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Mosaic Depicting Anaximander
Mosaic depicting Anaximander with a sundial.

Tangled BankIt’s hard to know how to open something on Anaximander. Herodotus had the right idea. “This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that things done by man not be forgotten in time, and that great and marvelous deeds, some displayed by the Hellenes, some by the barbarians, not lose their glory…

Unfortunately Herodotus, whose history is the earliest that survives, was writing a couple of centuries too late to record Anaximander and that’s shame. From the scant information that does survive Anaximander may be one of the all-time greats of science, up there with Newton, Darwin and Einstein. Unlike Archimedes or Pythagoras none of his ideas remain in use in science today, but his achievement is that he is arguably the man whose work made science possible.

There are plenty of reasons to like Anaximander. One is that he should be a very easy philosopher to be an expert on. Only two fragments of what appear to be his own words survive.

1. ‘Immortal and indestructible,’ ‘surrounds all and directs all.’
2. ‘(To that they return when they are destroyed) of necessity; for he says that they suffer punishment and give satisfaction to one another for injustice.’

Translation by Arthur Fairbanks, The First Philosophers of Greece

By themselves they look pretty meaningless and short. Apart from memorise them there’s not a lot else you can do. Job done. However you’re supposed to look at them in context, and Anaximander has an awful lot of context.

Anaximander is considered to be the second of three philosophers known as the Milesian Triad. These were three philosophers based in the Greek city of Miletos, now the Turkish town of Milet, around the sixth century BC. Thales was the first and is said to have been the teacher of Anaximander. The third was Anaximenes, who is said to have been Anaximander’s student.

We don’t have dates for Thales’ birth or death but he’s said to have predicted the solar eclipse of 585BC over Asia Minor, so he would appear to have been active in the early part of the sixth century BC. Thales is an even easier philosopher to be an expert on than Anaximander, nothing written of his survives. From later authors like Aristotle we learn that Thales was was said to have invented Natural Philosophy. His big idea was that the cosmos grew from a seed, an arche, which he said was water. He’s said to have had a few other ideas, like the earth floated on water, and earthquakes occurred when the earth shook on this bed. He’s also thought to have said there are gods in all things and that rocks have souls. The latter statement might refer to magnetism, but it’s hard to say. I wouldn’t want to belittle Thales. He was a genius and even if he hadn’t invented philosophy then his name would still have survived because he was a canny political thinker. So while Thales deserves immense credit for inventing the idea, Anaximander is the person that really got to grips with Natural Philosophy. He showed where you could take it and was so amazing that he ensured it wouldn’t become a neglected good idea, like so many that litter Greek history.

The first fragment . ‘Immortal and indestructible,’ ‘surrounds all and directs all.’ refers to Anaximander’s idea of the arche. He wondered how things like fire could come from water. What prevented fire from drying out all the water, or water dissolving all the earth? He worked out that the arche couldn’t be a normal element. It had to be something special. He used the word apeiron, which roughly translates as ‘boundless’ or ‘infinite’. This was an indestructible substance that all others came from. From this came the Earth, Water, Air and Fire that made up the cosmos. This steps past one problem, it’s quite smart, but what prevents Fire from quenching Water? This is the second fragment.

‘(To that they return when they are destroyed) of necessity; for he says that they suffer punishment and give satisfaction to one another for injustice.’

He said that the elements were constantly emerging and dissolve back into the apeiron. The force that kept it all in balance was justice. This sounds a bit mad, and this is why I’m wary of the term ancient science. It’s not mad if you look at the time Anaximander lived in.

This was a period when the polis system, the city states that the Greeks lived in, was forming. In later periods you could justify power by saying “We’ve always done it this way.” In this period you couldn’t do that. Writing was in its infancy. The Greeks were having a big argument over what was the right way to live. In Athens, Solon had recently introduced trial by jury and by the end of the sixth century Cleisthenes would lay the foundations of the democratic state. Around the same time Sparta was conquering Messenia and following a different route becoming the ultimate military state. In the new colonies street plans were laid out in sites that had no (Greek) history. How should cities be built? Obviously you can’t ignore Gravity and just build them with upper floors, nor can you ignore electromagnetism and the fact the light travels in straight lines creating shadows. The Greeks also though you couldn’t ignore justice either. In the tales such as the Iliad, justice is a force that not even the gods can ignore. In the Greek world order was created in the cities by rules and laws, if there was order in the cosmos then it too must have law. Tellingly the very word κοσμος means ‘order’. What could operate the cosmos better than justice? Anaximander looked hard at the world. Everything he saw come into being came from a seed, and then thought about it logically to decide what seed could create a universe.

Anaximander created the first detailed model of the universe we have. The Earth was flat, after a fashion. In fact he held it was drum-shaped, with a depth of about a third of its diameter and that the flat surface on the other side of the Earth was also inhabitable. The Earth was in the centre of the cosmos. It stayed there because it was equidistant from other points, there was no more reason for it to move down than up, so it stayed where it was. The stars were holes in the sky showing the fire beyond, and the planets, which in ancient Greece included the Sun and Moon, were like cartwheels which spun round the Earth, with a hole in the rim through which fire burned. The circle of the Moon was eighteen times the Earth’s diameter and the circle of Sun twenty-times the Earth’s diameter. Eclipses occurred, he argued, when the holes in these rims became blocked.

Now you could just say he was wrong and laugh at the idea of a drum-shaped Earth. But a drum is not an obvious shape for a world and suggests that this wasn’t a whim. Rather like the ratios of the circles there was probably a reason and it’s a shame that reason has been lost. It’s not whether or not he got it right that matters, it’s the way he was making the attempt. He was trying to pry the cogs of the universe apart using his mind as a crowbar. Observe and theorise. One of the most striking examples of this was his theory of the origins of humans.

He observed that baby humans were incapable of looking after themselves. One woman’s baby is another animal’s lunch, so how did the first humans survive?

Alexander of Miletus says he thinks that from hot water and Earth there arose fish, or animals very like fish, that humans grew in them, and that the embryos were retained inside up till puberty whereupon the fish-like animals burst and men and women emerged already able to look after themselves.

Censorinus On Birthdays IV 7, trans. Jonathan Barnes.

Another mad idea? Not if you read Plutarch’s Table Talk[730DF] which notes that some sharks care for their young by keeping them cosseted. Some people use this as an example that Anaximander foresaw Evolution, which is unfair on him and Darwin. What he did do is recognise a problem and observe the world closely for an answer.

It may seem obvious to us that Inquiry is the way to solve a problem, but even today people ask why we should bother with “blue-sky research”. The answer should be if we knew why, then we wouldn’t have to do it. In Anaximander’s time people knew what they needed to know. They planted and harvested crops, raised families and were doing pretty well. They regarded themselves as the most advanced civilisation in history. In fact they too made fun of pure research. A tale is told of Thales that he was so intent on studying the stars one night that as he walked he fell into a well. Yet if he hadn’t been finding answers to unnecessary questions it seems likely that no-one would have ever realised what the necessary questions were, let alone ask them. Anaximander’s acute observation of birds led him to predict an earthquake in Sparta. His astronomical work introduced the sundial to Greece at a time when the Greeks would argue what month in the year it was, let alone what hour in the day.

Thales was a genius but there were many geniuses in ancient Greece whose great ideas effectively died with them. Natural Philosophy was just one of the many things Thales did. Anaximander deserves to be remembered alongside Archimedes or Pythagoras for ensuring that Natural Philosophy was recognised as a Good Idea and passed on to future generations. His example that explanations could be more than simply the will of the gods led to a debate about the nature of the cosmos that continues to this day. I don’t know if it’s fair to say there was a lot of science in Anaximander’s work, but there’s a lot of Anaximander in both the Sciences and Humanities.