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.
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”.
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 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 erroneous 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 is often considered to be the first philosopher, at least in some circles. The more popular 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?
N.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.
When 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
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.
That 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.
Heraclitus was born in Ephesus, an important ancient city located on the Ionian Coast, in about 535 BCE. Living relatively close to Miletus, the birthplace of westernphilosophy, he undoubtedly would have been familiar with Thales and the rest of the Milesian school. It is likely that Heraclitus would have been born to aristocracy. His casual disregard for the masses would seem to suggest he favored a political system that entrusted power to a handful of wise leaders rather than a free for all democracy like the one born to Classical Athens.
Heraclitus by Johannes Moreelse
While the life of Heraclitus remains something of a mystery, his ideas are a topic of endless fascination for hungry philosophers such as ourselves.
Heraclitus was rather critical of his predecessors as well as much of humanity in general. He tells us that we are like children, fumbling around in the dark, clueless to the true nature of reality. We remain pathetically oblivious to truth, even when we experience it every day. Heraclitus compares our inability to realize the true nature of the universe to a man waking from sleep, unable to recall his dreams.
“Listening not to me but to the Logos it is wise to agree that all things are one.” -Heraclitus (Fragment 50)
This divine Logos, or law of the universe, centers around the idea of eternal flux, that things within the universe are constantly changing. Heraclitus explains this flux by examining the unity of opposites. It can be found that all things undergo transformations so that they may become their opposites. That which is hot will inevitably become cold. Every life is guaranteed death and with each death, there can be found new life.
To avoid this pitfall we must understand that opposite things are not identical, but rather they are transformationally equivalent. By this Heraclitus means to say that something may change to its opposite and vice versa. In this way, opposites are interchangeable, not identical. All things are caught up in an endless cycle of change, transformation, and rebirth. It is this notion that is at the heart of Heraclitus’ doctrine of flux and his divine Logos.
The difference between Heraclitus and Thales is that while Thales was looking for a physical substance that all matter was built upon, Heraclitus was more interested in an underlying pattern or principle that put the universe into manageable terms. As we have seen, this principle was Heraclitus’ doctrine of universal flux. It is important to keep this in mind, because Heraclitus describes the world, rather dramatically, as an “everliving fire.
Heraclitus tells us that there is a world order that exists like…
“…an everlasting fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.”
Heraclitus does not mean to say that all things literally come from fire. Instead, this world order, much like fire, is constantly changing, transforming eternally. This leads us back to the doctrine of flux. It is not unreasonable to say that fire is the physical incarnation of the abstract notion of a universe with constantly shifting elements.
To help explain this, we will look at what is known as “the river paradox.” Basically, the paradox tells us that it is impossible to step into the same river twice. This is because as soon as you step in a river, the water moves downstream and the composistion of the river has changed ever so slightly.
This is not to say that the river insofar as it is a river has changed. It is the elements that make up the river that have shifted. In fact, it is only by virtue of having constantly shifting water that the river exists as a river rather than a pond or a lake. Similarly, the universe remains harmoniously stable even as the elements within undergo constant transformation, and it is only by virtue of these constant changes that our universe exists in the way that it does.
This fiery world order, despite how it may sound, is not chaotic. This constant flux, this transformation of opposites, is not in conflict. Directly contradicting Anaximander, Heraclitus tells us that these opposites exist in harmony with one another. Without night, there could be no day. It is only with experiencing some sicknesses that we fully appreciate health. And it is the prospect of death that compliments life, giving it a measured potential within the world.
Heraclitus by Hendrick ter Brugghen
heraclitus bustAdditionally, there is no beginning, nor is there an end. Our divine Logos was not created by man or God. It has always been and will always be. A continuous balance of opposing forces, this world order is not a path to travel. Instead it is a cycle that all souls exist within, where the way up and the way down can be said to be the same thing.
The ideas of Heraclitus are far from simple. Heraclitus speaks of a divine Logos that conducts the universe like a maestro might conduct a symphony. The philosopher tells us of a world order blazing like a fire, where the transformations of opposites creates a world in perfect harmony.
The ideas of Heraclitus are rather similar to the concept of yin-yang within the Chinese philosophical tradition where seemingly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent.
Here we will leave Heraclitus. There is more we could discuss, such as his ideas on the application of the divine logos to moral philosophy. However, we will save that for another day. For now, let us be content with our glimpse into a universe that is both ever-changing and eternal, both extraordinary and confounding.