Born: Early sixth century b. c.e.; probably Miletus (now in Turkey)
Died: Second half of the sixth century b. c.e.; place unknown Category: Philosophy
Life The writings of Anaximenes of Miletus (an-ak-SIHM-uh-neez of mi-LEE-tuhs) no longer exist. Thus, knowledge of him is based on a few statements made by Aristotle and later writers on the history of Greek philosophy, some of whom quote earlier writers whose work is now lost. A few of these earlier writers show that they had access to Anaximenes’ writings, but it is difficult to determine the veracity of any of their statements. Thus, scholars have almost no reliable information about Anaximenes’ life; not even his dates can be accurately ascertained, and only the most general of assumptions can be made. Anaximenes, Thales, and Anaximander were the most famous thinkers from Miletus, then the largest and most prosperous Greek city on the west coast of Asia Minor. While they are known only for their philosophical work, it is believed that all three were financially secure and that philosophical thought was for them an avocation. Apparently, Anaximenes was the youngest of the three. Some sources suggest that Anaximenes was the pupil of Anaximander, while others suggest that he was a fellow student and friend. Most scholars place the work of Anaximenes after the fall of Sardis to Cyrus the Great (c. 545 b. c.e.) and before the fall of Miletus (494 b. c.e.).
Anaximenes, like his two predecessors, challenged the mythological world of Homer and Hesiod by introducing free and rational speculation. The work of Anaximenes was summarized in a single book whose title is unknown. In the fourth century, Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor, is said to have noted its “simple and economical Ionic style.” One supposes that this comment refers to the shift from writing in poetry to writing in prose. Clearly, Anaximenes was more concerned with content than with the conventions of poetical expression. Anaximenes wrote that “air” was the original substance of matter. Scholars of ancient history agree, however, that the exact meaning of this statement is unclear. To take the position that all other matter was derived from air, Anaximenes must have believed that air was a changeable substance that, by rarefaction and condensation, was able to take other forms. When rarefied, it became fire; when condensed, it became wind, clouds, water, earth, and finally stones. Thus, Anaximenes had modified Thales’ idea that water was the original substance and contradicted Anaximander’s thesis of unchanging infinity while still staying within the Milesian monist tradition.
Having determined the nature of air and its properties, Anaximenes apparently developed other ideas by extension. Topics that he addressed include the nature of hot and cold as expressions of rarefaction and condensation, the divine nature of air, the motion of air, cosmogony, and cosmological problems. Under the latter heading he seems to have commented on the nature of Earth, which he saw as flat and riding on a cushion of air, and the nature of heavenly bodies. In his consideration of meteorological phenomena, Anaximenes seems to have followed Anaximander rather closely.
Anaximenes also presented a challenge by writing in prose. Prior to this, poetry had been the preferred form for serious expression—not only in literature but also in politics. By writing in prose, the early philosophers moved, in part, from the world of the aristocrat to that of the new man of Greece: the hoplite, the merchant, the small, free farmer. While this new method of thought was not accepted by the average Greek (nor even, one suspects, the average Milesian), it did gain respect and placed philosophical speculation on an elevated footing.
For Anaximenes, unlike his predecessors, however, the differences that could be observed in matter were not qualitative but quantitative. Thus it is that he was the first to suggest a consistent picture of the world as a mechanism.
Influence Anaximenes’ methods were far more influential than his specific theories on matter. Together with Thales and Anaximander, he was the first to free speculative thought from mythology and mythological terms. The methods of these three thinkers are the foundation for all modern scientific and philosophical thought. They began with intellectual curiosity about the nature of matter and combined this curiosity with keen observation of the world around them—with little regard to prior religious explanations.
At first glance, Anaximenes’ ideas about air seem regressive. When, however, the idea is seen as a more general concept—as the first theory to explain a single substance capable of changing its form—its sophistication can be appreciated. Most ancient thinkers agreed that Anaximenes provided a better explanation of natural phenomena.
It is a small step from Anaximenes’ ideas of rarefaction and condensation to Empedocles’ definition of matter and the atomic theories of Heraclitus of Ephesus and Democritus. Clearly, no one in the modern world would take these ideas at face value, but with a small shift in the translation of Anaximeneian terms, one approaches the modern concepts of states of matter and the relationship between energy and matter. Thus, Anaximenes is an important figure in the development of Western philosophical and scientific thought.
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Michael M. Eisman
See also: Anaximander; Cosmology; Democritus; Empedocles; Heraclitus
Of Ephesus; Philosophy; Pre-Socratic Philosophers; Science; Thales of