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The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies

McEvilley (SAT:30-33) – Anaximander and Indian Monism

The Problem of the One and the Many

segunda-feira 4 de setembro de 2023, por Cardoso de Castro


Around 550 B.C., Anaximander   wrote a book, of which only a single fragment is extant. In it he went beyond Thales to a more abstract formulation of the substrate, which he called the apeiron  , a word that can be translated “infinite,” “unlimited,” “undefined,” “indefinite,” and so on.


Anaximander   was a younger contemporary of Thales and, like him, a citizen of Miletus. He may have been at his height (or “flourished” as the ancient texts say, conventionally meaning “was forty years old”) in about 540 B.C., Lydian, Greek, Egyptian, and Persian merchants were active in the urban milieu of Miletus; travel to Sardes, Naukratis, and elsewhere was easy, and papyrus books were available. Publication was expanding in the Greek world, where, two or three generations before Anaximander’s book, the poems of Sappho, for example, had undergone some form of publication that sooner or later spread them all over Greece.

Anaximander, like Thales, was involved in the task and opportunity of bringing into awakening   Greece the cultural legacy of the ancient civilizations of the Near East. He was an ambitious and challenging personality who, according to one ancient source, “cultivated a vain theatricality and adopted imposing costumes” (D.L. VIII.). Like Thales’, his primary interest seems to have lain in Mesopotamian astronomy and related pursuits. As Thales had learned the Babylonian cycle for years in which eclipses are most likely to occur, and had been credited by the Greeks with figuring it out for himself, so Anaximander borrowed from the East the gnomon, or astronomical measuring rod, and was credited with having invented it. He is also credited with drawing a map of the world, based probably on Mesopotamian maps of earlier date which involve the circular conformation with surrounding river and other elements which Anaximander passed on. The attribution to Anaximander of a celestial globe again indicates how closely he was associated with astronomy and hence with the East.

Around 550 B.C., Anaximander wrote a book, of which only a single fragment is extant. In it he went beyond Thales to a more abstract formulation of the substrate, which he called the apeiron  , a word that can be translated “infinite,” “unlimited,” “undefined,” “indefinite,” and so on. The fragment of Anaximander occurs at the end of a paraphrase by Simplicius  :

Anaximander said that the principle [arche  -] and element [stoicheion  ] of existing things was the indefinite [apeiro-n]; he was the first to use this name for it. He says that it is neither water nor any other of the so-called elements, but some other infinite/indefinite nature, from which all the heavens and the worlds within them come into being. And the source of coming-into-being for existing things is also that into which perishing takes place, “according to necessity; for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to the assessment of Time,” as he describes it in rather poetic terms. (D.L. II.. = DK 12A1)

The phrase in quotation marks is widely regarded as Anaximander’s own words. Simplicius, expressing the point of view of a later age, criticizes Anaximander’s diction as poetic—meaning mythological—rather than philosophical, because its references to punishments, justice, and so on, imply narrative. Anaximander’s language in the quoted passage is complex in its references. In addition to the mythological tinge, there is an allusion to the language of the court of law, suggesting natural   law within the infinite, and also to the language of Hippocrates and the Hippocrateans, who speak similarly of the body as desiring penalty or retribution in one quality (such as heat or cold) after an overdose of its contrary. The implication is that, for Anaximander, the body of the Unlimited is still a kind of Cosmic Organism with inner health and self-regulatory mechanisms to maintain it. And in fact Anaximander goes on to refer to it by terms applicable to godhead—calling it (according to Aristotle  ) “divine, immortal, and indestructible” (Phys. 203b).

Aristotle considers whether Anaximander’s apeiro-n is an intermediate nature falling between two elements or qualities or pairs of opposites (hot/cold, wet/dry, and so on), or a mixture of them all together (De Gen. et Corr. 332a; Phys. 187a). A common modern view is that the Indefinite was either a mixture of all the elements or a stage prior to their differentiation from one another, like Egyptian Nun, Aristotelian Prime Matter, or Ovidian chaos  . The mode of generation of the infinite, then, is that the pairs of opposites unfold themselves out from it into separate polarities and recombine with one another to make the variety of forms. The apeir-on is evidently a material entity, though prior to the specific differentiations by which matter becomes knowable or perceivable. As such it is halfway between the Sumero-Akkadian mythic concept of the oceanic mixture, Apsu-Tiamat, from which things are separated out in unsystematic streams of polarities and singularities, and the completely featureless Being of Parmenides  .

Anaximander’s Infinite may relate to his Mesopotamian-based astronomical interests by being spherical or circular; in addition to its meaning as “indefinite,” apeiro-n in Greek also has the meaning “ring” or “circle,” since the circle is an unlimited line, a line without beginning or end. Anaximander’s map of the world was circular, too, as were its probable Mesopotamian models. The common ancient view that the totality of things is best represented by a circle may be a part of the Sumerian package of influences.

The Rg Veda  ’s Aditi, “the Unlimited,” “the Unbounded,” has often been compared with Anaximander’s Infinite. Aditi, the “Mother of the Gods,” is regarded as the source of all things (RVI.., X.). “Aditi is the heaven,” says the Vedic singer in a formulation remarkably like Aeschylus’s lines to cosmic Zeus  ; “Aditi is mid-air, Aditi is the mother and the father   and the son. Aditi is all gods, all classes of people, all that has been born and shall be born” (RV I..). Aditi is quasi-abstract, “a personified idea  ,” with no independent hymns and no parts in the Vedic stories.

Still, a goddess who appears in the Rg Veda as a cow is more mythological than Anaximander’s Infinite. “The mother of seven gods of light,” she brings with her the tradition   of mother goddesses as universal   source or cosmic womb. Aditi is a feminine noun   whereas Anaximander’s Infinite is neuter, essentially postmythological, like Udda-laka’s brahman  .

The neuter conception of deity actually dawned in India earlier than Udda-laka. The Indian sources are much fuller on this point than the Greek, and the process can be seen in more detail. Several hymns of the Akkadian-influenced Atharva Veda are addressed to an abstract and neuter deity called Skambha, the Support, or the Substrate, or the Frame, or the Cosmic Pillar; in these hymns the pantheos concept is expanded to include mental qualities and at the same time is referred to by the abstract noun brahman, “being.” Both Anaximander and the poets of the Skambha hymns, in their use of the neuter abstraction, show awareness   of the difference between mythology and the emerging sensibility which would come to be called philosophy. It is an important addition to the techniques (such as Thales’ isolation of a single image, and the Amon-Re priests’ affirmation of contradictory qualities) for getting beyond mythological thought and discourse, which, though they continue to be hiddenly present in early philosophical modes of expression, are increasingly moved into the background.

One hymn (AV X.) to Skambha, the Substrate, involves a critique of the mythological concept of the Cosmic Being. Couched as a series of questions, it seems to express a struggle to get beyond the visual image to an abstract concept of metaphysical substrateness. “In what member of it is the earth located?” the singer-philosopher inquires, evidently parodying models like that of the Hymn to the Cosmic Person, which locates the earth in the feet. A series of questions leads to a reduction of such imagery to absurdity: “In what member of it is the atmosphere located? In what member does the sky remain set? In what member is located what is above the sky?” The poet points out the difficulty of imaging time with spatial metaphors: “With how much of itself did the Substrate enter into the past? How much of itself stretches over the future?” Another stanza reveals the difficulty of imaging mental qualities in spatial formats: “In what member of it is fervor located, in what member of it is right deposited? … In what member of it is Truth established?” Another stanza points toward the transcendent aspect, as if to quiet the use of concrete imagery: “That in which earth and atmosphere and sky are fixed, in which fire, moon  , sun, wind, remain fastened, identify that Substrate. Which of the things that are, pray, is it?” Another stanza suggests awareness of the difference between temporal and logical priority—the modes of myth and philosophy, respectively. “When the substrate, generating, evolved the original cosmos, the original cosmos was recognized as a member of the Substrate.”

In another Hymn to the Substrate (AV X.) the term “atman  ,” Cosmic Self or Universal Subject, is used. The poet reflects on the immanence-transcendence relationship and attributes to the abstract Substrate terms traditionally applied to personal deity. “With half of himself,” the poet writes, “he created the whole world; the other half of him, what is the distinguishing mark of it? The One [neuter] is finer than a hair … yet more embracing than this universe … Nearby though it is, one cannot see it.” Despite the neuter and abstract nature of the Substrate, the Vedic poet addresses it religiously: “Behold the artistry of the god  ! It does not die, it does not grow old”—much as Anaximander addressed his neuter indefinite as “divine, immortal, and indestructible.”

Many passages in the early Upanisads describe brahman, or Being, in terms virtually identical to those with which Anaximander described the Infinite. “That from which these things are born, that by which, when born, they live, that into which, when departing, they enter. That, seek to know. That is Brahman” (TU III..). As Anaximander’s Infinite is declared by him to be neither one element nor another, the brahman is declared to be “neither gross nor fine, neither short nor long, neither glowing red like fire nor adhesive like water” (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad   III..). As Anaximander’s Infinite is said by Aristotle (Phys. 203b = DK 12B3) to “surround all things and steer them,” so the brahman is said in the early Upanisads to contain all things and to be their “inner controller” (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad   III..). As Anaximander’s Infinite is said by Aristotle to be divine and immortal, so the brahman “transcends hunger and thirst, sorrow and delusion, old age and death” (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad III..). As the ground of being, both of these concepts, apeiro-n and brahman, precede all specific qualities except that of existing; the source of the pairs of opposites, each is itself beyond them.

This concept of a state of being which is beyond qualities, or prior to them, is the first purely philosophical idea. It was obtained through a progressive stripping away of concrete imagery. It is one of the great and characteristic products of ancient thought—both Greek and Indian—and has retained force as an expression of both philosophical and mystical insights into modern times. It was to undergo much criticism, as time passed, on the grounds that being-without-qualities is a contradiction in terms: To be means precisely to have qualities. But its force, both as an expression of primal   wonder and as a first daring incursion into the realm of the abstract, remains undiminished.

Ver online : Thomas McEvilley