[Note: This piece was originally posted in my other blog, It is reposted here because I referred listeners to this site to read it in a recent interview on the NOI with Jay Dyer.  –James Kelley]

According to Aristotle, philosophy began amongst the Ionian Greeks as a search for an archē or first cause (prōtē aitia): “That from which all things come to be is their first principle” [1]. For Thales (c. 624 – c. 546 BC), the principle of all things is the element water; this ingenerate element-origin is a step away from the traditional Hellenic pantheon comprised of gods who do not die once they are born, but who exist as part of a divine lineage whose alpha was Chaos and whose omega was Zeus. Thales’s water is deathless, but is not born or generated. Other elements or beings find their origin as modifications of the original water, which is never declared explicitly by Thales to exist apart from the tangible world-order. His student Anaximander’s (c. 610 – c. 546 BC) unique concept of primal entity as apeiron—the Unbounded—has been viewed by scholars as a qualitative leap in abstraction over Thales’s aqueous archē [2]. The apeiron of Anaximander is the invisible, undetermined, indefinable source of the opposites—“the hot, the cold, the moist, the dry, and the rest”—without being itself of the same nature as the world [3]. Incidentally, Anaximander and many other early Greek philosophers consider this source of all beings to be divine, though scholars disagree about the details of their “theism” [4]. The pairs of opposites separated from theapeiron (and the beings that are, in turn, constituted by these opposites) exist in space and time [5]. The primary pair of opposites for Anaximander is hot and cold, but, because almost none the Milesian’s writings have survived, we have no clear idea of how these first opposites relate to the other pairs, “the moist, the dry, and the rest”; we only know that these dichotomous forces originated from a part of the apeiron that, by some unspecified cause, became “separated.” This primordial scissioning was simultaneous with the creation of the “world-order” [7].

Of Anaximander’s voluminous oeuvre only a single fragment has survived. This brief yet important passage is preserved in the following statement from Simplicius (the italicized text is believed to be the actual words of Anaximander): “Into those things from which existing things have their coming into being, their passing away, too, takes place, according to what must be; for they make reparation to one another for their injustice according to the ordinance of time…” [8]. It is important to understand that the “things from which existing things have their coming into being” are the opposites, and not individual beings. However, John Mansley Robinson has shown—through parallels to ancient Greek medical writers—that opposites were commonly thought to be operative as much inside of beings’ material bodies as in the world at large. But the opposites are not at work only in every spatial nook and cranny: the contraries are also operative temporally, in the change of seasons that determine both natural and societal rhythms: “The year has a share of all things—the hot, the cold, the dry, and the wet—for no one of the things which exist in the world-order would last…were it not for all the rest” [9]. Thus, Anaximander’s notion of binary as a category of “Few” between the “One” as apeiron and the “Many” as beings (ta onta) allows opposition to straddle (and thus saturate) the whole scale of being, explaining each level’s material (and thus organizational and even moral) basis.

The fact that we have little of Anaximander’s work, and thus must make due with the comments of later writers to flesh it out, leads historians of philosophy into great anxiety over whether or not they are reading too much into Anaximander. However, our tracing of the dialectic of oppositions’ path from its beginning in Greek philosophy, being more concerned with trajectory than point of origin, can afford to forgo a full treatment of certain questions of influence and priority. Now, to return to Anaximander’s apeiron and to its core of dialectical contrariety…

For the Hellenic philosophers it was axiomatic that beings do not arise out of nothingness; rather, things that exist must have been made from preexisting material. Anaximander follows this “no creation from nothing” rule but with his own stamp. The apeiron is an immense, perhaps even infinite being that contains all possible potencies—and these forces or powers are opposites such as hot versus cold, et cetera—in a kind of balanced state. In fact, viewed from its “in and for itself” aspect, there are no qualities in the apeiron, since its natural state of perfect balance or equilibrium of opposites means that no quality is actually manifested, there being a kind of nullity or absolute repose that rules over it [10].

Though his thought-world is doubtless far removed from the presocratics, Nicholas of Cusa’s (1401-1464) version of deity is nonetheless similar to the apeiron in that Cusanus’s Godhead is a kind of prime matter that contains all actualities, all possible beings, in each part of its radically-simple, infinite expanse. For Cusanus, as for his Milesian counterpart, there was only one way to maintain the deity’s total lack of composition while also explaining how this highest being could generate a multifarious cosmos of limited yet interrelated beings: The apeiron/Godhead must contain all potentialities as a coincidence of all opposites in every part of its being.

Of course, Anaximander’s whole idea is that there are no regions or “parts” in the apeiron; the cosmos of beings comes about, as we touched on above, only once a region of apeiron is differentiated; this primeval carving alters the existential mode of the opposites therein. The vectorial opposites no longer exist within each other in a state of balance; now the opposites are arranged in a kind of spatio-temporal imitation of the apeiron‘s “in and for itself” Unity. This is the law of temporal necessity spoken of in the Anaximander fragment. And since “nothing comes from nothing,” the apeiron as coincidence of opposites allows that beings are created out of the substance of the deity as a separation of these coincident opposites. Notice that, what Anaximander has invented (and Plato, Cusanus and many others have carried on) is a conception of the One as the only being free from ontological, elemental, dispositional, psychological, and cosmic opposition. Anaxagoras deems the divine principle “pure” (katharos) because unmixed with the elemental dialectic of opposition [11].

But, paradoxically, the apeiron’s freedom from opposition, indeed from composition, is secured at a price. Only by remaining inactive and static, by hibernating from activity and even from existence or being itself, can Anaximander’s first principle avoid manifesting the deadly seeds of opposition that lay within it [12]. But can the apeironavoid manifesting the opposites? Indeed, to anticipate our discussion of Middle Platonism below, can the One not create and still be the One? Not according to Simplicius, for whom Anaximander “did not derive generation from the alteration of some element, but from the separation of contraries due to everlasting [rotational] motion” [13]. Indeed, Anaximander, according to Plutarch’s testimony, seemed not to believe that the separation began at a particular moment in time, though it undoubtedly followed the inexorable law of time, whereby the opposite forces took turns as dominant. An example is Anaximander’s notion that the moisture on the earth’s surface is slowly evaporating; this era will end once water reaches a certain dearth without completely “dying.” Presumably, an aqueous age will follow, which will spell the overpowering of heat and aridity through a slow cooling and dampening [14]. Doubtless we see here the well-spring of a perennial problem in Greek thought, that of explaining how a perfect (and thus perfectly simple and perfectly independent) divine principle can have any relation to a cosmos full of limited beings that are, in Xavier Zubiri’s words, “peras, [that is] perfectly delimited with respect to the indefinite, which is their archē, their beginning” [15]. This same Hellenic dilemma of divine creation is at work in Plotinus’s notion of the One’s “emanation,” and in the concept, epochal to Farrell’s work, of the Origenist Problematic [16].

We would be remiss to pass over what might well be the aspect of Anaximander’s thought most relevant to Joseph Farrell’s dialectic of opposition; namely, the Milesian’s theme of “the earth at rest” [17]. St. Hippolytus of Rome offers the following concerning Anaximander’s geocentric and geostatic theory: “The earth is aloft, not dominated by anything; it remains in place because of the similar distance from all points [of the celestial circumference]” [18]. The earth, then, does not fall because it has no opposite that can overpower it; this follows from the simple fact that the earth sits at the same distance from every point on the cosmic sphere’s outermost boundary. There seems to be a kind of analogy at work here between physical pairs of opposites and rational opposites, and within this analogy lies the possible origin of the dialectic of opposition’s appeal. The rational aspect of the geostasis stems from queries such as: Why does the earth stay put? Because it has no good reason to move. Why no good reason? Because, for a centrally-placed entity such as the earth, any direction one could choose to move is just as reasonable as any other; thus, the earth remains stationary. From the physical or cosmological angle, it occurred to Anaximander that the earth is held in place from every direction by an equal amount of force, there being an equal amount of air and fire in each elemental layer encasing the earth. The earth, then, because it absorbs the force or kratos of all beings, stands as a summing up or heading up of the whole cosmos (and the apeironthat stands above it). In a sense, the earth is the being that holds all beings in place; it is the perfect point where the geometric, cosmic, mathematical, and physical buck stops.

But the earth also remains in the center because it has power or dominance over every pair of opposites; we can imagine each and every line of geometric space as a spoke that begins at the surface of the cosmic limit and ends at the same terrestrial median [18a]. Each spoke has its diametric opposite, and the whole arrangement is meant to express a harmony achieved by the divine principle’s law of opposites, a law to which the deity itself is not subject, but which all beings are subject [19]. Though we do not have the space to pursue the thread here, we note that Anaximander’s apeiron has more than a passing likeness to the Pythagoreans’ harmony of opposites—of high and low tones, of long and short distances, and so on—based in number. For them, number mediated the divine and the created: number was in all cosmic beings, both individually and relationally, but was not contained by them. A further analogy to Anaximander’s moral-yet-impersonal archē is detected in the Pythagoreans’ tetraktys, which was for them both the holiest symbol of cosmic harmony, and at the same time a physics text, a chart representing number’s relation to the material cosmos of space and time [20].



[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 983b25, trans. (accessed 27 February, 2015).

[2] On Thales’s notion of water as the origin of all being, see Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 1.27: “He theorized that water was the source of all things…” (Translation from Daniel W. Graham, editor and translator, The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy: The Complete Fragments and Selected Testimonies of the Major Presocratics. Two Volumes [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010], 1.21). For an interpretive overview of Anaximander’s apeiron, see Jonathan Barnes, The Presocratic Philosophers. Volume One, Thales to Zeno (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), 28-37. On Anaximander’s apeiron as philosophy’s first invisible First Principle, Karl Jaspers remarks, “What is the apeiron? The meaning of the word is infinite, boundless, undetermined. Thus the apeiron is not an object of intuition. The ancients understood Anaximander’s apeiron as the matter from which the worlds arise and to which they return—analogous to the water from which all things originated, according to the earlier Thales. But water was visibly present in the world. Anaximander took the leap to positing a source that was not only invisible but could not even be defined” (The Great Philosophers, The Original Thinkers [Volume Two]: Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Plotinus…, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Ralph Manheim[New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966], 11).

[3] Simplicius, Physics, 150.24; trans. from John Mansley Robinson, An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), 34.

[4] Aristotle reports that the apeiron “is the divine, for it is deathless and imperishable…” (Physics 203b, trans. from Graham, Texts, 1.55). See the Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 1.27 for Thales’ notion that the whole cosmos was “full of deities” (idem, 1.21).

[5] Anaximander sees the creation of the cosmos as a “separat[ion]” of “the contrarieties from the one in which they are present,” that is, theapeiron (Aristotle, Physics 187a, trans. from Graham, Texts, 1.53). The Milesian’s “contrarieties are hot, cold, dry, moist, and the rest,” says Simplicius (Physics 150.24-25, trans. from Graham, Texts, 1.53).

[7] On hot and cold as the primary separation from Anaximander’sapeiron, note the words of Plutarch: Anaximander “says that that part of the everlasting which is generative of hot and cold separated off at the coming-to-be of the world-order and from this a sort of sphere of flame grew around the air about the earth like bark around a tree. This subsequently broke off and was closed into individual circles to form the sun, the moon and the stars” (Miscellanies 2, trans. from Graham, Texts, 1.57).

[8] Simplicius, Physics, 24.18, trans. from Robinson, Introduction, 34.

[9] Robinson, Introduction, 35, citing Hippocrates Nat. hom. 7.

[10] In referring to the apeiron’s “in and for itself” aspect, I am alluding to Findlay’s analysis of the Eide’s dual aspect in Plato’sParmenides, wherein the Platonic Eide is seen to have a side “in and for itself” (undifferentiated Unity) and another side, Its “wider and fuller nature, which allows us to predicate other notions of it or relate them to it” (J.N. Findlay, Plato: The Written and Unwritten Doctrines[New York: Humanities Press, 1974], 237). A later section’s analysis ofParmenides will argue that the apeiron presages both Plato’s Eide and Plotinus’s One.

The opposites and the four elements of Empedocles: John Ferguson, in his paper “The Opposites” (Apeiron 1.3 [January 1969], 1-17), holds that Anaximander did not conceive of “hot and cold” as two of Empedocles’ four elements, or, to avoid anachronism, Empedocles’s four roots or elements “were not derived from the ‘traditional opposites—hot and cold, wet and dry’, because, though the antithesis between hot and cold had played a fairly large part in previous systems, the antithesis between wet and dry had played next to none. There is in fact no sense of antithesis at all between his ‘roots’, as there would be if they were really derived from the opposites” (7). Nevertheless, as Gerard Naddaf insists, the “hot and cold” produced by the separated apeiron, along with whatever other “opposites” Anaximander may have had in mind, “must be considered not as qualities or properties that characterize bodies, but as entities or things. This is the case since in Anaximander’s time…there was no technical vocabulary that enabled the distinction between a substance (e.g., earth) and its attributes (e.g., cold and dry)” (The Greek Concept of Nature [Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2005], 71).

[11] Jean Pierre Vernant, Myth and Thought among the Greeks (New York: Zone Books, 2006), 222.

[12] For Anaximander’s notion that the apeiron secretes a gonimon or seed that produces hot and cold, which opposites then generate the cosmos as an organism made up of many beings, see Plutarch,Miscellanies 2, trans. from Graham, Texts, 1.56-57. Cf. the trans. and discussion of the same passage in Naddaf, Greek Concept of Nature, 72-74.

[13] Simplicius, Physics, 24 in Graham, Texts, 1.51, emphasis added.

[14] “And [Anaximander] declared perishing to take place and much earlier coming to be, all these recurring from an infinite time [apeirou aeonos] past” (Plutarch, Miscellanies 2, trans. from Graham, Texts, 1.56-57). John Burnet describes the overcoming of the cold substance by the hot substance as a re-equalizing of the opposites, which causes the world to become part of the apeiron again (Early Greek Philosophy, 2nd Ed. [London: Adam and Charles Black, 1908], 72).

[15] Xavier Zubiri, The Fundamental Problems of Metaphysics, trans. Joaquin Redondo (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2010), 28.

[16] See Farrell, God, History and Dialectic, 97ff.

[17] See Barnes, Presocratic, 23-28.

[18] Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 1.6, Diels-Kranz, Fragmente, vol. 1, p. 84.7-8; English trans. from Charles Kahn, Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), 76.

[18a] Furley pointed out that Anaximander conceived of a columnar earth and not a spherical earth; yet only the latter would seem to support Aristotle’s attribution to Anaximander of an earth equidistant from all points on the outermost cosmic limit. Hahn speculates that Anaximander’s earth as the Principle of Sufficient Reason, so cherished by historians of philosophy, is salvaged if we consider the Milesian as approaching the question of the earth’s fixity from a dual perspective, one lateral (and linked to Anaximander’s first ever world map, which presented world on a flat surface) and the other vertical. Hahn argues that Anaximander drew upon the architectural innovations of his time, which allowed the creation of more stable temples via new understandings of proportion and foundation reinforcing. See Robert Hahn, Anaximander and the Architects: The Contributions of Egyptian and Greek Architectural Technologies(Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2001), 197-200. Hahn cites David Furley, The Greek Cosmologists, Vol. I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 23-28 and idem, Cosmic Problems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 14-22. Furley and others have contended that Aristotle must be in error and that Anaximander’s view is really in accord with that of the other Milesians—Thales and Anaximenes—who accounted for the fixity of the earth in terms of dinē. For analysis and references, see the section on Anaximenes below.

[19] Kahn (Anaximander, 77) notes the close relationship of the “earth at rest” theme in Anaximander to the school of Thales’s geometrical emphasis on the diameter as a wheel-spoke that points toward the central point of a wheel or sphere. It seems Thales was one of the first thinkers to single out the concept of diameter as being physically, cosmologically, and metaphysically significant.

[20] Arnold Ehrhardt gives Anaximander’s apeiron credit as the term that became the “unlimiteds” of Pythagorean theology (The Beginning: A Study in the Greek Philosophical Approach to the Concept of Creation from Anaximander to St John [Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968], 24).

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