BMCR 2008.05.11

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae. Fragments and Testimonia. A Text and Translation with Notes and Essays. The Phoenix Presocratics, 6. Phoenix Supplementary Volumes, 44

, , Anaxagoras of Clazomenae : Fragments and Testimonia : a text and translation with notes and essays. Phoenix. Supplementary volume ; v. XLIV = Phoenix. t. supplémentaire, OO79-1784 ; v. XLIV. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. 1 online resource (xiv, 279 pages).. ISBN 9781442684027. $65.00.

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (circa. 500 B.C.-428 B.C.) was the first Presocratic thinker to be active in Athens. He was a close friend and teacher of Pericles and had significant influence not only on later Presocratic philosophers such as Leucippus and Democritus but also on Socrates, Aristotle and other intellectuals of the classical era such as Sophocles and Aristophanes. Anaxagoras’ radical thinking denied any divinity to the cosmos and maintained that the celestial bodies such as the sun, the moon and the stars were not divine beings but fiery masses of red-hot metal. This theory was probably based on a meteorite that fell to earth at Aegospotami in 467 BC. Anaxagoras also put forward the theory that the rainbow is a reflection of the sun in the clouds, and he explained solar eclipses and maintained that the moon has dwelling places, hills and ravines. Owing to his materialism Anaxagoras was brought to trial for impiety. He is usually considered to be the first philosopher before Socrates to be charged with impiety, but, in contrast to Socrates, he was merely exiled from Athens, probably after the political intervention of Pericles and spent the rest of his life in the Ionian town of Lampsacus of Ionia. Anaxagoras wrote only one book — in prose — on nature and the cosmos, setting out his theories concerning astronomical, meteorological and biological phenomena. Unfortunately, like the works of the other Presocratics, only fragments survive from Anaxagoras’ book, mainly as quotations in the writings of later philosophers such as Simplicius, Plutarch and Sextus Empiricus.

The philosophy of Anaxagoras, like that of the other pluralists (Empedocles and the Atomists) could be seen as a reply to Eleatic monism as well as a development of early Ionian hylozoism. Whereas Anaxagoras accepted the Eleatic refutation of ex nihilo generation and destruction, he thought of becoming and passing-away as internal cosmic processes involving the mixture and separation of basic material ingredients. However, in contrast to his Ionian predecessors (i.e. the Milesians and Heraclitus), Anaxagoras maintained that there was not a single material arche but two cosmic principles, each all infinite and everlasting in nature: the mind ( Nous) and the original mixture. For Anaxagoras, in the beginning ‘all things were together’ and the revolutionary formation of the cosmos started when infinite ‘seeds’ ( spermata) were separated from the original mixture in a vortex initiated by the motive power of Nous. The compact ingredients compounded in the mixture were an infinite number of ‘seeds’ such as the opposing qualities of the wet and the dry, the hot and the cold, the bright and the dark. Under the control of Nous, the material world expands continually and indefinitely outwards from the original microdot which contained everything in the whole universe.

Patricia Curd in her book Anaxagoras of Clazomenae: Fragments and Testimonia. A Text and Translation with Notes and Essays offers an introduction to the philosophy of Anaxagoras. The volume belongs to the Phoenix Presocratics Series, an aesthetically well presented and attractive set of editions published by the University of Toronto Press. The book, as Curd states, ‘aims to make Anaxagoras and his ideas accessible to modern readers through translations of the ancient Greek and Latin texts and by providing explanatory notes and interpretative essays’ (p. 3). In order to succeed in these aims and after a short introduction and a helpful note ‘To the reader’, the book is divided into three parts: (1) the fragments and their contexts; (2) the notes on the fragments and the translation of ancient testimonia; and (3) five interpretative essays. The book is supplemented with an appendix on the ancient sources for Anaxagoras, a detailed bibliography and four indexes: a general index, an index locorum, an index nominum and an index of Greek words.

In the first part of the book, Curd offers an English translation of all the extant fragments of Anaxagoras. The translation is printed on pages facing the Greek text, which follows the numbering of the standard collection Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker edited by Diels and Kranz. Curd’s translation is philologically precise, accurate and consistent. The language is clear and without obscurities reflecting both the structure of the text and the context of the argument.

The second part of the book is divided into two parts: (1) the notes to the fragments and (2) the translation of the ancient testimonia. In the notes, Curd aims to elucidate the meaning of the fragments and includes an analysis of Anaxagoras’ philosophy and terminology. It is noteworthy that Curd’s intention in this section is not to provide a philological analysis of the fragments, as David Sider successfully offered in his famous commentary The Fragments of Anaxagoras (Meisenheim am Glan: Anton Hain, 1981), but mainly to present a philosophical commentary and exegesis of the fragments by exploring the key concepts of Anaxagoras’ thought. Curd presents in a detailed and scholarly analysis Anaxagoras’ principal areas of thought with effective links and comparisons between his philosophy and the other Presocratics.

In the section dealing with the testimonia, Curd offers an English translation of the ancient testimonies on Anaxagoras. Curd’s translation is lucid and informative, providing a complete picture of Anaxagoras’ primary sources. However, Curd’s sources are limited to those found in the Greek edition of Diels and Kranz and exclude other ancient sources that refer to Anaxagoras. For instance, Plotinus’ direct references to Anaxagoras in Enneads II.4.7.2-6 and V.1.9.1-2 are totally excluded from Curd’s edition. Plotinus’ discussion of Anaxagoras’ purity and simplicity of Nous, and his criticism of Anaxagoras’ theory of matter, is an important testimony for the reception of the Presocratic in later Greek philosophical tradition to which the Aristotelian commentator Simplicius, the most important ancient source for Anaxagoras, actually belongs.

The third part of the volume is the philosophical kernel of the book. In this section Curd offers five interpretative and critical essays on Anaxagoras. The essays are well-written and enlightening.

The first essay concentrates on Anaxagoras’ life and work. Curd places the Presocratic in the historical and philosophical framework of fifth-century Athens. Curd regards Anaxagoras as a ‘genuine heir of Parmenides, accepting the Eleatic strictures against becoming and passing-away, and proposing a physical theory that meets Parmenides’ criteria for an acceptable theory of what-is’ (p. 5). The author concludes that Anaxagoras’ physical theory reflects Parmenides’ arguments of what-is and allows Anaxagoras to establish a metaphysical account of the cosmos (pp. 140-142). Curd also discusses the importance of Anaxagoras in later Greek thought, and Aristotle’s treatment of Anaxagoras. In the second essay Curd focuses on Anaxagoras’ theory of the original mixture and the nature of the seeds. Curd argues that Anaxagoras’ view lay between the position that the original mixture contained only the opposites and the position that the original mixture contained everything found in the present cosmos (pp. 157-171). Curd argues that a position like this also explains the relationship between the original ingredients and the phenomenal natural objects (pp. 171-177).

In the third essay Curd thoroughly examines Anaxagoras’ famous view that ‘there is a share of everything in everything’ (B12). The essay successfully explores different interpretations of Anaxagoras’ view and leads Curd to the conclusion, put forward already in the second essay, that the ‘everything-in-everything’ principle is indirect evidence for the distinction between pure and phenomenal instances of the ingredients. For Curd, this solution explains how any corporeal object gets its distinctive phenomenal qualities, namely from the ingredients that predominate in it (p. 191).

The fourth essay focuses on the most controversial and debated aspect of Anaxagoras’ thought: the nature and function of Nous. Even Plato and Aristotle were puzzled with Anaxagoras’ Nous. Socrates in the Phaedo (97b-98c) was, on the one hand, delighted to read that Anaxagoras posited a mind to arrange and control the cosmos, but, on the other, disappointed to find that Anaxagoras’ mind was just the cause of the initial rotation of the universe. Curd is well aware of the ancient and modern treatments of the Anaxagorean Nous and presents in a careful and balanced way all possible interpretations of the issue. Curd also sets out the primary role of Anaxagoras’ Nous in the cosmic system: to rule and control the universal order through its omnipresence and omniscience. Curd concludes that Nous is a fundamental principle of Anaxagoras’ cosmology, with many and diverse influences in later ancient thought.

The fifth essay offers an interesting account of Anaxagoras’ cosmological, astronomical, metrological, biological and epistemological theories and explores the extent to which these theories relate to the main principles of Anaxagoras’ philosophy. Curd also highlights the influence of Anaxagoras on ancient Greek science and metaphysics and establishes the Presocratic as a significant figure in ancient Greek philosophy.

To summarize: Curd’s edition of Anaxagoras is to be recommended as an excellent introduction to the philosophy of Anaxagoras and late Presocratic thought. Curd’s work is scholarly, comprehensive, well-structured and enlightening, filling a gap in the market for a systematic philosophical commentary on Anaxagoras. Despite the fact that her primary sources are limited to those printed in the Diels and Kranz edition, Curd offers a complete and detailed picture of Anaxagoras’ thought and highlights the importance of the Presocratic both in the Greek philosophical tradition and in recent scholarship. Curd opens the path for further investigation of the reception of Anaxagoras’ philosophy — not only in the Classical and Hellenistic periods, but also in Late Antiquity and particularly in the Neoplatonic tradition.