Anaximenes of Miletus

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Anaximenes (in Greek: Άναξιμένης) of Miletus (c. 585 – 528 B.C.E.) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, the third of the philosophers of Ionia (the first being Thales and the second Anaximander). He was a citizen of Miletus and a student of Anaximander.

Thales, the first philosopher of Ionia, conceived the original being of all beings to be “water,” based upon his philosophy of life. Anaximander, a student of Thales, heightened the level of abstraction and identified the original being not with an element in the world, such as “water,” but with the “indefinite” or “unbounded.” Anaximenes, a student of Anaximander, conceived the original being to be “air,” the extension of an element of the world.

Aristotle interpreted all these Ionian thinkers, within the framework of his ontology of form and matter, as predecessors who inquired into the material cause of being.

Anaximenes conceived “air” as an extension of breath, which implies a type of philosophy of life. The wonder and mystery of life shaped his thoughts, and his primary concept of being was taken from living beings. The concept of “air” should not be interpreted to be purely material air in a modern sense. One may find some affinity between Anaximenes’ “air” and “qi” (氣) in Chinese thought. Furthermore, one may find an intrinsic connection between Anaximenes' "air" and the original concept of "ruach" found in the ancient pre-Babylonian Exile Hebraic tradition. The one remaining passage in Aetius’ Historiography reads:

As our soul, being air, holds us together and controls us, so does wind (or breath) and air enclose the whole world. (Diels and Kranz 13B2)

Like “water” in Thales and the “indefinite” in Anaximander, “air” in Anaximenes is also divine and imperishable. The origin of beings was conceived to be one and eternal for these pioneers of Western philosophy.

Some regard Anaximander as the peak of Ionian philosophy due to his high level of abstraction and Anaximenes as a recession from it, since Anaximenes conceived the origin of being to be the extension of an element of the world as Thales had.

Others, however, regard Anaximenes as representing a development comparable to Anaximander. While Anaximander conceived the origin of being, the “indefinite,” in the sense of original matter, Anaximenes tried to find some intermediary element between material and the human soul in an incipient form. By “air,” Anaximenes meant some original element that can give life (breath or soul) to human beings and that can also transform itself into diverse natural beings. His concept of “air,” like “qi” in Chinese thought, seems not to be an element of the world, but a homogeneous existence that can uniformly explain both spiritual and physical phenomena.


Life and works

Little is known about the life of Anaximenes, except for his being a Miletian, a student or a colleague of Anaximander, and his approximate years of birth and death. Only a limited number of fragments survive in the works of other authors. As is the case for the other pre-Socratics, a definitive interpretation is impossible due to the lack of surviving texts.

Anaximenes introduced the principle of dual characteristics of hot and cold as the principle of diversification, which causes rarefaction and densification of “air,” generating the diversity of the world. While Anaximander separated the principle of diversification from the ultimate being (“indefinite”), Anaximenes made the principle of diversification intrinsic to the original being. Some regard this as an advancement comparable with that of Anaximander.

The theory of “qi” developed over the centuries and became a foundation for medical, artistic, philosophical, and other cultural practices in Far Eastern culture. Unfortunately, Anaximenes’ theory of “air” was not taken up and developed by subsequent thinkers and theorists.

In Refutatio Omnium Haeresium (Refutation of Heretics), Hippolutus, a third-century church father, records Anaximenes’ theory of diversification of the world, which reads:

Being made finer it [air] becomes fire, being made thicker it becomes wind, then cloud, then (when thickened still more) water, then earth, then stone; and the rest comes into being from those. He, too, makes motion eternal, and says that change, also, comes about through it. (Diels and Kranz 13A7)

Every being is, in essence, air at different degrees of density, and under the influence of heat, which expands, and of cold, which contracts its volume, it gives rise to the several phases of existence. The process is gradual, and takes place in two directions, as heat or cold predominates. In this way was formed a broad disc called earth, floating on the circumambient air. Similar condensations produced the sun and stars; and the flaming state of these bodies is due to the velocity of their motions.

Some scientific discoveries are also ascribed to Anaximenes: that rainbows are created as light shines through condensed air (mist), how the moon reflects sunlight, and others.



  • Diels, H. and W. Kranz, eds. Die Fragmente der Vorsocratiker. Berlin: Weidmannsche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1960.
  • Freeman, K., ed. Ancilla to the pre-Socratic philosophers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.
  • Kirk, G.S., J.E. Raven, and M. Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  • Hicks, R. D. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 2 vols. Loeb Classical Library, 1925.

Secondary Sources

  • Barnes, Jonathan. The Presocratic Philosophers, vol. 1. London: Routledge, 1979.
  • Emlyn-Jones, C. The Ionians and Hellenism. London: Routledge, 1980.
  • Furley, David, and R.E. Allen, eds. Studies in Presocratic Philosophy, vol. I. New York: Humanities Press, 1970.
  • Guthrie, W.K.C. A History of Greek Philosophy, 6 vol. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Taylor, A.E. Aristotle on his predecessors. La Salle: Open Court, 1977.

External links

All links retrieved October 5, 2012.

General Philosophy Sources


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