The philosopher Anaximander was born in the trading port of Miletus in 610 BCE, and is said to have become a student of the philosopher Thales. His philosophy explored questions of creation and destruction in nature.
The first scientist?
The philosopher Anaximander was born in the trading port of Miletus in 610 BCE, and is said to have become a student of the philosopher Thales. He was fascinated by processes of generation and destruction in the natural world. It is for this reason that the physicist Carlo Rovelli has called Anaximander 'the first scientist':
He paved the way for physics, geography, meteorology, and biology. Even more important than these contributions, he set in motion the process of rethinking our worldview—a search for knowledge based on the rejection of any obvious-seeming “certainty,” which is one of the main roots of scientific thinking.
— 'The First Scientist' by Carlo Rovelli
Anaximander is also the first Greek philosopher whom we know to have written his philosophy down, in a book that is usually referred to with the title On Nature. The book has not survived, other than a few brief fragments.
Another reason that Anaximander deserves the name 'the first scientist' is his omnivorous curiosity. Later accounts show that his writing covered a huge range of topics: from astronomy to meteorology to biology. On Nature was an early attempt to pay close attention to the things of the world, and the processes by means of which they transformed into each other.
Maps and travels
Anaximander is also credited with being a restless traveller. He visited Sparta and, according to some accounts, set up a colony of citizens from Miletus on the Black Sea coast at Apollonia, now Sozopol in Bulgaria. He is also said to have been the first person in Greece to produce a map of the known world. One ancient account reads:
Anaximander of Miletus, a pupil of Thales, was the first man bold enough to draw the inhabited world on a tablet; after him, Hecataeus of Miletus, a great traveller, made it more accurate so that it was greatly admired.
— The 'Geography' of Agathemerus
If it ever existed, the map — like so much of his work — has not survived. But the geographer Hecataeus, who lived in Miletus a generation later, is said to have taken his map and improved it, producing the map that became the standard map for the ancient Greek world.
Anaximander followed Thales in his conviction that underneath the bewildering variety of things there lay a much simpler, more basic principle, an ultimate reality. The Greek term for this ultimate reality is arche, meaning 'origin' or 'beginning.' It is the root of present-day words like 'archaeology' and 'archive.' For Thales, this principle was water. But for Anaximander, it was something altogether more mysterious: something he called the apeiron, or the 'boundless.'
Thales's claim that the principle of all things was water had the advantage of being at least comprehensible, even if he turned out to be wrong. But for most of history, later philosophers have complained that the trouble with Anaximander is that it is not at all clear what this seemingly abstract idea of the 'boundless' actually is. And this has left room for all kinds of interpretations about what it was that Anaximander was on about.
One later account says that this apeiron is the principle that underlies the generation, existence and destruction of all things. It is the unchanging principle, beyond all our experience, that underlies all change, and that 'contains all the worlds.' It is in accordance with this principle that all life emerges. And it is in accordance with this principle that human beings appear in the world (who, Anaximander says with considerable prescience, 'originally resembled another type of animal, namely fish.')
One persuasive interpretation of what Anaximander is up to comes from the contemporary Czech philosopher Radim Kočandrle, who argues that apeiron is not a thing, but instead a quality that Anaximander ascribes to nature. So instead of being a mysterious (or even mystical) entity that lies behind nature, Anaximander talks of boundlessness as a way of trying to say something about nature itself, and the qualities of things that exist.
To get hold of this idea, we need to know what the Greeks meant by 'nature.' The Greek word that is usually translated as 'nature' is physis, from which we get words like 'physics' and 'physical'. In Ancient Greece, physis was a word that was first used to talk about the growth of plants. The very early Greek philosophers expanded the meaning, to refer instead to nature of all things, seen as an ongoing process of growth and change.
If this interpretation is right, then what Anaximander is saying is something like this. In talking about the apeiron, he is arguing that the universe is boundlessly creative. Individual things may be created and destroyed, but the creative process is not something that is itself created or destroyed. He calls this principle 'the boundless' because it is not localised anywhere in space. Creative ferment is going on everywhere you look (and in all the places you don't look as well). And although we cannot see this creative power in itself, we can see the things that it gives rise to. For Anaximander, in other words, the universe we live in is not static, but inherently, richly creative.
Carlo Rovelli's The First Scientist: Anaximander and his Legacy (Westholme Publishing, 2007) is well worth reading.
Apeiron: Anaximander on Generation and Destruction by Radim Kočandrle and Dirk L. Couprie (Springer 2017) is a short, and very thorough, exploration of the idea of Anaximander's apeiron as creative power.
Image: Anaximander, attributed to Pietro Bellotti (1625–1700). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.