Anaximander, the Boundless Philosopher

Know A Philosopher: Anaximander, The Boundless

(610BCE to 546BCE)


This is the second part in the Know A Philosopher series. The first part you can reach here–> Thales, The Water Philosopher.

The second ancient philosopher I will summarize for you is the successor of the great Thales, father of Western philosophy, Anaximander. Also hailing from Miletus, this philosopher is unlike most philosophers in that he is believed to have written down his own works. 
I’m looking at you, Socrates..


Although it is debated whether or not Anaximander was directly taught by Thales, it is certain he was influenced by his philosophy. Like Thales, Anaximander also searched for the source of everything. However he rejected Thale’s claim that this arche is water, rather came up with his own idea of what the source could be – the apeiron
No, not that apron!

Apeiron, as it was called, was described to be the “infinite”, or “boundless”. Although contrary to Thale’s claim of the arche being water, both this new idea of apeiron and water share similar qualities. Especially when considering vast stretches of seas, which Greece had plenty of, both are perceivably endless, shapeless, and boundless. Indeed, although these naturalist philosophers are supposed to be the founders of science, their philosophical ontological roots stem from mythical lore. The creation stories of the Near East also, such as the Babylonian story which states the earliest stage of the universe was a watery chaos, and the Hindu cosmology in which the universe is born from an egg in a watery abyss (or sometimes Golden Womb). Also Homer was known to use the term apeiron which was spatial, though indefinite. And of course there is the biblical passage from Genesis 1:, 

” In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

So although Anixamander rejected the arche being an element such as water, the qualities of water (at least how humans experience it when viewing a sea) were abstracted to this notion of apeiron. However, as opposed to other notions of arche, meaning the “source” or “beginning”, to Anixamander, apeiron was not referring to a single point in time, rather imbued apeiron with qualities of infinite boundlessness and creative potential. Though he did claims that this Boundless was originally floating around in a cosmic vortex which was interrupted by some accident. His cosmological theory aligns well with the modern Big Bang Theory as well as the Oscillating or Pulsating Universe Theories (also considered by Albert Einstein), which state that the universe goes through cycles of big bang and big crunch.  
Energy=Me+Crunchbar squared


One of his remaining passages goes as far as describing this waning and waxing of the universe as a form of cosmic justice:
“And from what source things arise, to that they return of necessity when they are destroyed, for they suffer punishment and make reparation to one another for their injustice according to the order of time.”
It is unclear how to interpret this passage, a) the judgement occurring as a type of divine punishment for some sort of sin the universe (or its creatures commit) or b) as a flowery way to describe the necessary harmony of creation and destruction of the universe.  The first interpretation a certain degree of Mythos, which may have been inescapable in the ancient Greek language, which is why I would presume the latter interpretation, that such way of talking about things was impossible at the time. The shift from Ancient Greece’s mythological or religious psyche to a focus on science and logic could not happen over night, or even a generation. While the Pre-Socratics such as Thales, Anaximander, and the others I’ll discuss more later, did help a great deal in this paramount shift, they still carried the baggage of the Greek language and culture surrounding them.  
In Anaximander’s cosmology, he also made a guess at how the earth fits into the universe, as philosophers were privy on doing back then. What did he think? Well of course, the earth is in the center of the universe.

As you can see by the diagram, the earth lays in the center, with the stars, the Moon, and the Sun as surrounding the earth in concentric layers. Interesting;y and groundbreakingly, he claimed the earth floated in the center, rather than being supported by anything, thus celestial bodies were for the first time thought to pass under the earth. Although he erroneously thought the earth was cylindrical shaped….and simply consisting of the known world for Greeks at the time (which makes sense I suppose). 

The image of Earth, according to Anaximander.

Anaximander also believed in an infinite number of worlds (different dimensions?), and further bolstered science by claiming thunder and lightning were not caused by the gods but by elements interacting. 
As you can see, Anaximander, like Thales, broke new ground as he shed the old Mythos of the gods being in control for more scientific reasoning and speculation, even if not all of his theories held up to scrutiny. It is fascinating for me today to see how some of his theories, some plus 2500 years old have some scientific backing today. For that, he is a worthy contributor to philosophy and modern science. 
Sources: Wikipedia; Looking at Philosophy (David Palmer)

← Previous post

Next post →


  1. That is actually a bust of Thales, not Anaximander.

  2. You mean my quick and careless image hunt for his bust failed? I’m not surprised.
    Thanks for informing me! I have made the changes. Hopefully its the right philosopher this time. If not, let me know!

Leave a Reply