BMCR 2002.12.03

Anaximander in Context: New Studies in the Origins of Greek Philosophy

, , , Anaximander in context : new studies in the origins of Greek philosophy. SUNY series in ancient Greek philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xiii, 290 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9780791487785. $27.95.

There is little enough to say about Anaximander, and you might think that it had already been said, by Charles Kahn, for instance. The few meagre words of his fragments have been thoroughly worked over, and the inconsistent guesses of the doxographers have been weighed and, often, found wanting. What hope is there of extracting fresh insights from this material? One possibility is explored in this book, which consists of three separate monographs on Anaximander, one by each of the above-named authors. They do not always agree with one another (although there is a certain amount of mutual back-slapping), but all three approach Anaximander not just by means of the fragment and the extant testimonia, but through his outlying contexts, such as the socio-political status of Miletus, or the state of certain contemporary technologies. Egypt plays a greater or lesser part as the context in all three monographs, and so the cover of the book also displays an Egyptian design. Those who have kept up with the literature will recognize that all three authors have already applied this approach to Anaximander in a number of published papers. So there are no great surprises here but rather an extension of these papers. The overall result is a thoroughly argued body of work, but the three monographs are not equally convincing. There are also quite a few printing errors, more in the first monograph than in the other two.

Anaximander’s theory of the development of organic life (collected from various authors as DKA30, though the end of A10, and A11.6, are also relevant) is notoriously tantalizing. Some scholars have been tempted to read it as a theory of evolution, but the testimony is too isolated and brief for that; at the very most it is a theory about the origins of life not about its evolution. Nevertheless, in the first part of his essay, ‘Anthropogony and Politogony in Anaximander of Miletus’ (7-69), Naddaf argues that Anaximander is a partial evolutionist (only partial, because there is no evidence that evolution for Anaximander was an ongoing process rather than one that had ended) and that the world had to wait until Lamarck in the early nineteenth century to see any such theory again (2). He argues that Anaximander believed (along with other Ionians) that the world was drying out and that his evolutionary model had animals and human beings, in different ways, being transformed to suit their changing, drier circumstances (13-17). I don’t believe this, personally — I still think that Anaximander was talking only about the first creatures and the first humans — but it is always useful to see a new argument for the other side.

In the second part of his essay Naddaf claims that Anaximander also had a theory of the development of society. This was news to me, and Naddaf is disarmingly frank as to why: he admits (32) that there are no testimonia to support this position! His argument — or rather collection of circumstantial evidence — goes like this: 1. Anaximander drew a map of the world. (True). 2. Those Ionians who were interested in geography were also interested in history. (Plausible speculation) 3. Anaximander believed that Egypt was the oldest civilization on earth and that society there had been developing for thousands of years. (This is conjecture, based on the equally conjectural idea that Anaximander’s fellow Milesian Hecataeus held this belief, on a conjectural relationship between Xenophanes and Anaximander, and on a conjectural visit by Anaximander to Egypt). 4. Anaximander believed that Egypt was the place where the first human beings arose, in the way outlined in the testimonia considered in the first part of his monograph. (Speculation) 5. Anaximander believed that the alphabet was brought to Greece by Danaus from Egypt (DK C1). These pieces of evidence are enough for Naddaf to summarize a whole putative treatise of Anaximander’s, in which he developed a theory of the rise of civilization (49-50). Clearly, this is a house of cards.

For Naddaf, the ‘context’ for Anaximander is his fellow Milesians’ or Ionians’ views about Egypt. Egypt looms also in the second of the monographs contained in this book, Robert Hahn’s ‘Proportion and Numbers in Anaximander and Early Greek Thought’ (71-163), but essentially Anaximander’s ‘context’ for Hahn is the work of contemporary architects. Hahn’s thesis is bold, and borders on the numerological speculations beloved of some students of the Egyptian pyramids. In a previous publication (summarized here, 78 ff.) he argued that Anaximander’s model of the universe was based numerically on the proportions contemporary architects were building into their temples (and which derived ultimately from Egypt). Just as they took the diameter of the base of the column as their basic unit and multiplied it into the height of the columns and the proportions of the temple, so, Hahn argued, Anaximander’s universe was built on the same unit — the diameter of the column that is the earth, multiplied outwards.

In the present monograph (which contains a lot of complex architectural and numerical material that is impossible to summarize) Hahn builds on this previous work to argue that architects (especially, but also poets and sculptors) conceived of certain numerical proportions as representing organic growth and that Anaximander borrowed one of these formulae to represent the growth of the universe. Moreover, trisection was essential to temple-building, and the number 3 represents completeness, and so Anaximander spoke of sun, stars and moon surrounding the earth. Hahn’s argument is hard work for fairly meagre results, but we meet some interesting ideas along the way. He argues that Anaximander relied on multiples of 9 in his cosmological structuring because ‘9’ meant ‘far’; he takes the numbers found in our sources to refer to the distances of the various cosmic wheels from the earth, not to their size; and he has a way of resolving the clash between, say, Hippolytus mentioning the number 27 in relation to the sun, while Aetius mentions 28 (27 is the distance of the inside of the wheel from the earth, 28 the distance of the outside of the wheel; each cosmic wheel is one unit in diameter). And, in general, the idea that Anaximander conceived of the universe as a work of cosmic sacred architecture is pleasing — though one could accept this idea, and even the idea that Anaximander was working with formulae representing growth, without having to take on board all the speculation about how architects were working and the significance of the formulae for them.

In the third of the monographs, ‘The Discovery of Space: Anaximander’s Astronomy’ (165-254), Dirk Couprie argues that Anaximander, a genius of the order of Isaac Newton, had a coherent astronomy, that his astronomical ideas are fairly accurately represented in the doxographical texts, and above all that he was the first to claim that the planets circled under the earth, that the planets can occlude one another, and that the earth just hangs in the middle of the universe. The result of these ideas is ‘a tremendous leap forward’ (201), the discovery that the earth is surrounded by three-dimensional space of a huge extent.

The strength of Couprie’s monograph is that he forces us to discard Copernican and Newtonian preconceptions and try to see the universe as Anaximander might have seen it. So he takes seriously not only the idea that Anaximander’s earth was cylindrical, which is well entrenched in the doxography, but also the idea that his universe was not spherical: the earth was a cylinder surrounded by wheels, and wheels, moreover, in Anaximander’s day were not built like tubes, but would have given a rectangular cross-section. There is a particularly useful section, based on Couprie’s own experiments, of just how much astronomical knowledge can be gained with the help of a simple gnomon.

But Anaximander’s lasting contribution, Couprie goes on to argue, came not from his observations, but from his speculation. Here we enter the realm of the three great breakthroughs mentioned above. These are familiar ideas, but Couprie still has to argue for them, particularly since in recent years a number of eminent scholars have doubted that Anaximander could have conceived of the earth as simply hanging in space in a state of equilibrium. Couprie’s arguments against these scholars are good, and his argument for how Anaximander could have reached such a radical conclusion is straightforward: ‘When Anaximander concluded from the daily appearance and disappearance of the celestial bodies that they make full circles and go underneath the earth as well, he must have drawn his consequence from that, namely, that the earth must be unsupported in the center of those circles’ (207). Quite so: if the earth were supported in space by a spoke attaching it to any or all of the cosmic wheels, the earth would not be stable.

Couprie agrees with Hahn (and others) that the numbers found in the doxographers refer not to the size of the diameter of various wheels, but to their distance from the earth, and that he chose these numbers not on the basis of any observational work, but because ‘9’ traditionally meant ‘far’ and so multiples of 9 mean ‘further’ and ‘furthest’. This seems to me to be as good a suggestion as any. Couprie then develops a convincing account of the universe, with its three wheels, and provides us with visual aids as well. Finally, he suggests that a change in the way the heavens were portrayed in ancient Egypt, from a single- to a triple-arching goddess, may have been due to Anaximander’s influence.

The reader will see that I think there is an upward trend in the usefulness of the three monographs contained in this book. Couprie’s is certainly the best, but it is a pity that he deliberately eschews any comment on the relation between Anaximander’s astronomy and to apeiron. Perhaps he will take up this challenge in a later publication. In the meantime, this book must be described as patchy: there are arguments that will appeal to the hard-headed scholar and some which most definitely will not. Even though the Presocratics themselves were great speculators, we need a rigorous approach in order to continue to make headway in understanding them.