1902 Encyclopedia > Anaxagoras

Greek philosopher
(c. 500- c. 428 B.C.)

Anaxagoras, according to the most probable calculations, was born about the year 500 B.C. At his native town of Clazomenae, in Asia Minor, he had, it appears, some amount of property and prospects of political influence, both of which he surrendered, from a fear that they would interfere with his search after the knowledge of nature.

In early manhood he went to Athens, which was rapidly becoming the headquarters of Greek culture; and in that city he is said to have continued for thirty years. Here Pericles learnt to love and admire him; and the poet Euripides dreived from him an enthusiasm for science and humanity. His influence was due partly to his astronomical and mathematical eminence, but still more to the ascetic dignity of his nature, and his superiority to ordinary weaknesses -- traits which legend has embalmed.

His observations of celestial bodies led him to form new theories of the universal order and brought him into collision with the popular faith which found objects of its worship in the heavens. Anaxagoras had tried to reduce eclipses to the operation of known causes: he had removed the halo of deity from the sun, and profanely turned Apollo into a mass of blazing metal, larger than the Peloponnesus; and he was even reported to have brought the phenomena of meteoric stones within the limits of predictable events.

The dominant polytheism, and the ignorance of the multitude, could not tolerate such explanation; and the enemies of Pericles used the superstitions of their countrymen as a means of attacking the ideas of that statesman in the person of his friend. Anaxagoras was arrested on a charge of contravening the established dogmas of religion; and it took all the eloquence of Pericles to rescue him from his persecutors. Even then Athens could no longer be the sphere of his activity. He was forced to retire to Lampsacus, where he died about 428 B.C.

It is difficult to present the cosmical theory of Anaxagoras in an intelligible scheme. All things have existed in a sort of way from the beginning. But originally they existed in infinitesimally small fragments of themselves, inextricably mixed throughout the spaces of the world. All things were in that mass, but in the obscurity of indistinguishableness. There were the seeds or miniatures of corn, and flesh, and gold, in the primitive mixture; but these parts, of like nature with their wholes (the omoiomere of Aristotle), had to be eliminated from the complex mass before they could receive a definite name and character. The existing species of things having thus been transferred, with all their specialities, to the prehistoric stage, they were multiplied endlessly in number, by reducing their size by continued subdivision, at the same time as each one thing is so indissolubly connected with every other that the keenest analysis can never completely sever them. The work of arrangement, the segregation of like from unlike, and the summation of the omoiomere into totals of the same name, was the work of Mind or Reason. This peculiar thing, called Mind (nous), was no less illimitable 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 forms of life. Its first appearance, and the only manifestation of it which Anaxagoras describes, is Motion. Reason originated a rotatory movement in the mass (a movement far exceeding the most rapid in this present scene), which, arising in one corner or point, gradually extended till it gave distinctness and reality to the aggregates of like parts. But even after it has done its best, the original intermixture of things is not overcome. No one thing in the world is ever abruptly separated, as by the blow of an axe, from the rest of things. The name given to it merely signifies that in that congeries of fragments the particular seed is preponderant. Every a of this present universe is only a by a majority, and is also in lesser number b, c, d.

Anaxagoras proceeded to give some account of the stages of the process from original chaos to present arrangements. The division into cold mist and warm ether first broke the spell of confusion. With increasing cold, the former gave rise to water, earth, and stones. The seeds of life which continued floating in the air were carried down with the rains, and produced vegetation. Animals, including man, sprang from the warm and moist clay. If these things be so, then the evidence of the senses must be held in slight esteem. We seem to see things coming into being and passing from it; but reflection tells us that decease and growth only mean a new aggregation and disruption. Thus Anaxagoras distrusted the senses, and gave the preference to the conclusions of reflection. People even said that he maintained snow to be really black; for was it not produced from dark water?

Anaxagoras marks a turning-point in the history of philosophy. With him speculation passed from the colonies to settle at Athens. By the theory of minute constituents of things, and his emphasis on mechanical processes in the formation of order, he paved the way for the Atomic theory. By his enunciation of the order that comes from Reason, one the other hand, he suggested the theory that nature is the work of Design. But the features of Reason he described in a vague and analogical way. Aristotle have blamed him for basing his explanations on natural, not on final, causes. These charges are scarcely fair. Anaxagoras seems to have held that the order was the work of Mind; but needed not on that account to assume what the order was, and then employ the conception to explain why things were so and so. The order is rather the general postulate which the details have to prove, instead of themselves resting upon it. The conception of Reason in the world passed from him to Aristotle, to whom it seemed the dawn of sober thought after a night of distempered dreams. From Aristotle it descended to his commentators, and under the influence of Averroes became the engrossing topic of speculation. The fragments of Anaxagoras have been collected by Schaubach (Leipsic {Leipzig], 1827), and Schorn (Bonn, 1829). See also Mullach, Fragmenta Philos. Graec. i. 243-252. (W. W.)

The article above was written by William Wallace, M.A., Merton College, Oxford University, 1867; Whyte's Professor of Moral Philosophy, Oxford University, from 1882; author of The Logic of Hegel, Epicureanism, Kant, and the Life of Arthur Schopenhauer.

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