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Anaximander - Biography

Anaximander (610 BCE - 546 BCE) was a Milesian School Pre-Socratic Greek Philosopher. Like most of the Pre-Socratics, very little is known of Anaximander’s life. He was born, presumably in 610 BCE, in Ionia, the present day Turkish west coast, and lived in Miletus where he died in 546 BCE. He was of the Milesian school of thought and, while it is still debated among Pre-Socratic scholars, most assert that he was a student of Thales and agree that, at the very least, he was influenced by his theories. He is infamously known for writing a philosophical prose poem known as On Nature, of which only a fragment has been passed down. In that fragment Anaximander innovatively attributes the formation of a regulating system that governs our world, the cosmos. Furthermore, he put forth the radical idea that it is the indefinite (apeiron), in both the principle (archē) and element (stoicheion), from which are the things that are. In addition to such ingenuity, Anaximander also developed innovative ideas and theories in astronomy, biology, geography, and geometry.

Aristotle, and his pupil Theophrastus, are most responsible for what we know of Anaximander and his theories. Understanding the Pre-Socratic commitment to a search for origin, Anaximander is credited with the more radical understanding of an origin or principle (archē) in his positing as indefinite as opposed to attributing the origin to a particular element like Thales before him, who attributed thus to water, and Anaximenes who followed Anaximander and attributed the origin to the element air.

For Anaximander, the origination of the world could not be reduced to a single element or a collection of elements alone. Rather, one needed to understand that the origin was in both principle and element not definable in a definite sense or attribution. While this was a radical perspective in relation to the more determinate theories of others from the Milesian school, it does seem to have some derivation from older Greek mythology that posited the origin of all things from an originary Chaos—a formless state, void, gap. And thus precisely Anaximander’ theory does remain radical in part in its “formlessness” or “unknowability” given the overall Greek tradition of harmony, symmetry and form in all things, in all things in their positive existence.

Rather than reinterpret that tradition and terminology and its problematic associations with mythology and the gods, Anaximander employed the term, apeiron, and according to Simplicius, it is the earliest known use of the word. In this theoretical case, the word is most often translated as “indefinite;” though often it has been translated as “infinite” or “unlimited.” More directly and literally, the Greek word means without boundary. And, for Anaximander, the origin of all things is precisely without boundary—in ‘thingness’ and in ‘character’. In understanding this theoretical argument it has come to be understood, especially as has been interpreted through Aristotle in his Physics, that for this theory of apeiron to exist, the bound-less-ness of the origin must be understood itself without origin. In fact it must be to be the origin, otherwise it would be or become a known quantity, susceptible to definition and limits. Following, the origin is without bounds because in order to be originating it must be “infinite” to facilitate an ongoing source of origin. Furthermore, the origin as being without bounds is specific to ‘itself’ as origin as opposed to the elemental elements (water, air, fire) that being without bounds would enable an element to ‘boundlessly’ destroy another as they are predicated oppositions.

This latter point of argument also speaks to the only existing fragment that is attributed to Anaximander and has been widely interpreted from Aristotle to Martin Heidegger, the latter of whose translation is cited:

But that from which things arise also gives rise to their passing away,
according to what is necessary;
for things render justice and pay penalty to one another for their injustice, according to the
ordinance of time.

The fragment, to be understood in context with other testimony, seems to suggest the notion of a self-regulating process of equilibrium. It posits the cyclical birth and decay of all things though, “according to what is necessary,” implying a primordial economy of means based on what could be interpreted as a “natural law” of all things. In using the term “justice,” a characteristically Greek belief, Anaximander expresses the sense of an over-arching accord such that if one ‘thing’ were to step out-of-bounds, or exceed its bounds then it will be subject to “penalty.” All things are maintained in proportion, over time or in time or through the passage of time. This important distinction reveals Anaximander’s profound insight into a 'processorial' dynamism of the things (elements) of the world that co-extensively adjudicate one another in an ongoing balancing act, so-to-speak.

In a testimony that comes from Pseudo-Plutarch, Anaximander is apparently cited in reiteration of this notion of a dynamic equilibrium: “Something productive of hot and cold was separated off from the eternal at the genesis of this world and from this a sphere of flame grew around the air around the earth like the bark around a tree.” The citation underscores the dynamic element of opposition that is integral to his thinking and appears to be the cause of the subsequent regulating system (this ‘law of nature’). From this one could suppose that the origin is itself neutral in its indefiniteness yet productive of such oppositions to produce an integral system of tension, opposing elements and things, which through a regulating structure come to be and pass away in an eternal modulating, proportionally, equilibrium.

Anaximander’s cosmology was profound and innovative and evolved commensurately with his studies in astronomy and geography. He developed a mechanical model of the world that, as the Plutarch quote above speaks to, was cylindrical in its form. In this model, the celestial bodies were understood to be able to pass below the earth while making circular movements, which was an extremely advanced notion of the cosmos. And these celestial bodies were seen by him as being stacked one in front of the other with the sun being farthest away from earth, the stars the closest and the moon in between. Anaximander also described the celestial bodies as having a circular shape like the wheels of a chariot. The wheels were said to be hollow and filled with fire with their rims being of an opaque vapor. There were holes in the wheels in which the fire shines through giving us the light of the sun, moon and stars. They could close as well, thus providing for phases of the moon and eclipses. The earth itself was considered to be free-floating, unlike Thales’ conception of it resting on water. For Anaximander, earth was and remained in place at the center of the universe without support. While a novel idea, it was of course false, but interesting to say the least in its argumentative dependence on the reason of equitability. As Aristotle reinterpreted it, “there are some who say that it stays where it is because of equality, such as among the ancients Anaximander. For that which is situated in the center and at equal distances from the extremes, has no inclination whatsoever to move up rather than down or sideways; and since it is impossible to move in opposite directions at the same time, it necessarily stays where it is.” Of course, this line of argument could then thus be made as a case for most everything to remain in place based on a ‘law’ of equitable opposition.

While the earth was no longer to be viewed as resting upon water after Anaximander, water did play a significant role in his understanding of the more biological development of the world. The scholar believed that life on earth derived from water, or more specifically, the moisture that covered the world. Prior to what he considered to be the sun’s drying of the earth, the first form of life that evolved from the moisture was fish and from that species man eventually evolved.

In addition to his modeling of the cosmos or universe, he is said to have also drawn a map of earth. It is argued that the proto-cartographer is said to have completed thus not only for a further understanding of the world and its place, but also, and most probably for political and navigational reasons for the Milesian states. As is thus clear, he was very much interested in understanding distance, placement, movement and time and the measurability of such. This is in part why he is often attributed with inventing the gnomon, the triangular blade that creates the shadow on a sundial. There is evidence that he did in fact erect and/or correct various sundials yet it is argued that it was in fact the Babylonians before him that calculated the passing of time each day according to experiments with early sundials.

Anaximander was incredibly innovative and varied. His studies covered a wide array of fields and at the same time were very dedicated and detailed. In his life he had an immediate impact on his students, most notably Anaximenes-of-miletus/biography/" title="Anaximenes of Miletus Biography">Anaximenes and Pythagoras. Later his theories and philosophy continued to inspire and innovate from Plato and Aristotle to Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, the latter of whom devoted a series of lectures to his studies and would employ his philosophy in his own development of Dasein.

Anaximander was a Milesian School Pre-Socratic Greek Philosopher. (610 BCE - 546 BCE).