Anaximenes of Miletus

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Anaximenes of Miletus
Bornc. 586 BC
Diedc. 526 BC (aged c. 60)
EraPre-Socratic philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolIonian/Milesian school
Main interests
Notable ideas
Air is the arche
Matter changes through rarefaction and condensation

Anaximenes of Miletus (/ˌænækˈsɪməˌnz/; Greek: Ἀναξιμένης ὁ Μιλήσιος; c. 586 – c. 526 BC)[1] was an Ancient Greek, Ionian Pre-Socratic philosopher from Miletus in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), active in the latter half of the 6th century BC.[1][2] The details of his life are obscure because none of his work has been preserved. Anaximenes' ideas are only known today because of comments about him made by later writers, such as Aristotle.[3]

As the last of the three philosophers of the Milesian School,[4] considered the first philosophers of the Western world,[5] Anaximenes is best known and identified as a younger friend or student of Anaximander,[6][7][8][9] who was himself taught by the first philosopher Thales. Each developed a distinct cosmology without completely rejecting their predecessors views.[10] Each were material monists who sought to discover the arche; the one, underlying physical yet divine basis of everything. Thales proposed all was made of water; Anaximander proposed all was made of apeiron or something indefinite rather than something specific, and Anaximenes proposed all was made of air, or literally aer which may also include mist or vapor.[1] More condensed air made for colder, denser objects and more rarefied air made for hotter, lighter objects.[7][11]

Much of his astronomical thought was based on Anaximander's, though he altered Anaximander's astrological ideas to better fit his own philosophical views on physics and the natural world.[1] Anaximenes believed the Earth was flat like a disc and rode on air like a frisbee. The Anaximenes crater on the Moon is named in his honor.

Some of Anaximenes' writings are referenced during the Hellenistic Age, but no record of these documents currently exist. Apollodorus of Damascus estimated Anaximenes' lifespan as having flourished during the same time period in which Cyrus the Great defeated Croesus at the Battle of Thymbra in 546 BC.[1] Philosophy may have spread elsewhere because Miletus was captured by the Persian army in 494 BC.[10]

Anaximenes of Miletus as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

Air as the Arche[edit]

Anaximenes thought air was the primary substance that held the universe together. He believed that air was infinite and divine.[12] He was the first to use the word pneuma (“breath of life”) as a synonym for air. One of the only surviving quotes by Anaximenes reads: “Just as our soul...being air holds us together, so pneuma and air encompass [and guard] the whole world.”[13] The analogy compared atmospheric air as the divine and human air as souls that animate people.[1] This relation of the macroscopic and microscopic suggested Anaximenes believed there was an overarching principle that regulated all life and behaviour.[5] Interestingly, the Old Testament features a similar analogy to the founding of the world and creation of man, but Anaximenes did not recognize a creator of the universe and did not think of the pneuma as a creator to guide man.[10]

Condensation and rarefaction[edit]

The choice of air may seem arbitrary, but Anaximenes based his conclusion on naturally observable phenomena in the water cycle, and the processes of rarefaction and condensation.[14] The primary difference in the forms of air as matter was the degree of condensation and density.[5] When air condenses it becomes visible, and according to Anaximenes, the spread-out, invisible, infinite air was condensed to wind, then formed into clouds, which condensed further to produce mist, rain, and other forms of precipitation.[5][10] As the condensed air cooled, Anaximenes supposed that Earth itself was an early condensate of air—the process continued until the air was condensed enough to form solids like the Earth and ultimately stones. By contrast, Anaximenes was able to visually see how water evaporates into air and based his concept of rarefaction on this observation. According to him, any object that held light was made of fire, and fire was made from the rarefaction of air.[1]

While other philosophers also recognized such transitions in states of matter, Anaximenes was the first to associate the qualitative change in hot/dry and cold/wet pairings with the density of a single material, effectively adding a quantitative dimension to the Milesian monistic system.[15][16] He attributed condensation to cold/wet air and rarefaction to the interaction of hot/dry air.[1]


Having concluded that everything in the world is composed of air, Anaximenes used his theory to devise a scheme that explains the origins and nature of the earth and the surrounding celestial bodies. Air felted to create the flat disk of the earth, which he said was table-like and behaved like a leaf floating on air. Anaximenes did not think that stars were floating leaf-like bodies similar to the earth and sun; instead, he thought of stars being similar to nails that are stuck in a transparent shell.[1] In keeping with the prevailing view of celestial bodies as balls of fire in the sky, Anaximenes proposed that the earth let out an exhalation of air that rarefied, ignited and became the stars. While the sun is similarly described as being aflame, it is not composed of rarefied air like the stars, but rather of earth like the moon; its burning comes not from its composition but rather from its rapid motion.[17] Similarly, he considered the moon and sun to be flat and floating on streams of air. In his theory, when the sun sets it does not pass under the earth, but is merely obscured by higher parts of the earth as it circles around and becomes more distant. Anaximenes likens the motion of the sun and the other celestial bodies around the earth to the way that a cap may be turned around the head.[18][19] Anaximenes believed that the sky was a dome, and day and night are caused by celestial bodies being carried North until they are no longer seen. There is evidence that suggests Anaximenes may have been the first person to distinguish between planets and fixed stars.[1]

Other phenomena[edit]

Anaximenes used his observations and reasoning to provide causes for other natural phenomena on the earth as well. Earthquakes, he asserted, were the result either of lack of moisture, which causes the earth to break apart because of how parched it is, or of superabundance of water, which also causes cracks in the earth. In either case the earth becomes weakened by its cracks, so that hills collapse and cause earthquakes. Lightning is similarly caused by the violent separation of clouds by the wind, creating a bright, fire-like flash. Rainbows, on the other hand, are formed when densely compressed air is touched by the rays of the sun.[20][21] These examples show how Anaximenes, like the other Milesian philosophers, looked for the broader picture in nature. They sought unifying causes for diversely occurring events, rather than treating each one on a case-by-case basis, or attributing them to gods or to a personified nature.[22]

Influence on philosophy[edit]

Anaximenes of Miletus as imaginatively depicted in an engraving from the book Illustrium philosophorum et sapientum effigies ab eorum numistatibus extractae (1580), by Girolamo Olgiati.
A 16th-century engraving of Anaximenes by Dutch engraver and draughtsman Cornelis Cort, created in 1565.

Since language and communication were very limited in his time, Anaximenes's analogies were key in explaining the uncertain through the certain. For example, he knew for certain that blowing air on his hand with his mouth wide open produced hot air, while blowing on his hand with half-closed lips produced cold air. These observations were key in his postulate that the hot air was due to rarefaction and expansion, whereas the cold air was due to condensation and compression. Although in modern times it is known that this is actually the opposite, Anaximenes was key in arriving at this conclusion. His analogies often connected parallels between man and the cosmos, insinuating that the same natural laws observable on earth applied to the heavens. Over 2000 years later, Isaac Newton proved this to be true. Throughout history, Anaximenes's observations proved helpful to uncover powerful theories, such as quantum physics and chemical properties. By the end of the Milesian philosophy era, there were many questions left unanswered; this sparked the stimulation of Pre-socratic thought to continue through many other notable philosophers such as Pythagoras, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Democritus.[10]

Anaximenes greatest influence is not from his theories of matter, but instead it is from how he thought about these ideas. For instance, his theory of air being the underlying substance was disproved, but when looking at his idea from a fundamental aspect, in which a substance is capable of changing forms, his theory was the first of its kind.[23]

Pre-Socratic philosophy[edit]

The theories of Anaximenes were likely influential upon later Presocratic philosophers, and, according to classicist John Burnet, he was in his time a more important figure than his teacher Anaximander.[24]

Similarly to Anaximenes, the Pythagoreans, according to Aristotle, believed that there was "boundless breath" which was "outside the heavens, and … was inhaled by the world".[25] The cosmology of Anaxagoras shared many similarities with that of Anaximenes, and was likely influenced by it,[26] while the Atomists Democritus and Leucippus adopted Anaximenes' view that the world was flat.[27] Diogenes of Apollonia took up the view of Anaximenes' that air was the arche, that it was the governing force and the source of everything in creation, and that all substances were the result of the condensation and rarefaction of air.[28][29]

Plato and Aristotle[edit]

Many similarities to Anaximenes' theories are apparent in Plato's theory. So much so, that some scholars have said Plato has based his theory of matter on Anaximenes's theory. In Aristotle's view on Anaximenes, he interprets the theory as the one substance being air, and all other states of matter are different condensations of air. In Plato's interpretation of Anaximenes's theory, he considers the seven states of matter: fire, air, wind, clouds, earth and stone as different densities. Acknowledging that these seven states of matter are different densities shows how the intrinsic properties of the matter have changed, and they are actually different substances. Anaximenes supports this conclusion by his explanation using the concept of felting. Felting is a technological model used to explain condensation, in which wool turns into felt and has new properties.[30] Just as how wind is compressed into clouds in Anaximenes's theory. Without recognizing Anaximenes's influence on Plato, and simply focusing on Anaximenes's influence on Aristotle, Anaximenes's contributions to scientific thought are not fully recognized. Aristotle interpreted Anaximenes's theory as all substance being different manifestations of air. It was Plato's interpretation of Anaximenes's theory that recognized the fundamental changes of air into other substances.[31]

Because Plato's theory does not recognize Anaximenes's by name, some scholars have doubted that Plato's theory was actually influenced by Anaximenes. The proponents of the influence have written that the uniqueness of Anaximenes's theory and obvious similarities to Plato's theory prove the connection.[30]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Dye, James (2014), "Anaximenes of Miletus", Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers, Springer New York, pp. 74–75, doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-9917-7_49, ISBN 9781441999160
  2. ^ Lindberg 2007, p. 28.
  3. ^ Great lives from history. The ancient world, prehistory-476 C.E. Salowey, Christina A., Magill, Frank N. (Frank Northen), 1907–1997. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press. 2004. ISBN 978-1587651526. OCLC 54082138.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  4. ^ Hussey 2005, p. 33
  5. ^ a b c d "Anaximenes Of Miletus | Greek philosopher". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2018-11-30.
  6. ^ Laërtius 1925
  7. ^ a b Guthrie 1962, p. 115
  8. ^ Kirk, Raven & Schofield 1957, p. 143
  9. ^ Algra 1999, p. 57
  10. ^ a b c d e Vamvacas 2009.
  11. ^ Vamvacas 2009; Lindberg 2007, p. 29.
  12. ^ Guthrie 1962, pp. 127–128
  13. ^ Vamvacas 2009, p. 47
  14. ^ Guthrie 1962, p. 116
  15. ^ Guthrie 1962, pp. 124–126
  16. ^ Kirk, Raven & Schofield 1957, p. 146
  17. ^ Kirk, Raven & Schofield 1957, pp. 152–153
  18. ^ Graham, Daniel W. "Anaximenes". The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  19. ^ Fairbanks 1898, p. 20
  20. ^ Fairbanks 1898, pp. 20–21
  21. ^ Guthrie 1962, p. 139
  22. ^ Lindberg 2007, p. 29.
  23. ^ Eismann 2007, pp. 76–77
  24. ^ Burnet 1930, p. 78.
  25. ^ Aristotle, Physics Δ, 6. 213 b 22; Burnet 1930, p. 108.
  26. ^ Burnet 1930, p. 270; Barnes 1982, p. 25; Cicero, De Natura Deorum i. 26.
  27. ^ Burnet 1930, p. 79.
  28. ^ Burnet 1930, pp. 79, 355–358.; Barnes 1982, p. 25. Diogenes of Apollonia attempted to amalgamate the theories of Anaximenes with those of Anaxagoras. Burnet 1930, p. 145.
  29. ^ For example: "And it seems to me that that which possessed thought is what people call air, and that by this everyone both is governed and has power over everything. For it is this which seems to me to be god and to have reached everything and to arrange everything and to be in everything. And there is not a single thing which does not share in it." (Simplicius, On Aristotle, Physics p. 151, 24; Burnet 1930, p. 353.) c.f.: "'Just as,' he said, 'our soul, being air, holds us together, so do breath and air encompass the whole world.'" (Aetius, i. 3, 4; Burnet 1930, p. 73.) "From it, he said, the things that are, and have been, and shall be, the gods and things divine, took their rise, while other things come from its offspring." (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies i. 7; Burnet 1930, p. 73; Barnes 1982, p. 97.) "… Anaximenes held that air is god, and that it has a beginning in time, and is immeasurable and infinite in extent, and is always in motion; just as if formless air could be god …"(Cicero, De Natura Deorum i. 26; Burnet 1930, p. 78.)
  30. ^ a b Graham, Daniel W. (2015-12-30). "Plato and Anaximenes". Études Platoniciennes (12). doi:10.4000/etudesplatoniciennes.706. ISSN 2275-1785.
  31. ^ Graham, D. (2003). "A testimony of Anaximenes in Plato". The Classical Quarterly. 53 (2): 327–337. doi:10.1093/cq/53.2.327.


Further reading[edit]

  • Bicknell, P. J. (1969). "ANAXIMENES' ASTRONOMY". Acta Classica. 12: 53–85. JSTOR 24591168.
  • Classen, C. J. (1977). "Anaximander and Anaximenes: The Earliest Greek Theories of Change?". Phronesis. 22 (2): 89–102. doi:10.1163/156852877X00010. JSTOR 4182008.
  • Freeman, Kathleen (1978). Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-03500-3.
  • Hurwit, Jeffrey M. (1985). The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100–480 BC. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Luchte, James (2011). Early Greek Thought: Before the Dawn. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-0567353313.
  • Russell, B. (2004). "The Milesian School". A History of Western Philosophy. Abingdon: Routledge. pp. 33–37. ISBN 9780415325059.
  • Sandywell, Barry (1996). Presocratic Reflexivity: The Construction of Philosophical Discourse, c. 600-450 BC. Vol. 3. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415101700.
  • Stokes, M. C. (1971). The One and Many in Presocratic Philosophy. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies with Harvard University Press.
  • Sweeney, Leo (1972). Infinity in the Presocratics: A Bibliographical and Philosophical Study. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
  • Wright, M. R. (1995). Cosmology in Antiquity. London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415121835.

External links[edit]

Quotations related to Anaximenes of Miletus at Wikiquote