Often, Athens is considered to be the cradle of Greek philosophy. However, you have by now probably noticed that none of the philosophers we have looked at so far as come from Athens, or even have spent a lot of their time there. Anaxagoras was the first philosopher to have spent most of his time and done most of his philosophy in Athens (Adamson, 2014). Due to this, some have held Anaxagoras as being the one moving philosophy from Ionia to Athens and as the most prominent philosopher of Athens until the arrival of Socrates, the later possibly never becoming a renowned philosopher if this hadn’t happened (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946).
There is as a kind of duality in Anaxagoras’ philosophy. On one side there is the very esoteric idea of the exalted Mind as the purest and most subtle of things, which has a central role in creating the cosmos (Adamson, 2014).
According to Anaxagoras the cosmos was created and ordered by the Mind, the Mind being infinite and controlling everything that lives (Adamson, 2014). However this Mind is not like a god, but something responsible for the capabilities of certain beings, for example humans or animals, such as why they can think, see and move (Adamson, 2014). Mind is not distributed equally throughout all beings, humans supposedly having more than other beings, for example giraffes, and giraffes having more than insects (Adamson, 2014¸ Russell, 1946). Non-living things like rocks don’t have Mind (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946).
On the other side, Anaxagoras displays a fascination with physical processes in addition to his theory of universal mixture: everything is in everything (except the Mind, of course) (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946). The Mind is, however, involved in this theory, having a central role in the creation of the universe: Before the universe was formed, there only existed Mind and another infinite substance that had everything else mixed together, Mind being the only thing outside of it (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946). Mind then starts spinning the infinite substance around. In this substance there were also what Anaxagoras called ‘seeds’, which were the beginnings of later separate substances such as water or air (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946). Whit the spinning of the infinite mixture, the seeds of lighter things are moved towards the edge of the mixture, becoming air and fire, while the seeds of moist and dense things stay around the middle (Adamson, 2014). Anaxagoras also describes that at some point a number of large stones spin out of the middle of the mixture, burning very hot and white, becoming the visible heavenly bodies such as the sun and moon (Adamson, 2014).
So far this sounds quite similar to the previous idea of Anaximenes of how the cosmos is organised, with the addition of the Mind which moves things just thinking about it (Adamson, 2014). However, Anaxagoras adds in an idea of his own, which is presented in one of his most well known phrases: “everything is in everything” (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946). Only the Mind is completely separated from everything else.
Aristotles (who will cover eventually) was actually who first came up with a contextualization of this theory that is presently still accepted by some scholars. Anaxagoras’ theory is likely to be inside the context of the denial of change we previously saw in Parmenides (Adamson, 2014). In an attempt to answer to the impossibility of anything coming into being from non-being, Anaxagoras starts by accepting this part of the reasoning but refuses to accept that nothing can change or move. He argues that we do not need absolute because everything is already in everything (Adamson, 2014). He justifies this through a curious example which I will slightly paraphrase: when you eat some hummus, or any other food, it will restore the flesh, bone and blood of your body. This means that there must be some flesh, bone and blood in that hummus, because there is nowhere else for it to come from (Adamson, 2014).
Still following the same line of thought, Anaxagoras also accepted Zeno’s paradox of being able to divide any material an infinite number of times, but argued that no matter how small of a portion something is divided into, it will still contain everything in it (Adamson, 2014; Russell, 1946).
With his theory, Anaxagoras introduced a question that was often part of ancient attempts to try to understand the nature of material objects and one that would entertain the minds of generations of philosophers to come: what does it mean for something to be mixed with another? (Adamson, 2014). Anaxagoras exemplifies the bold tendency of 5th century philosophy to build systems in an attempt to understand the nature of the universe (Adamson, 2014). Other examples of this were Anaxagoras being recognised as the first to theorize the moon shines by reflecting light, to give the accurate explanation to solar eclipses and as previously mentioned, theorize that the sun and stars are stones of fire, clearly displaying he carried the scientific and rationalist tradition of the Ionians to Athens (Russell, 1946).
I hope this helps to show, once again, how influential the ideas of ancient Greek philosophers were and why we still study them currently. We have inherited their pursuit of understand the universe around them.
But we are not out of ideas and theories to explore yet, even though this text will end here. As always, if you learned something and/or found this text interesting, please share it all over social media so you can help others learn. See you in the next one.
Adamson, P. 2014. Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 1. 1st edition. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Russell, B. 1946. History of Western Philosophy. Routledge – Taylor and Francis Group: New York.