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Anaxagoras

(c. 500—428 bc) Greek philosopher, teaching in Athens


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(probably 500–428 bc),

of Clazomenae (see panionium); the first philosopher known to have settled in Athens. The evidence for his biography is confused and confusing. He may have arrived in Athens in 456/5 and philosophized there for c.20 years, until his prosecution on a charge of impiety. He resettled in Lampsacus in northern Troas, perhaps with the aid of Pericles. There he died and was buried with high honours. His name was associated with the fall of a large meteorite at Aegospotami in Thrace (c.467); his explanations of other physical phenomena are reflected in Aeschylus' Suppliants (c.463) and Eumenides (458).

Simplicius preserves extensive fragments of Anaxagoras' one book, which began with the words: ‘All things were together’. The longest and most eloquent surviving passage explains how our differentiated cosmos was created from the original mélange by the action of mind, an entirely discrete principle, unmixed with any other substance but capable of ordering and controlling them. Anaxagoras' most striking and paradoxical claim is the thesis that, despite the consequent separation of dense from rare, hot from cold, etc., ‘as things were in the beginning, so now they are all together’: ‘in everything—except mind—a portion of everything’. Ancient commentators supplied examples: what we call black contains a predominance of portions of black, but portions of white also, for how else could water turn into snow? Similarly sperm contains flesh, hair, and indeed everything else, for hair cannot come from not‐hair, flesh from not‐flesh, etc.

If analysis or division were thoroughgoing, would it not be possible to reach particles of pure flesh or pure black? This idea is explicitly rejected by Anaxagoras: ‘the small is unlimited’, and as complex as the large. The ultimate constituents of the world never exist as discrete physical entities, only as stuffs or powers of which—hence the designation ‘portions’—such entities consist. When Anaxagoras talks of an infinity of ‘seeds’ both in the beginning and now in our world, we should probably think not of particles but of the potentiality of latent portions to become manifest.

To Anaxagoras is attributed the maxim: ‘The appearances are a glimpse of what is not apparent’. Infinite variety in phenomena reflects infinite variety in seeds; things as we perceive them are very like things as they really are. This position is far removed from Parmenidean metaphysics and epistemology. (See Parmenides.) Yet engagement with Eleatic ideas is evidently responsible for some key features of Anaxagoras' thought, e.g. the doctrine of the fundamental homogeneity of reality, his ‘all together’ echoing Parmenides' own words, and the explicit rejection of the concepts of birth and death in favour of mixture and dissolution. Modern scholars have been fascinated by the subtlety with which these ontological principles are applied in Anaxagoras' system. By contrast his cosmology is perceived as a mere reworking of Anaximenes', even if the claim that the sun is a huge incandescent stone shocked contemporary opinion. More original is Anaxagoras' theory of mind, as both Plato and Aristotle recognize, while lamenting its failure to offer teleological explanations of natural processes.

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Subjects: Classical Studies.


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