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The ancient Greek city of Miletus was home to two pre-Socratic philosophers in 600 B.C. The Milesian philosophers, Thales and Anaximander, advanced a rational or scientific explanation for the metaphysical elements of the universe that departed from the mytho-poetic reasoning of the time. Their primary areas of concern were cosmology and the “ultimate stuff” that makes up the universe (Idang 78). The aim of this paper is to compare and contrast Thales and Anaximander in relation to their philosophical speculations and ideas.
Similarities between Thales and Anaximander
Thales (624-547 BC) is considered the earliest philosopher to diverge from the traditional mytho-poetic perspective on the universe. He offered a rational explanation for the origin and evolution of the physical world, stating that ‘everything is water’. In his view, the basic element of everything was water or any of its different states (Fieser par. 4). Here, Thales applied the concept of ‘arche’ or origin to explain the fundamental principle of all phenomena. His view of water as the underlying principle of the world stems from his observation that moisture was present in all animal and plant life, including seeds (Idang 62).
Anaximander (610-546 BC), also a Milesian philosopher, was Thales’ student. The two concurred on the view that all things are constituted from a universal entity or fundamental principle. Anaximander called this entity the ‘boundless’, alluding to an infinite material that was the source of all things. In his view, the boundless was the source material that makes up the cosmos. Thus, the two philosophers concurred on the view that a single material accounts for everything in the universe.
Another point of convergence between the two philosophers relates to the rejection of mytho-poetic explanations of the world’s existence. As Idang writes, the Achaean mythological and poetic traditions appealed to common sense or logical premises (43). Thales and Anaximander broke away from the Greek traditional stories by attributing existence to an underlying principle that was not perceptible by the senses. Their explanations defied the logical or rational reasoning of the time. The two philosophers also subscribed to the classical view of four earthly elements of air, water, fire, and earth. In addition, Anaximander introduced the concept of an ‘ur-stuff’, i.e., the matter that was implicit in the four natural elements. Anaximander’s ‘ur-stuff’ was comparable to Thales’ water that constituted everything on earth.
Their explanations were firstly naturalistic, i.e., natural elements account for all phenomena in the world. They were also systematic as they appealed to the ‘arche’ or originality concept. Further, their explanations contained a universality requirement, meaning that all natural phenomena are constituted from a universal original material. Thales’ view rejected the appeal to common sense by suggesting a universal principle that accounted for what was perceptible to the senses. The core elements of Thales’ explanation included the universe was orderly, all phenomena were systematic, i.e., had a comprehensible course, and water accounted for all natural existence.
Differences between Thales and Anaximander
Although the two philosophers concurred on the theory of an underlying principle, they differed on the nature of this element. While Thales definitively identified it as water, Anaximander held that the fundamental element accounting for all existence is an unknown neutral, indeterminate element (Idang 72). Anaximander called this element ‘aperion’, meaning the “infinite, indefinite, imperishable, and eternally undifferentiated” entity (Idang 73).
In contrast, Thales identified water as an ‘uber-element’ fundamental to the other three. His reasoning stemmed from the observation that water pervades all materials, including seeds. On the other hand, Anaximander’s strong belief that the four elements are usually incompatible with each other informed his choice of a distinct element as the source material. Further, he reasoned that none of the four elements could be the source material, as they were all opposites (Idang 78). Water was the opposite of fire, as were earth (solid) and air. Thus, the concept of a boundless source element appeals to the classic view that matter is the substratum of all things.
To Anaximander, the boundless element or the aperion was the perfect ‘ur-stuff’. In comparison, Thales chose water as the uber-element because of its pervasive nature. He observed that life on earth is derived from water. Furthermore, water can exist in all the three states, i.e., gas, liquid, and solid, through evaporation and freezing (Idang 92). It is also seemingly unlimited and a source of nourishment for all things. To Anaximander, only an infinite material can account for a finite world. He saw this natural principle as the “arche of the world” (Idang 97).
Thales differed from Anaximander in explaining the forces that keep the four elements in balance. He held that the universe contains gods. Idang notes that this view could have stemmed from the classical theory of universe containing a pervasive soul (104). On his part, Anaximander held that opposites subdued each other through a process called “moral necessity” (Idang 89). Anaximander’s moral necessity concept resonated with the idea of a natural law that dictates the balance of the four elements in nature. Thales never considered the four elements to be opposites; rather, he thought of water as the primary source of the other three.
Thales also did not fathom a potential conflict between any two elements. To him, the uber-element, i.e., water, gave forth to the other three. However, to Anaximander, a conflict existed among the four elements. The very being of one element subdued the other’s viability, creating an injustice (Fieser par. 6). He meant that a cosmic law dictated the natural order of things and prevented such conflicts. The violation of this law affects the natural balance, causing a disproportionate exposure to any of the four opposites, i.e., “hot, cold, wet, or dry” (Fieser par. 8). Therefore, Anaximander believed that the violation of the natural law constrains the harmonic balance among the four elements.
Anaximander suggested that the earth was not resting on anything in space. His assertion resonated with the earlier conception of gravity as a non-directional force. He further suggested that the earth was a cylindrical drum lying in the middle of all other objects in the universe. For this reason, the earth did not move. In contrast, Thales considered the earth and the universe as made of souls. He attributed the attraction force of a magnet to a soul. Further, Anaximander, unlike Thales, alluded to the theory of organic evolution. He explained that the world was initially submerged in water. Dry land arose from the water and aquatic life forms evolved into the early man who quickly adapted to the dry conditions.
Thales and Anaximander agreed in their view that four natural elements affected the earth, emphasized on rational explanations, and appealed to an original or ‘arche’ principle. However, they differed widely in their philosophical premises. While Thales considered water as the uber-element, Anaximander called it ‘aperion’, a boundless entity. Therefore, though the ideas of the two pre-Socratic philosophers were fundamentally similar, their premises were different.
Fieser, James. Pre-Socratic Philosophy. Milesians, 2012, Web.
Idang, Gabriel. Ancient Philosophy: A Text for Beginners. Inela Ventures & Publishers, 2009.