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Category Archives: Pre-Socratics

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Love and Strife: Empedocles’ Universe

by September 13, 2019

By David Hooker, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Who hasn’t looked up into a sky full of stars and wondered what our place is in this vast universe? What is the nature of this environment we find ourselves living in? Are there underlying substances to this “stuff” that makes up our world? For the contemplative among us, there are all too often few satisfying answers, yet an endless list of questions. This is especially true for those of us who have cruised around our sun on planet Earth for many years, as when we were younger we seemed to “know” everything! A revered professor of mine once said that as we progress in age, that is precisely the trajectory: as we go along, the “answers” become fewer and the questions accumulate, until we have pretty much nothing but questions! Perhaps that is a bit cynical, but not far off the mark in my opinion.
Empedocles, an ancient Greek philosopher, was one such man who contemplated these essential questions. Born in Acragas (now Agrigento), Sicily, sometime during the early 5th century B.C., and dying in 444 B.C., he belongs to a remarkable group of philosophers we call the pre-Socratics. Among this group are many incredible thinkers such as Thales of Miletus (with whom is normally reckoned the beginning of this era; born in 624 B.C.), Anaximander, Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Heraclitus, and the list goes on up until Socrates (born 470 B.C.).
Empedocles, 17th-century engraving

Empedocles, ancient Greek Presocratic philosopher. From Thomas Stanley, (1655)

I liken this period to the “Big Bang” of Western philosophy, since so many of the questions that have occupied the philosophic enterprise from that day until now were articulated, pondered, debated, and written about during those nearly two remarkable centuries before Socrates. The role of the senses in knowledge, the nature of reason, morality, religion, the gods, the soul, and what kind of stuff the universe was created of, are just some examples. The questions asked then, as well the methodologies and schools of thought that developed in order to answer them, have persisted to this day (with variations of course).
What we today call “Greece” was then a far flung set of city-states and islands throughout the Mediterranean, modern (western) Turkey, the Aegean Sea, etc. This was a time when these various geographic locations were the hubs of trade routes, aiding the transportation not only of goods but of a plethora of cultural, religious, political, and philosophical ideas.

What is This Thing Called Nature?

Empedocles was a poet, and his only surviving major works (in fragments and written in hexameter) are On Nature (Peri Phuseos) and Purifications (his later religious-themed work). Being that I could write all day about Empedocles and the implications of his thought (and you likely have other Classical Wisdom Weekly articles to attend to, don’t you, dear reader?), I will attempt instead to give a brief overview of On Nature.
For many of the pre-Socratics, their approach to philosophy consisted of trying to get at the root of things, beginning with the universe at large and then moving inwards from there. Empedocles posited four underlying substances, or “elements” comprising nature (phusis): Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. These he considered to be the “roots” of the “stuff” which we perceive and interact with every day. This view of nature remained prevalent in western thought down to the Renaissance. (It still survives today in some circles, especially in neo-Pagan thought.)
Of course, today we generally have a far different understanding of the word “elements,” or the underlying “stuff” of the natural universe. Our modern understanding of “all that is” (for Materialists, anyway) comes down to the 118 elements (as of 2017) arranged on the periodic table. (Catalogued in this fashion beginning with Mendeleev in 1869.) The air that we breathe, for instance, is comprised of several gases, primarily nitrogen (78%), oxygen (nearly 21 %), and argon (nearly 1%), along with other trace elements.
As the entire philosophic enterprise is often referred to as a millennia-long “conversation,” individual philosophers, such as Empedocles, are often seen as in conversation with, or as reacting to, other thinkers of their time (or immediately preceding). From Parmenides, Empedocles accepted the fundamental principle “that nothing can arise out of nothing,” nor can anything perish into nonentity. Sound familiar?! (“Matter is neither created nor destroyed” – 18th Century French chemist, Antoine Lavoisier) Whereas for Parmenides this meant that all motion and change must be illusory, Empedocles admits that there is a real process in nature: “the mixture and separation of things mixed.”
Empedocles' four elements/roots

A wood engraving of Empedocles and the four elements/roots.

Since the elements are four (rather than a monistic “One”), Empedocles then is able to explain natural change as the result of the combination, separation, and regrouping of these indestructible entities. Moreover, in Empedocles’ thought, these four interact continually under the influence of two cosmic powers on the other: Love and Strife. These two function as forces of attraction and repulsion. The power of Love, for instance, functions first by bringing together “like” together with “like,” (earth to earth, fire to fire, e.g.), but also assimilates the four elements one to another, creating a homogeneous compound of organic unity.
Strife, on the other hand, is seen as a force of differentiation and repulsion for the elements, one that creates great diversity in nature. This is really what we mean by the statement that the Universe (humanity as well) is “dynamic” (think plate tectonics, volcanism, impact events, etc.) – nature seems to be both “fixed” in the sense that matter is neither created nor destroyed, yet always in flux by forces molding and shaping the reality we perceive. It is not that the universe itself undergoes any fundamental change, but that the forces of Love and Strife, with their constant bringing-together and forcing-apart, create what we see as “change” over time. Here is a chart roughly depicting Empedocles’ view:
The Cycle of Love and Strife

A graphic depiction of the cosmic functions of Love and Strife as envisioned by Empedocles

What is This Thing Called Love?

Sometimes charts just don’t quite cut it. If you asked me to show you what love is, dear reader, you would likely be disappointed if I returned with a chart like the one above. Thus, along with the chart I have decided to appeal to this great song from the popular American music composer Cole Porter, because I believe it will further aid us in envisioning exactly how Empedocles conceived of the universe.
Cole Porter penned many songs that have been adapted by jazz musicians over the past nearly one hundred years, with “What is this Thing Called Love” being one of the most popular (it now belongs to the pantheon of classic tunes from the “Great American Songbook” that Jazz musicians love to play and improvise over). Jazz musicians love to rearrange the chord structures of popular songs (called “substitutions” – often thought to be “hipper” and more accommodative to improvisation on instruments such as saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass, et.al.). They also love to change the underlying rhythm (resetting it to Latin rhythms, swing feel, ballads, etc.) and tempos (faster or slower). It is a real art to do this in a way that both pleases the players and the audience, and to come up with something “new” and relevant to the occasion.
As I continued to think about Empedocles, it occurred to me that the jazz musicians’ art could serve as an analogy to Empedocles’ understanding of Love and Strife. Though western music utilizes 12 different tones (in a chromatic scale), it’s all in how they are juxtaposed that makes something “new” out of the underlying, unchanging substances, or notes (a new melody, new set of chord changes, rhythms, etc.) of music. As is the case with Love and Strife, acting on the four primal Elements in various ways, the 12 different tones are constantly being brought together and forced apart in various ways by musicians, while, like the products of Love and Strife, beings still dependent on what underlies them. As Empedocles put it,

Now there grows to be one thing alone out of many; now again many things
separate out of one.

Hopefully you have found this analogy helpful in understanding the way Empedocles viewed the universe. Music, like Nature, has shown itself to be a constant source of new creations. This is no surprise, as music is a product of Nature’s many creations. For Empedocles, it is the forces of Love and Strife that make the universe so dynamic. As a result, life is dynamic, and it is this very dynamism that makes it so joyful to contemplate. Empedocles, along with his fellow pre-Socratics, set Western philosophy on a journey of contemplating the cosmos. Friends: we are most fortunate to be able to continue their enterprise. Let us not take it for granted.

Leucippus, Democritus, and Atomism

by June 14, 2019

By Jacob Bell, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
Most folks know something about atomic theory…  its surprising ancient history, however, is often less discussed.
The current modern atomic theory is the prevailing scientific theory of matter and explains the physical world in terms of discrete units referred to as atoms. Atoms are made up of various subatomic particles such as electrons, protons, and neutrons.
However, the term “atom” actually comes from the Greek adjective atomos, which means “indivisible.” Like many other modern scientific and philosophical theories, atomic theory has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy.

Leucippus

Leucippus, living in the 5th century BCE, was the founder of atomism. This early account of atomic theory arose in response to Parmenides’ denial of the void. Leucippus claimed that without the void, motion was impossible. He also claimed that equating the void with nonexistence was a false equation.
Leucippus argued that the void existed as empty space and he used this as a foundational assumption in his atomic theory. He went on to expand this notion by insisting that the world was made up of one type of substance, namely atoms.
Leucippus went on to claim that this fundamental substance was infinite in number, indivisible, moved through empty space, and came together in particular combinations which gave rise to the visible objects of the world.
We don’t know much more about this first encounter with atomic theory because we don’t know very much about Leucippus and only have a few surviving fragments of his work.
Fortunately, much more is known about Democritus, who was a prolific writer and student of Leucippus. Democritus lived from 460-370 BCE.
Democritus elaborated on the theory of atoms, could predict weather changes, and dissected various animals throughout his career as a natural philosopher.
Intent on finding wisdom, he spent his entire inheritance traveling and studying. During his travels he visited Egypt, Ethiopia, Persia, and India. When his money ran out, he returned home to Abdera, where his brother took him in.
Democritus was given two rather interesting nicknames: “The Laughing Philosopher,” and “The Mocker.”
His fellow citizens gave him such titles because he would routinely make public appearances in which he mocked, condemned, and laughed about the foolishness and silliness of human affairs.

Painting of Democritus portrayed as “The Laughing Philosopher.”

Despite being given such seemingly unprofessional nicknames, Democritus became well-known for his knowledge of the physical world. He wanted to explain the world in natural terms and without reference to dogmatic mysticism.
In his expansion of atomic theory, he maintained the indivisibility of the atom because he claimed that it would be impossible to divide matter ad infinitum. He argued that each atom has a density that was in proportion to its volume, and he claimed that the void (empty space) was eternal in its existence.
Atoms, for Democritus, are too small for the naked eye to see. They float around the void, consisting of various shapes, and collide into one another.
Maintaining the notion that every physical object is made up of the same stuff, Democritus believed that a type of image must emerge from the combination of atoms which give rise to external objects. This image causes an impression upon our senses, which results in the appearance of the object in question.
Not only is our vision caused by a combination of atoms resulting in the appearance of a physical object, but all of our sensations are the result of atomic combinations. For instance, Democritus claimed that the taste of bitterness is caused by small, angular, and jagged atoms passing over the tongue. In contrast, the taste of sweetness is caused by larger-smoother atoms.
Perhaps most radically, Democritus claimed that the only things that can be said to truly exist are atoms and the void. Everything else that is thought to exist is simply a matter of social convention.
Democritus went on to claim that sensations such as the feeling of hot or cold had no real existence and were simply produced in organisms through a particular combination of atoms moving through the void.
Because we can perceive only the physical conglomeration of atoms that results in a visible physical object or subjective sensation, Democritus claimed that we were incapable of fully understanding the cosmos. There would always be something of which we could not observe, deduce, or understand due to this indirect experience of atoms and the void.
These early conceptions of atomic theory predate our modern theory of the atom by more than 2,000 years. It wasn’t until the 19th century that chemists began to refer to particular irreducible elements as atoms.
The 21st century notion of what an atom consists of is vastly different than that of the ancient Greeks, but that doesn’t diminish what many would claim is a kind of genius that went into developing such a theory.
Leucippus and Democritus were intuitive and wise beyond their years. Like many other Greek philosophers, they looked past tradition and cultural convention, forging their own path and establishing their own worldview. Idyllic in their innovative nature, they remain a great source of inspiration to this very day.
 

Protagoras & Relativism

by May 31, 2019

By Jacob Bell, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
“Man is the measure of all things…”
It is likely that you have heard this phrase uttered at one time or the other. It is an explicit declaration of relativism, and one of the earliest accounts of such a theory.
It was Protagoras who made this statement. He lived during the 5th century BCE and was part of the older Sophists, which included Gorgias, Hippias, and Prodicus.
The Sophists were traveling instructors who had expert knowledge regarding the art of rhetoric and persuasion. They understood the importance of appealing to the emotions as opposed to trying to convince someone of something through the use of pure logic and reason.
Because of their emphasis on evoking emotions and igniting passions, the Sophists are often interpreted as immoral charlatans rather than real philosophers. Regular readers may remember my Sophistry article regarding profit and selfish-gain…
Today I wish to approach the Sophists as true philosophers who were capable of great insights.
The idea that “man is the measure of all things” is essential to understanding the Sophists. One can interpret such a statement through the lens of crude relativism, which seems to be the most common interpretation.
It is also, in my opinion, a false and indignant interpretation.
Crude relativism would claim that all of our notions of justice, morality, knowledge, virtue, wisdom, and ethics are a matter of what one thinks is just, or moral, or true, or virtuous. With this view, there is nothing from which we can determine a higher order truth – all truth stems from what a society or individual thinks or believes to be the case.
This position leads one to claim that relativism is ultimately a theory of self-refutation. If all truth is relative to a person or society and their beliefs, and no thesis is more valid than any other, then relativism cannot be a more true or valid theory, either.
A crude relativistic view destroys itself before it gets off the ground.
I think this is a poor way of interpreting Protagoras and relativism. It commits the strawman fallacy, which is to intentionally misrepresent an argument or statement in order to make it a weak position which can be easily defeated.
We can’t know exactly what Protagoras had in mind when he claimed that “man is the measure of all things,” because we don’t have much of his original writings. But I wish to steelman this statement and create a strong argument through a more sophisticated interpretation of relativism.
Essentially, relativism is the idea that what is good, bad, true, and false is relative to a particular framework. I don’t think this statement can be refuted. We were born, evolved, and grew out of this world. We always have a perspective and a framework from which we navigate the world.
We cannot separate ourselves from the world in order to view anything from an objective standpoint. This doesn’t mean, however, that all views are equally valid, and it definitely does not mean that any statement is just as true as any other.
Protagoras of Abdera /Painting by Ribera -

Protagoras of Abdera, Painting by Ribera

Now, before you curse my existence and accuse me of being a charlatan, let me explain…
Let’s talk about board games for a moment. A board game is arbitrary in the sense that someone made up an entire framework from which to view and play the game. They created a story, rules for how to play, and an ultimate goal. It is all a fictional creation and a human construct. This does not mean, however, that all strategies for playing the game are equal, and one can certainly make truth statements regarding the rules and the best way to play the game.
We have similar human constructs and frameworks from which we view the world. These include values, motives, and goals. The values, motives, and goals in one culture may not be exactly the same as another culture, but that doesn’t mean we should just throw our hands in the air and declare everything equal.
We are still capable of making real truth statements about the world, and some strategies are better than others when we navigate the world in pursuit of certain goals. There also seems to be a wider-more-basic framework that has been embedded into most of mankind – probably through our shared evolutionary history.
There is also an important distinction that must be made between our personal-subjective experiences and the intersubjective world.
crickets

You can say the taste is subjective… but the nutritional value not… source

It is true that we all view the world from a particular framework, and it is true that we may see things differently from one another, but when I claim that it is cold outside, and you say that it is warm, we are projecting a relative value onto an intersubjective situation.
By intersubjective, I just mean a situation that is publicly accessible. We can both feel the air, experience the atmosphere, and talk about it. My personal-subjective experience of the intersubjective circumstance might be different than yours, but that isn’t what is important.
The importance is on the intersubjectivity of the situation and our ability to agree on particular aspects of the circumstance. We can both measure the temperature of the air, and we can agree that it is 60 degrees Fahrenheit outside – this is our intersubjective experience. I can then claim that it feels cold to me, and you can claim that it feels warm to you, this is our relative or personal-subjective experience of the intersubjective phenomena.
You might interpret the data differently, but the intersubjective data is presented to both of us equally.

Intersubjective Data: 60 degrees outside
My personal-subjective experience of the data: Cold
Your personal-subjective experience of the data: Warm

Am I right in claiming that it is cold? Or are you right in claiming that it is warm? I don’t think it even makes sense to ask or answer such a question, because we have moved from the intersubjective to the relative or personal-subjective.
The same reasoning can be applied to truth-statements about the world. If you claim that the earth is flat, and I claim that it is spherical, we aren’t obligated to believe that we are both right. The earth is part of our intersubjective world. We both have access to the earth in the same sense. You might not believe the evidence, but your belief doesn’t change the structure of the earth.
Protagoras provides us with the foundation for relativism. He was ahead of his time in positioning mankind away from absolutist types of thinking. Protagoras was a true philosopher, and not a mere rhetorician.
He recognized that we couldn’t be objective observers because we are always viewing things from a subjective framework. This was a radical truth for his time, but one that seems undeniable. Moreover, it opened a new way of thinking and reasoning about ourselves, the world, and our being-in-the-world.
 

Anaxagoras and His Mind

by May 10, 2019

By Monica Correa, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
In ancient Greece, the idea of a flat earth was simply assumed to be true. There were a select few that doubted this notion, and with their doubt came an ideological and theoretical struggle to sustain various points of view on the matter. This created a rich environment of natural philosophy, wisdom, and debate. It was in this culture that Anaxagoras of Clazomenae flourished.
Anaxagoras was born in Clazomenae (modern day Turkey) around 510 BCE. He moved to Athens, and then to Lampsacus, where he lived out his remaining years. He died around 428 BCE and had an altar of Mind and Truth built in his honor.
Anaxagoras Fresco

Detail of the right-hand facade fresco, showing Anaxagoras. National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

Anaxagoras’ Theory of Everything is in Everything

One of his biggest philosophical ideas states that everything is in everything. By this he meant that there are infinite initial elements and infinite fundamental components of matter. Every object in the world consists of small portions of everything and can’t be separated in smaller pieces.

In this regard, all things were together, as one. All the ingredients were combined in a mixture and nothing was discernible. A rotation was begun by Mind (referred to as Nous in the original text), and as the mixture revolved, ingredients began to separate off.

On his route to explain how outer space works, Anaxagoras also tried to explain the nature of the Milky Way. He claimed that it was composed of distant stars, which was quite a bit different from Aristotle’s belief that the Milky way was caused by “the ignition of the fiery exhalation of some stars which were large, numerous and close together”.  

Milky Way

Where does the light in the Milky way come from?

Anaxagoras: A Great Mind

We have only fragments of his work titled Peri Physeos (About Nature). In this work, Anaxagoras claimed that the cosmos is directed by Nous and insisted that the moon is a stone and the sun a piece of red-hot burning iron. Later, these statements would cause him problems.

For Anaxagoras, Nous is the origin of the universe and the cause of existence. He described Nous as a very subtle fluid that filters into matter and animates it with its movement. This fluid penetrates some objects of matter, but not others. This would explain the existence of both animate and inanimate objects.

Depiction of a flat earth.

Anaxagoras’ Other Contributions

Like the great thinkers of his era, such as Democritus or Socrates, Anaxagoras also believed that the earth was flat. His evidence for this was the rising and setting sun or moon, which are cut off at the horizon by a straight line. Anaxagoras argued that the cutoff shape created by the horizon would be curved if the earth were spherical. For someone who lived in an era without satellite photos, this would seem to be a logical conclusion.

Another of his most significant contributions to the understanding of the cosmos was how he tried to explain and describe the nature of stars without mythology or deities. His contributions are not limited to space, but also to earthly life. Anaxagoras attempted to explain various weather phenomena, earthquakes, why the sea is salty and how fish breathe, the nature of plants, and problems in embryology. He is also credited as the first to identify and describe the cause of eclipses – writing that lunar eclipses take place when the Earth or celestial bodies below the Moon, block the light.

Funnily it did occur to him that the shape of the eclipse would be a good indication of a round, rather than flat, earth.

A crater of the moon, dedicated to and named after Anaxagoras.

Anaxagoras: Sunset of His Life

After 30 years of teaching, he had to go into exile because he pointed out that the sun was a mass of red hot iron and that the moon was a rock that reflected sunlight. This last statement has been questioned by some translators of his work.

In his teaching, he proposed the idea that the Sun is a rock greater in size than the Peloponnese. Due to controversial theories like these, he was forced to leave Athens and spent the rest of his life in Lampsacus.

In retrospect, this contribution was not in vain. A small crater on the north pole of the Moon was named after Anaxagoras – in honor of his lifelong attempt to understand the cosmos.

Xenophanes and the Singular God

by March 9, 2015

XenophanesXenophanes of Colophon was a traveling poet and philosopher who preceded Socrates by over a century. As is common with many pre-Socratic philosophers, there is little to go on when it comes to understanding Xenophanes. If he had written any extensive texts, they have not survived to this day. We instead must rely on a series of fragments attributed to the philosopher in order to understand his conception of God, which was a bit controversial for the time.
What was it that Xenophanes proposed that was so revolutionary? Well, keep in mind that he lived in the times of classical Greece. The gods of Olympus were the accepted and venerated deities of the land. Zeus and his pantheon of gods weren’t just characters in mythology, they were the central figures in a religion that would have been practiced with a level of sincerity similar to that found among devout Christians today.
If you are familiar with any Greek mythology, you will know that the Olympians were not paradigms for virtue. Zeus was notoriously promiscuous, going so far as to transform into animals in order to carry out extra marital affairs with mortal women. Poseidon was wrathful; his anger prompted him to bat Odysseus back and forth across the seas for years after the hero blinded his Cyclops son, Polyphemus.
The gods were known for, perhaps celebrated for their imperfections, temper tantrums, proclivity for bloody vengeance and all around questionable behavior. This understanding of the divine, however, is a grave injustice according to Xenophanes.
“Homer and Hesiod attributed to the gods all things which are disreputable and worthy of blame when done by men; and they told of them many lawless deeds, stealing, adultery, and deception of each other.” -Xenophanes (fragment 7)
It is not just the bad behavior of the gods that Xenophanes believes to be inconsistent with the divine. He objects to the general anthropomorphizing of God and the belief that deities would, in any way, resemble mortals.
“But mortals suppose that the gods are born (as they themselves are), and that they wear man’s clothing and have human voice and body. But if cattle or lions had hands, so as to paint with their hands and produce works of art as men do, they would paint their gods and give them bodies in form like their own—horses like horses, cattle like cattle.” –Xenophanes (Fragments 5-6)
So Xenophanes, in rather bold fashion, takes to task the scripture of his day and openly criticizes the Greeks for their tendency to present their deities in such a negative and Zeuserroneous fashion. While Xenophones is indeed examining our tendency to anthropomorphize God, he also appears to be criticizing religiously minded people who triumph their belief system over others for no sound reason. This critique would have been especially true amongst the ancient Greeks who often championed their Olympians over the other, “barbarian” religions.
Xenophanes critique of the popular religion of the day no doubt had an influence on Socrates, a man who continued to question the plausibility of Olympian gods within Plato’s dialogue, The Euthyphro. It is within this dialogue that Socrates raises the question, “Do the gods love that which is pious because it is pious? Or is that which is pious, pious because the gods love it?” It’s a classic “chicken or egg” question that is never properly answered. It is a question that, once again, pokes holes in the dominant religion of the age.
While Xenophanes was indeed critical of popular religion, we must not assume that he believed all religions to be equally plausible. Moreover, we must not label Xenophanes an atheist; the man was anything but.
“God is one, supreme among gods and men, and not like mortals in body or in mind.The whole [of god] sees, the whole perceives, the whole hears. But without effort he sets in motion all things by mind and thought.” –Xenophanes (fragments 1-3)
Xenophonanes’ conception of God seems to be one that is more familiar to us. Rather than appealing to the Olympian deities, he proposes a God that is singular, all-knowing, all-powerful, and is responsible for the creation and continued existence of reality. Essentialy, Xenophanes is ticking off all the boxes that modern theologists use when examining God. That is to say that God, insofar as he or she is God, must be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.
When it comes down to it, God must be all-knowing, all-powerful, and ever present. In theology, these are known as “the three ‘O’s’”. Occasionally, theologists will add a fourth “O” and declare that God must also be omnibenevolent.
I hope this is all making sense.
Xenophanes’ conception of God has led some to consider him the first monotheist in the Western intellectual tradition. His critiques of popular religion have similarly won him the honor of being known as one of the first theologists in the history of Western philosophy.
However, we must come to the conclusion that what he was, truly, was a devout man who wished to lead others toward a spirituality based on reason and away from a religion cemented in tradition and superstition.

Anaximander’s Boundless Universe

by July 7, 2014

Anaximander is often considered to be the first philosopher, at least in some circles. The more anaximanderpopular opinion, which is shared by your associate editor, is that the first philosopher was Thales of Miletus. As Bertrand Russell states in his History of Western Philosophy…


“Philosophy begins with Thales.”

However, Anaximander, Thales’ pupil, might take the title as “the first philosopher” simply because of his attempts to construct the type of philosophical argument that we have come to know and love. Thales, though we love him so, declared that the underlying principle of the universe was water, and that all things come from water in one way or another. He provided no real argument to support this seemingly baffling claim; or if he did, we simply would not know, seeing as how the man left no extant work.
On the other hand, Anaximander did attempt to construct a series of arguments to support his hypothesis that the universe was born from an unknowable, unobservable substance known as Apeiron, which loosely translates to “the boundless” or “that which has no limit.”
The question of who was truly the first philosopher of Greece, Thales or Anaximander, will never truly be answered. However, that is not our concern today. Today we are interested in this mysterious first substance that Anaximander so eloquently named “the boundless.”
Thales and Anaximander both belonged to a group of early presocratic thinkers who lived in Miletus, a coastal town on the shores of what is now modern day Turkey, in about 550 BC. These “Milesian philosophers” primarily concerned themselves with one question and one question only:


Why and how does the universe exist?

Heavy stuff, right?
XXXN.B. that these early thinkers were not blessed with the millennia’s worth of scientific knowledge we possess today. While we now stand on the shoulders of giants, these presocratic philosophers were giant-less. They were striking out for the first time into the fields of natural science and cosmology, and they were doing it on their own. While their conclusions might appear to be baffling to us, we must remember that it is only because of these early scientific endeavors that we are blessed with the olympiads of knowledge that we take for granted today. If we do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants, then the Milesians were the first rung of the ladder that we climbed to reach our lofty perch.
That being said, what is it that they were specifically searching for?
The Milesian philosophers were interested in the underlying substance that constituted all of existence. They believed that there existed a common denominator from which all things come to be. This primary substance was known as Arche and it translates roughly to “the source.”
Keep in mind that this type of metaphysical philosophy is something that modern readers might not be very familiar or even comfortable with. We can happily recount the periodic table of the elements or observe the structure of an atom under an electron microscope.
However, metaphysics is often uncomfortable for us. It does not bother with the specific happenings of the universe. Metaphysics aims at understanding being qua being, the underlying principles of all things. Put very simply, if physics is the study of existence, metaphysics hopes to answer the question, “what is existence?”
Ultimately, Anaximander wanted to know where the universe came from. He wanted to explain the origin of reality as we know it. The philosopher did so with the Apeiron.
Before we go any further, we must first recognize that the ancient Greeks held the belief that the world was constructed form the four primary elements: earth, water, wind, and fire.
anaximander reliefWhen considering the underlying foundation of the universe, Anaximander came to the conclusion that this world has the capacity for infinite plurality; meaning that the things within our universe are unique. Every rock, tree, and drop of water is different from any other rock, tree, or drop of water that ever was or ever will be.
In short, nature is unlimited in its ability to produce variation and change.
Building upon this, we can see that if there exists the potentiality for infinite variation, there must logically exist the potentiality for an infinite amount of matter. Epicurus would come to a similar conclusion when he wrote…


“The sum of things is infinite. For what is finite has an extremity, and the extremity of anything is discerned only by comparison with something else.” -Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus)

So we see that our universe, at least through this argument, has no limit upon it and is actually infinite. Therefore, Anaximander concluded that none of the four primary elements could possibly function as the Arche of the universe. For how could it be said that any one substance, which is concrete and discernible, is responsible for the unlimited variety that exists within reality.
And so Anaximander appeals to what is known as the Apeiron, an unobserved substance (substance being a rather generous description for it) that has no limits placed upon it. It is this prime substance, this endless primordial essence, that all things are born from and, in time, all things will disappear into.


“Anaximandros of Miletos, son of Praxiades, says that the first principle of things is the infinite; for from this all things come, and all things perish and return to this. Accordingly, an infinite number of worlds have been generated and have perished again and returned to their source…” -Aetius of Antioch

So we see that Anaximander believed that the boundless, the infinite Apeiron, was the source of all existence. It was the active cause through virtue of which reality as we know it can be.
However, we are still left wondering what exactly “the boundless” is. What, precisely, is the Apeiron? Anaximander gives us no definite answer to this question, a frustration which is expressed by the 1st century philosopher Aetius of Antioch…


“…but he fails to say what the infinite is, whether it is air or water or earth or some other thing. He fails to show what matter is, and simply calls it the active cause.” -Aetius of Antioch

anaximander statue
Well, it seems like we might have an answer. However, we are no closer to understanding precisely what this answer means. We cannot grasp upon the notion of an Apeiron.

However, one possible solution exists – a conclusion that would be supported by the renowned philosopher, Aristotle.
You see, dear reader, there is one hypothesis that states that the word Apeiron does not translate to “the boundless” but rather to “the indefinite.”
Anaximander believed that the world was composed of two pairs of opposites: the hot and the cold, and the wet and the dry. These unique qualities would correspond to the four primary substances: fire, earth, water, and wind.
It is possible that Anaximander believed that these four elements were once combined within the Apeiron and that they took on shape and form after leaving the Apeiron, creating the world as we know it in the process.
Therefore, we must understand that the Apeiron is an unknowable quantity. It is neither hot nor cold, nor is it wet or dry. However, it has the potential to be all of these things at once, and at the same instance it is none. In other words, the Apeiron is that which is indefinite.
This is a rather difficult idea for people to wrap their heads around. How can it be that there exists some boundless substance that at once has the qualities of all things while simultaneously having no qualities at all?
Aristotle would come to a similar conclusion in his Metaphysics when considering the idea of matter and form. When attempting to understand the essence of an object, Aristotle would conclude that the substance is the hylomorphic compound of matter and form.
Hercules StatueThat is to say that a bronze statue of Heracles (insofar as it is a bronze statue of Heracles) is only so because it is composed of matter (bronze) and form (Heracles). These two predicates combine to create the essence of the statue.
However, if we were to separate matter and form (in thought) then we would struggle to comprehend the result. In truth, we simply cannot comprehend matter without form.
When considering the example of the statue, we might say that if we were to separate the matter (bronze) from the form (Heracles) then we might be simply left with a pile of bronze. However, we must recognize that we have not removed form from this compound. The matter has simply taken on a new form (a pile of bronze).
So we begin to picture a type of matter that has no shape, substance, or dimensions. This type of substance is usually referred to as “prime matter,” and it is unique in that it is ,all at once, nothing at all while simultaneously having the potentiality to be all things.
Whether we have come to accept Anaximander’s Apeiron as the prime substance of the universe, or simply decide to shake it off as interesting food for thought, there is no denying the allure and mystery of such an idea. It is the idea that from the infinite void there came, for a time, a discernible universe. It is the idea that our universe will some day return from whence it came – back into the abyss, into the infinite, into the boundless reaches of the Apeiron.