Anaximander of Miletus and His Philosophy on the Origin of All Things

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Anaximander of Miletus was a Pre-Socratic philosopher who belonged to the Milesian school. As indicated by its name, this school of thought was based in the city of Miletus on the western coast of Anatolia, modern day Turkey. Anaximander is one of the three prominent figures in this philosophical school, the other two being Thales and Anaximenes, the former commonly thought to have been Anaximander’s teacher, whilst the latter, his student.

It has been pointed out that these three early philosophers held quite distinct views on most subjects, and that their grouping is based on geographical convenience rather than on shared opinions. Nevertheless, it may also be said that these philosophers focused on questions regarding nature (for example, what is the quintessential substance of the universe?) which allows them to be grouped together.

Anaximander is thought to have been born in 610 BC. This year of birth is reckoned based on a piece of work known as The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers , which was written by an ancient author by the name of Diogenes Laertius. Quoting another source, Diogenes wrote thus,

“And Apollodorus, in his Chronicles, states, that in the second year of the fifty-eighth Olympiad, he (Anaximander) was sixty-four years old.”    

In other words, in the year 546 BC, Anaximander was 64 years old. Counting backwards, we may say that this philosopher was born in 610 BC. Using this piece of information, we may also determine if it was possible that Anaximander had studied under Thales, as tradition suggests. Although Thales’ exact year of birth is not provided by the ancient sources, he is recorded to have predicted the occurrence of a solar eclipse in 585 B.C. This would mean that at the time when the eclipse occurred, Anaximander was 25 years old. Therefore, it is entirely possible that Anaximander had been a student of Thales.

Anaximander’s Creations

Very little is known about Anaximander’s life. Additionally, it is hard to ascertain if details about the philosopher’s life are true in the first place. In Diogenes’ work, Anaximander might have been the inventor of the gnomon, “the raised piece of a sundial whose shadow indicates the sun’s position”, as well as several other useful gadgets,

The gnomon is the triangular blade in this sundial. ( Public Domain )

“He also was the first discoverer of the gnomon; and he placed some in Lacedaemon on the sun-dials there, as Favorinus says in his Universal History, and they showed the solstices and the equinoxes; he also made clocks. He was the first person, too, who drew a map of the earth and sea, and he also made a globe;”

Possibly what the lost first map of the world by Anaximander looked like.

Possibly what the lost first map of the world by Anaximander looked like. ( Public Domain )

Another trivia mentioned by Diogenes is that when Anaximander sang, the children would laugh. Thus, when the philosopher heard about it, he is reputed to have said,

“We must then sing better for the sake of the children.”

Anaximander’s Philosophical Views

Fortunately, we have a better idea of the Anaximander’s philosophical views. Like Thales, Anaximander practiced material monism (a belief in which the physical world is explained by the idea that all objects in the world are composed of a single element), and was interested in seeking the archê (‘origin’ or principle’) of all things.

According to Thales, this is water. Anaximander, however, disagreed with his teacher. One of the arguments against water, or any of the other elements as the archê is that none of the elements can include all the opposites found in nature. For example, water can only be wet, and never dry.

Detail of Raphael's painting The School of Athens, 1510–1511. This could be a representation of Anaximander leaning towards Pythagoras on his left.

Detail of Raphael’s painting The School of Athens, 1510–1511. This could be a representation of Anaximander leaning towards Pythagoras on his left. ( Public Domain )

Therefore, Anaximander proposed that the archê is a substance known as apeiron, which may be translated either as “limitless, boundless, indefinite”, or “unable to be got through, what cannot be traversed from end to end”. It is unclear exactly as to which of these two meanings of the apeiron Anaximander sought to convey. Thus, whilst some have argued that the apeiron is a substance that is inexhaustible and undefined, other favors the idea that the apeiron refers to a spatial or temporal quality.

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