Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What is permanent in existence? : Anaximander

Anaximander - A younger contemporary and a pupil of Thales was Anaximander. He agreed with his teacher that there is some single basic stuff out which everything comes. Unlike Thales, however Anaximander said that this basic stuff is neither water nor any other specific or determinate element, arguing that water and all other definite things are only specific variations or offshoots of something which is more primary. It may very well be, he thought , that water or moisture is found in various forms everywhere, but water is only one specific thing among many other elements, and all these specific things require that there be some more elementary stuff to account for that origin. The primary substance out of which all these specific things come, said Anaximander, is an indefinite or boundless realm. Thus, Anaximander differentiates specific and determinate things from their origin by calling the primary substance the indeterminate boundless. Whereas actual things are specific, their source is indeterminate, and whereas things are finite, the original stuff is infinite or boundless.

Besides offering a new idea about the original substance of things, Anaximander advanced the enterprise of philosophy by attempting some explanation for his new idea. Thales had not dealt in any detail with the problem of explaining how the primary stuff became the many different things we see in the world, but Anaximander addressed himself precisely to this question. Although his explanation may seem strange, it represents an advance in knowledge in the sense that it is an attempt to deal with known facts from which hypotheses can be formulated instead of explaining natural phenomena in mythical and nondebatable terms. Still, what Anaximander has to say about the origin of things has the flavor of bold speculation, for in describing the indeterminate boundless as the unoriginated and indestructible primary substance, he speaks of this as also having eternal motion. As a consequence of this motion, the various specific elements come into being as a "seperating off" from the original substance, and thus "there was an eternal motion in which heavens came to be." But first warm and cold were separated off, and from these two came moist; then from these came earth and air. Anaximander then tried to account for heavenly bodies and air currents around the earth in what appears to be a mechanical explanation of the orderly movement of the stars. He though that the earth was cylindrical in shape in contrast to Thales, who thought it was flat as a disk and floated on the water.

Coming to the origin of human life, Anaximander said that all life comes from the sea and that in the course of time, living things came out of the sea to dry land. He suggested that humanity evolved from creatures of a different kind, using as his argument the fact that other creatures are quickly self-supporting, whereas human alone need prolonged nursing and that, therefore, humanity would not have survived if this had been the original form. Commenting on Anaximander's account of the origin of humanity, Plutarch writes that the Syrians "actually revere the fish as being of similar race and nurturing. In this they philosophize more suitably than Anaximander; for he declares, not that fishes and men came into being in the same parents, but that originally men came into being inside fishes, and that, having been nurtured there--like sharks--and having become adequate to look after themselves, they then came forth and took the land." Returning again to the vast cosmic scene, Anaximander thought that there were many worlds and many systems of universes existing all at the same time, all of them perishable, there being the constant alternation between their creation and destruction. This cyclical process was for him a rigorous "necessity" as the conflict of opposite forces in nature caused what he called poetically an "injustice requiring their ultimate destruction. In the only sentence form his writings that has survived, Anaximander gathers up his chief thought by saying, again somewhat poetically, that "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."