Detail of Raphael's painting The School of Athens, 1510–1511. Leaning towards Pythagoras on his left, this character is traditionally associated with Boethius, however his face offering similarities with a bust of Anaximander, it could be a representation of the philosopher.
Detail of Raphael's painting The School of Athens, 1510–1511. Leaning towards Pythagoras on his left, this character is traditionally associated with Boethius, however his face offering similarities with a bust of Anaximander, it could be a representation of the philosopher[1].

Anaximander (Ancient Greek: Ἀναξίμανδρος) (c.610 BC – c. 546 BC) was the second of the physical philosophers of Ionia. He succeeded to Thales, as master of the Milesian school, and numbered Anaximenes of Miletus and Pythagoras amongst his pupils.

Little is known of his life and work. Anaximander is thought to be the first philosopher to have written down his studies and an early proponent of exact science. Only one fragment of his works remains, but ancient testimonies provide a good idea of their nature and importance, covering philosophy, astronomy and physics, but also geometry and geography.

The Anaximander crater on the Moon was named in his honour.



Anaximander, son of Praxiades, was born in Miletus during the third year of the 42nd Olympiad (610 BC)[2]. According to Apollodorus of Athens, he was sixty-four years old during the second year of the 58th Olympiad (547-546 BC) and he died shortly after. He would have reached his acme around the time of Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos[3]. Pupil of Thales, it would also appear that they were also relatives (according to the Suda).

Themistius mentions that Anaximander was the "first of the known Greeks to publish a written document on nature" and by this very fact, his texts would be amongst the first ones written in prose. By the time of Plato, his philosophy was almost forgotten and it is Aristotle, Theophrastus and a few doxographers who provided us with the little information that remains.

Diogenes Laertius's Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (II, 2) reports an amusing anecdote regarding his personality: learning that children were mocking him when he was singing, he would have replied that therefore, he should learn to sing better for the children.

Claudius Aelianus makes him the leader of the Milesian colony to Apollonia on the Black Sea coast, and hence some have inferred that he was a prominent citizen. Indeed, Various History (III, 17) explains that philosophers sometimes left the comfort of their thoughts to deal with political matters. It is then very likely that he was sent there as a legislator to bring forth a constitution or simply to secure Milesian government.

He has also been said to have introduced such astronomical instruments as the sundial and the gnomon to ancient Greece[4]. Furthermore, he is credited with having created the first map of the world, which was circular in form and showed the known lands of the world grouped around the Aegean Sea at the center and all of this was surrounded by the ocean.

Cosmology and the apeiron

Map of Anaximander's universe
Map of Anaximander's universe

Anaximander's reputation is due mainly to a cosmological work, little of which remains. Aristotle told us (Metaphysics, I III 3-4) that the Presocratics were searching for the "element" of which all things are made. This is the problem of origin, the "beginning", or the first principle. While each Presocratic philosopher gave a different answer as to what this beginning was (water for Thales, air for Anaximenes, fire for Heraclitus), from the few extant fragments we learn that Anaximander took the beginning or first principle to be an endless, unlimited primordial mass (apeiron), subject to neither old age nor decay, which perpetually yields fresh materials from which everything we can perceive is derived.

Unlike other Presocratics he never defined this principle precisely, and it has generally (e.g. by Aristotle and Augustine) been understood as a sort of primal chaos. It embraced the opposites of hot and cold, wet and dry, and directed the movement of things, by which there grew up all of the host of shapes and differences which are found in "all the worlds"--as he believed there were many.

Illustration of Anaximander's models of the universe. On the left, daytime in summer; on the right, night time in winter.
Illustration of Anaximander's models of the universe. On the left, daytime in summer; on the right, night time in winter.

Out of the vague and limitless body there sprang a central mass — this earth of ours, cylindrical in shape, poised equidistant from surrounding orbs of fire, which had originally clung to it like the bark round a tree, until their continuity was severed, and they parted into several wheel-shaped and fire-filled bubbles of air.

Man himself had come into being by like transmutations. Mankind was supposed by Anaximander to have sprung from some other species of animals, probably aquatic. For, he thought, man with his extended infancy could not have survived, originally, in the manner he does presently. For this, even though he had no theory of natural selection, some people consider him to be evolutionary theory's most ancient proponent. The theory of an aquatic descent of man was re-conceived centuries later as the aquatic ape hypothesis.

Anaximander offered up the theory of the apeiron in direct response to the earlier theory of his teacher, Thales, who had claimed that the primary substance was water. Anaximander reasoned that water cannot embrace all of the opposites found in nature — for example, water can only be wet, never dry — and therefore, it can not be the one primary substance. Nor could any of the other candidates, so Anaximander postulated the apeiron as a substance that, although it could not be perceived directly, could explain the opposites he could clearly see around him.

The one surviving fragment of Anaximander was transmitted as a quote by Simplicius and could be translated as

Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
According to necessity;
For they give to each other justice and recompense
For their injustice
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.


Bertrand Russell in The History of Western Philosophy interprets the above quote as an assertion of the necessity of an appropriate balance between earth, fire, and water elements, all of which may be independently seeking to aggrandize their proportions relative to the others. Anaximander seems to express his belief that a natural order ensures balance between these elements, that where there was fire, ashes (earth) now exist. Anaximander's Greek peers echoed this sentiment with their belief of natural boundaries that not even their Gods could operate beyond.

Nietzsche, in his Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, claimed that Anaximander was a pessimist. Anaximander asserted that the primal being of the world was state of indefiniteness. In accordance with this, anything definite has to eventually pass back into indefiniteness. In other words, Anaximander viewed "...all coming-to-be as though it were an illegitimate emancipation from eternal being, a wrong for which destruction is the only penance." (Ibid., § 4) The world of individual objects, in this way of thinking, has no worth and should perish.

Martin Heidegger was known to have lectured extensively on Anaximander (along with Parmenides and Heraclitus) and wrote a section in Off the Beaten Track called "Anaximander's Saying" in which he examines the ontological difference and the oblivion of Being or Dasein in the pre-Platonics.

Known Works

Possibly what Anaximander's map looked like
Possibly what Anaximander's map looked like

On Nature, circa ?

Referenced in 
Simplicius in Phys., p. 24, 13sq.

Map, circa ? (lost)

(First?) Map of his Known World
Referenced in 
Agathemerus, Geographie informatio

Some of Anaximander's ideas were also preserved in Theophrastus's (lost) history of philosophy, and re-quoted by later authors.

It is also mentioned in the wikipedia article on Evolutionism, correctly or not, that Anaximander was the first ancient thinker to touch upon the idea of evolution. This is based on statements attributed to him by later philosophers regarding humans having originated from the sea.


Dirk L.Couprie, Robert Hahn, and Gerard Naddaf, 2003. 'Anaximander in Context: New Studies in the Origins of Greek Philosophy', Albany N.Y.: State University of New York Press


  1. ^ See for a description of the characters of the painting.
  2. ^ Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies (I, 5)
  3. ^ In his Chronicles, as reported by Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (II, 2).
  4. ^ Diogenes Laertius - Anaximander

See also

  • Milesian school
  • Evolutionism

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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