Anaxagoras; part of a fresco in the portico of the National University of Athens.
c. 510 BC
c. 428 BC
Cosmic mind (Nous) ordering all things
The Milky Way (Via Lactea) as a concentration of distant stars
Anaxagoras (; Greek: Ἀναξαγόρας, Anaxagoras, "lord of the assembly"; c. 510 – 428 BC) was a Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. Born in Clazomenae in Asia Minor, Anaxagoras was the first philosopher to bring philosophy to Athens. According to Diogenes Laertius and Plutarch, in later life he was charged with impiety and went into exile in Lampsacus; the charges may have been political, owing to his association with Pericles.
Responding to the claims of Parmenides on the impossibility of change, Anaxagoras described the world as a mixture of primary imperishable ingredients, where material variation was never caused by an absolute presence of a particular ingredient, but rather by its relative preponderance over the other ingredients; in his words, "each one is... most manifestly those things of which there are the most in it". He introduced the concept of Nous (Mind) as an ordering force, which moved and separated out the original mixture, which was homogeneous, or nearly so.
He also gave a number of novel scientific accounts of natural phenomena. He produced a correct explanation for eclipses and described the sun as a fiery mass larger than the Peloponnese, as well as attempting to explain rainbows and meteors.
Anaxagoras appears to have had some amount of property and prospects of political influence in his native town of Clazomenae in Asia Minor. However, he supposedly surrendered both of these out of a fear that they would hinder his search for knowledge. The Roman author Valerius Maximus preserves a different tradition: Anaxagoras, coming home from a long voyage, found his property in ruin, and said: "If this had not perished, I would have." A sentence, denoted by Maximus, as being "possessed of sought-after wisdom!" Although a Greek, he may have been a soldier of the Persian army when Clazomenae was suppressed during the Ionian Revolt.
In early manhood (c. 464–461 BC) he went to Athens, which was rapidly becoming the centre of Greek culture. There he is said to have remained for thirty years. Pericles learned to love and admire him, and the poet Euripides derived from him an enthusiasm for science and humanity.
Anaxagoras brought philosophy and the spirit of scientific inquiry from Ionia to Athens. His observations of the celestial bodies and the fall of meteorites led him to form new theories of the universal order, and to a putative prediction of the impact of a meteorite in 467 BC. He attempted to give a scientific account of eclipses, meteors, rainbows, and the sun, which he described as a mass of blazing metal, larger than the Peloponnese. He was the first to explain that the moon shines due to reflected light from the sun. He also said that the moon had mountains and believed that it was inhabited. The heavenly bodies, he asserted, were masses of stone torn from the earth and ignited by rapid rotation. He explained that, though both sun and the stars were fiery stones, we do not feel the heat of the stars because of their enormous distance from earth. He thought that the earth is flat and floats supported by 'strong' air under it and disturbances in this air sometimes causes earthquakes. These speculations made him vulnerable in Athens to a charge of impiety. Diogenes Laertius reports the story that he was prosecuted by Cleon for impiety, but Plutarch says that Pericles sent his former tutor, Anaxagoras, to Lampsacus for his own safety after the Athenians began to blame him for the Peloponnesian war.
About 450 BC, according to Laertius, Pericles spoke in defense of Anaxagoras at his trial. Even so, Anaxagoras was forced to retire from Athens to Lampsacus in Troad (c. 434–433 BC). He died there in around the year 428 BC. Citizens of Lampsacus erected an altar to Mind and Truth in his memory, and observed the anniversary of his death for many years.
Anaxagoras wrote a book of philosophy, but only fragments of the first part of this have survived, through preservation in work of Simplicius of Cilicia in the 6th century AD.
According to Anaxagoras all things have existed in some way from the beginning, but originally they existed in infinitesimally small fragments of themselves, endless in number and inextricably combined throughout the universe. All things existed in this mass, but in a confused and indistinguishable form. There was an infinite number of homogeneous parts (Greek: ὁμοιομερῆ) as well as heterogeneous ones.
The work of arrangement, the segregation of like from unlike and the summation of the whole into totals of the same name, was the work of Mind or Reason (Greek: νοῦς). Mind is no less unlimited than the chaotic mass, but it stood pure and independent, a thing of finer texture, alike in all its manifestations and everywhere the same. This subtle agent, possessed of all knowledge and power, is especially seen ruling in all the forms of life. Its first appearance, and the only manifestation of it which Anaxagoras describes, is Motion. It gave distinctness and reality to the aggregates of like parts.
Decease and growth only mean a new aggregation (Greek: σὐγκρισις) and disruption (Greek: διάκρισις). However, the original intermixture of things is never wholly overcome. Each thing contains in itself parts of other things or heterogeneous elements, and is what it is, only on account of the preponderance of certain homogeneous parts which constitute its character. Out of this process arises the things we see in this world.
Anaxagoras appears as a character in The Ionia Sanction, by Gary Corby.
- [According to Anaxagoras] One of the largest things is a hot stone that we call the sun. When Anaxagoras was very young, he predicted that sooner or later a piece of the sun would break off and fall to earth. Twenty years ago, he was proved right. The whole world saw a fragment of the sun fall in a fiery arc through the sky, landing near Aegospotami in Thrace. When the fiery fragment cooled, it proved to be nothing more than a chunk of brown rock. Overnight Anaxagoras was famous. Today his book is read everywhere. You can buy a secondhand copy in the Agora for a drachma.
William H. Gass begins his novel, The Tunnel (1995), with a quote from Anaxagoras: "The descent to hell is the same from every place."
- DK 59 A80: Aristotle, Meteorologica 342b.
- Val. Max., VIII, 7, ext., 5: Qui, cum e diutina peregrinatione patriam repetisset possessionesque desertas vidisset, "non essem - inquit "ego salvus, nisi istae perissent." Vocem petitae sapientiae compotem!
- Couprie, Dirk L. "How Thales Was Able to" Predict" a Solar Eclipse Without the Help of Alleged Mesopotamian Wisdom." Early Science and Medicine 9.4 (2004): 321-337
- Burnet J. (1892) Early Greek Philosophy A. & C. Black, London, OCLC 4365382, and subsequent editions, 2003 edition published by Kessinger, Whitefish, Montana, ISBN 0-7661-2826-1
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain:
- Vidal, Gore, Creation: restored edition, chapter 2, Vintage Books (2002)
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain:
Editions of the Fragments
- Curd, Patricia (ed.), Anaxagoras of Clazomenae. Fragments and Testimonia: A Text and Translation with Notes and Essays, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.
- Sider, David (ed.), The Fragments of Anaxagoras, with introduction, text, and commentary, Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag, 2005.
- Kirk G. S.; Raven, J. E. and Schofield, M. (1983) The Presocratic Philosophers: a critical history with a selection of texts (2nd ed.) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, ISBN 0-521-25444-2; originally authored by Kirk and Raven and published in 1957 OCLC 870519
- Bakalis Nikolaos (2005). Handbook of Greek Philosophy: From Thales to the Stoics Analysis and Fragments, Trafford Publishing, Victoria, BC., ISBN 1-4120-4843-5
- Barnes J. (1979). The Presocratic Philosophers, Routledge, London, ISBN 0-7100-8860-4, and editions of 1982, 1996 and 2006
- Burnet J. (1892). Early Greek Philosophy A. & C. Black, London, OCLC 4365382, and subsequent editions, 2003 edition published by Kessinger, Whitefish, Montana, ISBN 0-7661-2826-1
- Cleve, Felix M. (1949). The Philosophy of Anaxagoras: An attempt at reconstruction King's Crown Press, New York OCLC 2692674; republished in 1973 by Nijhoff, The Hague, as The Philosophy of Anaxagoras: As reconstructed ISBN 90-247-1573-3
- Gershenson, Daniel E. and Greenberg, Daniel A. (1964) Anaxagoras and the birth of physics, Blaisdell Publishing Co., New York, OCLC 899834
- Graham, Daniel W. (1999). "Empedocles and Anaxagoras: Responses to Parmenides" Chapter 8 of Long, A. A. (1999) The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 159–180, ISBN 0-521-44667-8
- Guthrie, W. K. C. (1965). "The Presocratic tradition from Parmenides to Democritus" volume 2 of A History of Greek Philosophy Cambridge University Press, Cambridge OCLC 4679552; 1978 edition ISBN 0-521-29421-5
- Taylor, C. C. W. (ed.) (1997). Routledge History of Philosophy: From the Beginning to Plato, Vol. I, pp. 192 – 225, ISBN 0-415-06272-1
- Teodorsson, Sven-Tage (1982). Anaxagoras' Theory of Matter. Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, Göteborg, Sweden, ISBN 91-7346-111-3
- Torrijos-Castrillejo, David (2014) Anaxágoras y su recepción en Aristóteles. Romae: EDUSC, ISBN 978-88-8333-325-5 (Spanish)
- Zeller, A. (1881). A History of Greek Philosophy: From the Earliest Period to the Time of Socrates, Vol. II, translated by S. F. Alleyne, pp. 321 – 394
- Anaxagoras entry by Patricia Curd in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Anaxagoras entry by Michael Patzia in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Diogenes Laërtius, Life of Anaxagoras, translated by Robert Drew Hicks (1925).*Translation and Commentary from John Burnet's Early Greek Philosophy.
- Anaxagoras: Fragments from Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, 3rd edition (1920).
- Works by or about Anaxagoras at Internet Archive
- Works by Anaxagoras at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)