known as his Principle of Predominance. In this logic, the apple, for instance, is an apple because it is comprised of a certain grouping of predominating ingredients that are composed in such a way that causes the arrangement to be ‘apple.’ Anaxagoras does not, as far as is known, state that there are specific ingredients for specific things, because everything is in everything, but rather that there is proportion and mixture. The question of what makes up the actual primary “ingredients” to begin with are also not made clear, except that it is not made up of “whole” things or beings. In two instances Anaxagoras refers to seeds (spermata) along with the ingredients yet the two are not synonymous although some have considered that possibility. The most plausible hypothesis, put forth by D.J. Furley, is that the seeds simply refer to biological seeds, which would allow for a distinction for living things within the mixture that can be inhabited by the Nous, have a soul and be a living thing.

And so there is a distinction for living things and that is the Nous, which can enter into some things, but the Nous itself is the exception. The Nous is the exception to Anaxagoras’ notion of everything in everything. The Nous is ‘a mind of its own’ that governs, for lack of a better word, everything. In some things Nous is also present, but it is not shared as in everything (else) being in everything.

The other things have a share of everything, but nous is unlimited and self-ruling and has been mixed with no thing, but is alone itself by itself. For if it were not by itself, but had been mixed with anything else, then it would partake of all things, if it had been mixed with anything (for there is a share of everything in everything just as I have said before); and the things mixed together with it would thwart it, so that it would control none of the things in the way that it in fact does, being alone by itself. For it is the finest of all things and the purest, and indeed it maintains all discernment about everything and has the greatest strength.

As stated earlier, the Nous sets in motion the rotation of the ingredients and continues to control the expansive rotation and the varying rotations within it. Essentially, one could say that according to Anaxagoras, the Nous is responsible for the activation, preservation and regulation of the cosmos. While one might interpret this as positioning the mind at the center of the universe, Anaxagoras is careful not to encumber it with such deism or dualism, and that also sets him apart. While the mind is exceptional it, “is very much even now where all other things are too, in the surrounding multitude and in things that have come together in the process of separating and in things that have separated off.” Certainly there may be some contradictions, but it may also point to a desire for a materialist understanding of the cosmos. Yet, this aspect is never fully developed in what can be garnered from the fragments of Anaxagoras’ text. This is where Socrates, Plato and Aristotle find his theory falling short of a true theory of the mind and a plausible understanding for the existence of the cosmos to begin with as his theory of the cosmos is essentially dependent on the sole activity of the rotation affected by the Nous.

Although there is little evidence in the few fragments that remain of Anaxagoras’ book, the archived testimony has gleaned that he also wrote meticulously on astronomy, meteorology and geology. He was most rewarded by Aristotle for a certain primacy given to the mind, and for his enlightening understanding of the phenomenon of the eclipse. And many scholars find antecedents of his theories in the Plato’s Forms. In the end the lasting impression of Anaxagoras, “lord of the assembly” as his name translates, is one of great regard and idealistic measure. He was considered to be a ‘true’ seeker of knowledge and believed that such an endeavor was the sole reason to exist.

Anaxagoras was a Pre-Socratic Greek Philosopher. (500 BCE – 428 BCE)