Anaxagoras, part of a fresco in the National University of Athens
|Born||c. 500 BC
|Died||c. 428 BC (aged around 72)
|Main interests||Natural philosophy|
|Notable ideas||Cosmic mind (Nous) ordering all things|
Anaxagoras (Ancient Greek: Ἀναξαγόρας, Anaxagoras, "lord of the assembly"; c. 510 – 428 BC) was a Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. Born in Clazomenae in Asia Minor, Anaxagoras was the first philosopher to bring philosophy from Ionia to Athens. He attempted to give a scientific account of eclipses, meteors, rainbows, and the sun, which he described as a fiery mass larger than the Peloponnese. According to Diogenes Laertius and Plutarch, he fled to Lampsacus due to a backlash against his pupil Pericles.
Anaxagoras is famous for introducing the cosmological concept of Nous (mind), as an ordering force. He regarded material substance as an infinite multitude of imperishable primary elements, referring all generation and disappearance to mixture and separation, respectively.
Anaxagoras appears to have had some amount of property and prospects of political influence in his native town of Clazomenae in Asia Minor. However, he supposedly surrendered both of these out of a fear that they would hinder his search for knowledge. Valerius Maximus preserves a different tradition: Anaxagoras, coming home from a long voyage, found his property in ruin, and said: "If this had not perished, I would have." A sentence, denoted by Maximus, as being "possessed of sought-after wisdom!" Although a Greek, he may have been a soldier of the Persian army when Clazomenae was suppressed during the Ionian Revolt.
In early manhood (c. 464–461 BC) he went to Athens, which was rapidly becoming the centre of Greek culture. There he is said to have remained for thirty years. Pericles learned to love and admire him, and the poet Euripides derived from him an enthusiasm for science and humanity.
Anaxagoras brought philosophy and the spirit of scientific inquiry from Ionia to Athens. His observations of the celestial bodies and the fall of meteorites led him to form new theories of the universal order. He attempted to give a scientific account of eclipses, meteors, rainbows, and the sun, which he described as a mass of blazing metal, larger than the Peloponnese. He was the first to explain that the moon shines due to reflected light from the sun. He also said that the moon had mountains and believed that it was inhabited. The heavenly bodies, he asserted, were masses of stone torn from the earth and ignited by rapid rotation. He explained that, though both sun and the stars were fiery stones, we do not feel the heat of the stars because of their enormous distance from earth. He thought that the earth is flat and floats supported by 'strong' air under it and disturbances in this air sometimes causes earthquakes. These speculations made him vulnerable in Athens to a charge of impiety. Diogenes Laertius reports the story that he was prosecuted by Cleon for impiety, but Plutarch says that Pericles sent his former tutor, Anaxagoras, to Lampsacus for his own safety after the Athenians began to blame him for the Peloponnesian war.
About 450 BC, according to Laertius, Pericles spoke in defense of Anaxagoras at his trial. Even so, Anaxagoras was forced to retire from Athens to Lampsacus in Troad (c. 434–433 BC). He died there in around the year 428 BC. Citizens of Lampsacus erected an altar to Mind and Truth in his memory, and observed the anniversary of his death for many years.
Anaxagoras wrote a book of philosophy, but only fragments of the first part of this have survived, through preservation in work of Simplicius of Cilicia in the sixth century AD.
All things have existed from the beginning. But originally they existed in infinitesimally small fragments of themselves, endless in number and inextricably combined. All things existed in this mass, but in a confused and indistinguishable form. There were the seeds (spermata) or miniatures of wheat and flesh and gold in the primitive mixture; but these parts, of like nature with their wholes (the homoiomereiai of Aristotle), had to be eliminated from the complex mass before they could receive a definite name and character.
Mind arranged the segregation of like from unlike; panta chremata en omou eita nous elthon auta diekosmese. This peculiar thing, called Mind (Nous), was no less illimitable than the chaotic mass, but, unlike the logos of Heraclitus, it stood pure and independent (mounos ef eoutou), a thing of finer texture, alike in all its manifestations and everywhere the same. This subtle agent, possessed of all knowledge and power, is especially seen ruling in all the forms of life.
Mind causes motion. It rotated the primitive mixture, starting in one corner or point, and gradually extended until it gave distinctness and reality to the aggregates of like parts, working something like a centrifuge, and eventually creating the known cosmos. But even after it had done its best, the original intermixture of things was not wholly overcome. No one thing in the world is ever abruptly separated, as by the blow of an axe, from the rest of things.
It is noteworthy that Socrates (Plato, Phaedo, 98 B) accuses Anaxagoras of failing to differentiate between nous and psyche, while Aristotle (Metaphysics, Book I) objects that his nous is merely a deus ex machina to which he refuses to attribute design and knowledge.
Anaxagoras proceeded to give some account of the stages in the process from original chaos to present arrangements. The division into cold mist and warm ether first broke the spell of confusion. With increasing cold, the former gave rise to water, earth and stones. The seeds of life which continued floating in the air were carried down with the rains and produced vegetation. Animals, including man, sprang from the warm and moist clay. If these things be so, then the evidence of the senses must be held in slight esteem. We seem to see things coming into being and passing from it; but reflection tells us that decease and growth only mean a new aggregation (synkrisis) and disruption (diakrisis). Thus, Anaxagoras distrusted the senses, and gave the preference to the conclusions of reflection. Thus, he maintained that there must be blackness as well as whiteness in snow; how, otherwise, could it be turned into dark water?
Anaxagoras marked a turning-point in the history of philosophy. With him, speculation passes from the colonies of Greece to settle at Athens. By the theory of minute constituents of things, and his emphasis on mechanical processes in the formation of order, he paved the way for the atomic theory.
Anaxagoras appears as a character in The Ionia Sanction, by Gary Corby
- [According to Anaxagoras] One of the largest things is a hot stone that we call the sun. When Anaxagoras was very young, he predicted that sooner or later a piece of the sun would break off and fall to earth. Twenty years ago, he was proved right. The whole world saw a fragment of the sun fall in a fiery arc through the sky, landing near Aegospotami in Thrace. When the fiery fragment cooled, it proved to be nothing more than a chunk of brown rock. Overnight Anaxagoras was famous. Today his book is read everywhere. You can buy a secondhand copy in the Agora for a drachma.
William H. Gass begins his novel, The Tunnel (1995), with a quote from Anaxagoras: "The descent to hell is the same from every place."
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- Anaxagoras entry by Patricia Curd in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Anaxagoras", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews.
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