Isn’t Anaximander Wonderful?

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.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. Carlo Rovelli says:

    Yes, Anaximander is won­der­ful, and there is much more to say about him, and many more reason to be amazed by him, besides what you list. Check-out my recent book: “The First Scientist: Anaximander and his Legacy”. And by he way, in a couple of hours I am giv­ing a talk about Anaximander at the philo­sophy depart­ment in Princeton.
    carlo rovelli

  1. April 23, 2006

    Isn’t Anaximander Wonderful?

    […] Classically I’ll stick with Anaximander. I know I could try and dis­cuss a clas­si­cist who hasn’t has the respect they deserve, but Anaximander still remains the clas­sical name who should be men­tioned along­side Einstein and Newton in my opinion. […]