Anaximander Anaximander About 530 AD the Neoplatonist Simplicius wrote an extensive commentary on Aristotle’s Physics. In it he reproduced the Anaximander fragment, thus preserving it for the western world. He copied it from Theophrastus. From the time Anaximander pronounced his saying–we do not know where or when or to whom–to the moment Simplicius jotted it down in his commentary more than a millennium elapsed. Between the time of Simplicius’ jotting and the present moment lies another millennium-and-a-half.
Can the Anaximander fragment, from a historical and chronological distance of two thousand five hundred years, still say something to us? (Heidegger 16) Anaximander, it is widely believed, was responsible for constructing one of philosophy’s first complete sentences and, coincidentally, one of the early world’s most profound thoughts. The man was reportedly born, the son of Praxiades, in the seaport of Miletus in 610 B.C. He spent his life philosophizing on the Greek island of Samos until his death in 547 BC. Beyond this, little else is known about his life, except that he was a pupil of the forerunning philosopher Thales. The vast majority of Anaximader’s thoughts were lost long ago; in fact, all that remains is a single fragment to tell us of his theories and thought processes.
However, the fragment that remains is vast in scope and of incredible magnitude. This remaining utterance, which deals with the essence and substance of being, the origin of life, and life’s cycle to death, all but forces one to believe that, with Anaximander’s life, there was a marked turn in the course of human existence. A distinction was made that separated humans, most remarkably, from the other inhabitants of Earth. The fragment marked the end of exclusively introvertial human thought. This is to say that man was able to cease his focus on simple survival, and begin wondering about the universe, about how things come into being and the grand cycle of life and man’s place in that cycle. Of all the people who have pondered these questions, Anaximander’s answers are surely among the most boundless, and therefore the most thought provoking themselves.
His is a theory of everything great from something vast but simple, of a great unlimited infinite and the tremendous flux of this said infinite, which he called the Apeiron. To better understand this theory, we must analyse the fragment, both literally and figuratively, and try and see if we may discover something about which we ourselves may philosophize; we must try and see whether the words of Anaximander still say something to us. The Fragment, as translated by Nietzsche, reads as such: Whence things have their origin, there they must also pass away according to necessity; for they must pay penalty and be judged for their injustice, according to the ordinance of time. (Heidegger 13) Most literally translated by the German Martin Heidegger, the same fragment is presented as follows: But that from which things arise also gives rise to their passing away, according to what is necessary; for things render justice and pay penalty to one another for their injustice, according to the ordinance of time. (Heidegger’s Greek) As we can see, the two are nearly indistinguishable. However, for the purposes of this paper, we will be examining Heidegger’s translation; the reason for this distinction is so that we may circumvent any ambiguity and see clearly Anaximander’s main points. Clearly, this passage tells of the growth and decay of all things in the universe. Not only that however; Anaximander’s terms — justice, penalty, and retribution — seem to show that he was also concerned with natural laws; he is trying to tell why things flower and fall.
It seems to this writer as though Anaximander is attempting, in a way new to humans at the time the fragment was written, to apply the strict rules of sciences to natural systems. He is denying any and all demarcation between the lines of thought and disciplines! It is most definitely fascinating that the man could think so broadly on one topic, and show the continuity among all aspects of human life and knowledge. Let us now look upon the mention of time in the fragment. Anaximander here is very poetic; personifying time, giving it character. He tells us that time has firmly established laws to deal with the processes of everything.
Time, says Anaximander, governs all things; time collects retribution and payment when the natural laws are broken. Time runs the cycle from which things arise and to which things fall. This fragment has suddenly become an excellent commentary on the nature and passage of time, and its master role in the universe. While there may be other catalysts for change: for birth, for death, and for rebirth in the universe, none would be possible without the passage of time! We thus far understand that Anaximander believes in a continuity and recapitulation among everything in the universe: human disciplines are nothing without natural laws, nor could natural laws exist without the human disciplines and sciences. Birth and death go hand in hand. Everything is interrelated; all of course run by the most powerful time.
It is to then be understood that Anaximander’s view of the substance from which all things come is not, in fact, can not be any one thing in particular. He did not believe, like his teacher Thales, that all things are water; for how could water exist without its opposite element, fire? And how, inversely, could fire possibly come from water, itself? This is where we find the essence of Anaximander’s Apeiron. His was a belief that all elements, if elements, in fact, did exist, came from one infinite, limitless source; and for each element was an opposite element. These elements, forever paired with their opposites, are in a constant state of flux. They pull at one another constantly so that no one element may ‘gain an upper hand’ on the others. This is in direct disagreement with many of the other Presocratics, who focused on one element as the source of the universe. His ideas, as a result of the Apeiron, also disagree with the limited universe theory of other philosophers, for if any one thing in the universe is unlimited, then how can a limited universe contain it? If the Apeiron is infinite, the universe that contains it must be infinite as well! As one can gather from his ideas, if Anaximander was not correct, he was at the very least a trailblazer in his field! One notices that, in the fragment, Anaximander does not try to explain himself, nor does he attempt to explain the laws of time or the recompense that all things must pay.
While he may originally have spoken tomes on the subject, all we have left are these few lines, simple but for the fact that they are seemingly all encompassing. Is Anaximander correct only as a result of his vagueness? I do not believe so. Are these thoughts correct at all? That remains to be seen. The most important thing about Anaximander’s remaining fragment, I believe, is that it creates a space for open discussion. It quite easily creates more thought.
Other humans will read the fragment, reflect on it, and come to their own conclusions. As a result of this idea, we must now ask ourselves an extremely important question: Is it important that any of the pre-Socratic philosophers were correct at all? The answer can only be ‘no’. These philosophers, at the dawn of time, began what is possibly the most important of human processes: rational thought. These few small fragments have set other humans on the course of thought, who in turn have set still others. I believe that once ‘the discussion’ was started, it soon became, or will become, only a matter of time before the correct answers are found. Will the answers be correct forever, or will they be correct only within the context in which they are given? This will be seen only when the answers are found, but this writer regards it as unimportant.
Whether or not the answers we come to differ from those of the early Greeks is also unimportant. As a final question: Can we still glean something from the works of Anaximander and his contemporaries? I am inclined to answer in the affirmative, for rational thought and discussion guide our world; they are one of the ways in which Humankind has been able to survive this long. Even if we do not agree with the pre-Socratic ideas, we must at least believe in their methods. Do the words of Anaximander still say something to us? That question is for the individual to decide. Bibliography Cohen, S. Home Page.
U of Washington. 5 November 1998. *http://weber.u.washington.edu/~smcohen/anaximan.h tm*. anonymous. Heidegger’s Greek. September 1996. 5 November 1998. *http://webcom.com/~paf/grk/anax1.htm*. Heidegger, Martin.
Early Greek Thinking. New York: Harper & Row, 1978. Nietzsche, Frederich. Werke. Munich: C. Hanser Verlag, 1954.