Anaximander (Greek: Αναξίμανδρος) (c. 609 – 547 B.C.E.) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, the second of the philosophers of Ionia (the first being Thales and the third Anaximenes). He was a citizen of Miletus, a student of Thales, and the teacher of Anaximenes.
Thales, the first philosopher in Western philosophy, according to Aristotle, inquired into the unchanging principle of being that can uniformly explain all phenomena and identified it with “water.” This was an innovative form of inquiry in a society where Greek mythology was the primary framework of interpretation.
Anaximander followed the path of his teacher Thales and similarly inquired into the ultimate principles. While Thales identified the ultimate being as the extension of a particular element in nature (water), Anaximander attempted to find a more universal principle of being. In his view, if a particular element in nature, such as water, is the origin, a being with contrary nature, such as fire, cannot emerge or co-exist. The origin must be universal and free from any particular characteristics. Anaximander identified the ultimate with the “indefinite” or “unbounded” (apeiron).
By “indefinite,” Anaximander meant the original matter out of which all beings in nature originate. Anaximander characterized the “indefinite” to be divine and imperishable. Within the framework of an ontology of form and matter, Aristotle interpreted Anaximander as a predecessor who inquired into the material cause of being.
Anaximander further introduced the principle of diversification or individuation separately from the origin of being. The “indefinite” is diversified by the principle of dual characteristics of hot and cold, and wet and dry and these phenomena in nature are governed by the principle of balance (Diels and Kranz 12A9). Although Anaximander did not explicitly conceptualize the principle of dual characteristics, it exists in his thought in an incipient form. This idea is somehow similar to that of the principle of Yin and Yang in ancient Chinese thought.
Anaximander cultivated the path of truth his teacher Thales had opened up by extending the level of abstraction to a remarkable degree. Anaximander also seems to have had a broad knowledge in diverse areas of the sciences.
Little is known of his life and work. Aelian makes him the leader of the Milesian colony to Amphipolis, and hence some have inferred that he was a prominent citizen. The computations of Apollodorus of Athens have fixed his birth in 611, and his death shortly after 547 B.C.E.
Ancient sources represent him as an astronomer and geographer. He has been said to have created such astronomical instruments as the sundial and the gnomon, and be the first person who drew contours of land and sea on a map.
Anaximander also held a theory that some regard as an embryonic form of evolution theory. Plutarch, an ancient Greek historian, records Anaximander’s view as man himself and the animals had come into being by transmutations; man had sprung from some other species of animal, probably aquatic (Diels and Kranz 12A30).
Hippolytus, a second- to third-century church father, explains Anaximander’s cosmology as out of the vague and limitless body there sprang a central mass—this earth of ours, cylindrical in shape, poised equidistant from surrounding orbs of fire, which had originally clung to it like the bark round a tree, until their continuity was severed, and they parted into several wheel-shaped and fire-filled bubbles of air (Diels and Kramz 12A11).
Anaximander is said to have written a work entitled On the Nature, which is the first philosophy book in the history of Western philosophy. The only surviving fragmentary quote taken from the book exists in Simplicius’ commentary on Aristotle’s physics (Diels and Kranz 12A9). Considering Anaximander’s breadth of knowledge, the book seemed to contain studies of nature in broad areas including cosmogony, cosmology, astronomy, biology, meteorology, geography, and others.
The quote in Simplicius’ commentary reads:
Whence things have their origin, Thence also their destruction happens, As is the order of things; For they execute the sentence upon one another—The condemnation for the crime—In conformity with the ordinance of Time. (Diels and Kranz 12A9)
Commentators agree that this quoted passage was directly taken from Anaximander’s work, but disagree on its interpretation.
Anaximander distinguished “indefinite,” the ultimate being, and all other existing beings. The “indefinite” exists for eternity; thus, it is divine and does not perish. All other beings have a beginning and an end to their existence. They come into existence from the origin and will return to their origin and non-existence.
Martin Heidegger, a twentieth-century German philosopher, stresses the importance of Anaximander’s insight that distinguishes being at the origin and all beings that came into existence. According to Anaximander, being at the origin has no beginning and end, and all other beings exist only in time. Beings in time are destined to perish and the cosmos is governed by the principle of balance.
All links retrieved October 5, 2012.
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