Who Was Anaximander? 9 Facts About the Philosopher

What were the extraordinary discoveries of Anaximander, the pre-socratic Greek philosopher who pioneered several ideas in cosmology?

Nov 14, 2022By Huda Basit, BSc English Literature
who was anaximander celestial rings


You might be familiar with the works of Aristotle, Socrates and Plato due to their contributions as early Greek scholars. But have you ever heard about Anaximander, the first philosopher to make massive changes to the astronomical world and to natural philosophy? He was a Pre-Socratic philosopher, so he predates the typical study of Greek scholars (that’s probably why you never heard of him).


Introduction to Anaximander: Who Was He?

Anaximander from school athens painting
Anaximander leaning towards Pythagoras, detail from The School of Athens by Raphael, c. 1509-11, via Musei Vaticani, Vatican City.


Anaximander was born in Miletus (modern-day Turkey) to Praxiades, a disciple of Thales, the pioneer of Western Philosophy. He introduced the thought-provoking concept of a cosmological and systematic philosophical view of the world before true scientific discoveries started taking place. He was the first thinker to get into some hardcore metaphysics! Anaximander’s pursuit to understand the laws of nature without any recourse to the Gods of Greek myth grew into an incredible theory on the origin of the world.


Anaximander’s most accomplished writings are found in his book titled “On Nature”, which covers an array of topics related to Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics and Philosophy. His work served as a guide to subsequent pre-socratic thinkers. He aimed to not only understand concepts that people didn’t usually ponder upon, but also explain them to others by dissecting the topic at hand. He was surely quite successful at that. We will look into some of Anaximander’s most impactful theories.


1. Anaximander Invented a Proto-Evolutionary Human Anthropology

woman fish evolution
Color lithograph by Fr. Schmidt, 19th century, via the Wellcome Collection.


Anaximander had an unconventional idea about human beings. According to him, early life was first conceived inside water. This is now established as the premature prediction of evolution because of its correspondence with Charles Darwin’s theory. However, Darwin figured this out 2000 years later.

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According to Anaximander’s predecessor Thales, everything is fundamentally made out of water and hence that element serves as the origin of the universe. Anaximander takes this idea and resorts to it in order to explain the inception of humans. The Roman author Censorinus included Anaximander’s theory in his own writings.


Censorinus recounted Anaximander’s thought as if he believed that actual fish-like creatures emerged from warmed-up water and also the Earth itself. Men would take form inside these animals, while embryos were held prisoners until puberty. Only then, after these animals burst open out in nature, men and women could come out able to feed themselves. This theory was the cause of great debate among Greek scholars in the centuries that followed.


2. Introduction of Sundial And Earth’s Shape

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Sundial and gnomon from Liverpool Road Station, 1833, via the Science Museum Group.


Anaximander’s proposition of the Earth’s floating nature in space dates back to 545 BCE. He did not believe in the presence of an absolute upwards or downwards force. This was in contrast to the ongoing theory proposed by Thales, which was formulated before Anaximander’s. Thales believed that the Earth was a flat disk, while Anaximander’s hypothesis was that the Earth had a cylindrical shape. The progress from a 2D to a 3D shape was surely an upgrade, but it wasn’t completely accurate.


Among many of his other inventions, Anaximander was also responsible for introducing the sundial into Greek culture. He traveled to Sparta to set up a gnomon, a simple pillar that is fixed straight over markings on the ground, representing a dial. Based on the shadows cast by the pillar and their interaction with the markings, one could accurately tell the time.


3. The Genesis of Cosmic Body Rings

celestial rings moving
Cosmological diagram showing angelic movers turning cranks to rotate the celestial spheres, 14th century, via the British library.


Anaximander supposed that the moon, sun and stars were not mere objects in space but wheels of fire that surrounded the Earth. According to him, these wheels do not move and remain stationary around the globe at all times. His portrayal of celestial bodies helped explain the detachment of the moon, stars and sun as far away from the Earth. This provided a well-defined explanation of the phases of the moon as well as its eclipses.


These heavenly figures form after a fiery ring is encircled by air right after getting detached from the Earth’s fire. An eclipse takes place if there is something blocking the holes through which the moon, the stars and the sun shine and are visible from the Earth. These holes are tubular pathways displaying the rings of fire. Anaximander’s idea that the heavenly bodies move in a circular manner was certainly ahead of its time.


4. First Ever Mapping of the World 

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Map of the world according to Hacaetus, taken from Bunbury’s “A history of ancient geography among the Greeks and Romans”, 1879, via the Internet Archive.


Anaximander is credited as the first Greek geographer to attempt the map of our world, at least according to ancient observers. It was not unusual to use regional maps in the olden times. However, the thought of mapping out the whole globe was much more novel. Only after Anaximander started this endeavor, Hecataeus of Miletus, who was a traveler, attempted making the perfect map out of his predecessor’s creation while improving on it.


Anaximander constructed maps of regions in the Black Sea. This map consisted of the Middle East along with regions corresponding to contemporary countries like Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, and Israel. He devised this “global” map to improve trading, which concentrated around the Black Sea and toward Greek colonies, as well as Miletus. As Anaximander was a well-traveled man, he accumulated plenty of knowledge from his geographic expeditions to the Black Sea, Apollonia as well as Sparta. Additional geographical coordinates were gathered from sailors who went to Miletus to stock up on merchandise.


5. The First Book On Natural Philosophy 

Pietro Bellotti Anaximander
Anaximander holding his book’s fragments as painted by Pietro Bellotti (1625-1700), via Wikimedia Commons.


Anaximander is the first scholar to write a book on Natural Philosophy, which paved the path for many contemporary philosophers. His book “On Nature” argued for the concept of the Apeiron. Most of this book is unidentified as the fragments are lost in time. A primary source is his successor, Theophrastus, who referenced some parts of “On Nature” and was a follower of Anaximander’s accounts of Geography, Biology, and Astronomy.


Anaximander’s idea of the Apeiron has been discussed for millennia. Since Aristotle conveyed many of Anaximander’s beliefs and hypotheses, he preserved another part of Anaximander’s work: the idea of ‘The Limitless’. He elaborates that the source of everything is to be fundamentally different from its creations and therefore unlimited as well.


Even if something is responsible for the generation and destruction of everything, it can not logically do this by itself; rather it has to be an unlimited entity, hence the Apeiron. The interesting point here is that Aristotle himself believed this idea to be rather absurd because he believed there was no logical justification of why the source of generation and destruction could not be limited. Poor reasoning or not, it is evident that the Apeiron played an important role in Anaximander’s account of the creation of the universe.


6. Multiverse Theory and Parallel Universes

Bartolomeu Velho map
An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568, via Wikimedia commons.


Anaximander had a broad view of multiverses back when few people had ever even considered the idea. His views on the matter matched those of Epicurus and Leucippus, as these philosophers were on the same page regarding the existence of parallel universes. These thinkers made great hypotheses about countless worlds which have different sizes, shapes, and natures in the universe, and that the objects within them move in endless motion inside the space vacuum.


The idea was that the universe consists of a concentrated area with many globes on one side and planets scattered on the other side of it. Every world has a different paradigm of time and energy. Some planets might have a sun, while others just have the moon. Collisions are possible and could demolish the existence of any of the planets upon contact.


7. The Origin of Climatic Conditions 

Eratosthenes Teaching Alexandria Strozzi
Eratosthenes teaching in Alexandria by Bernardo Strozzi, 1635, via Wikimedia Commons.


Anaximander proposed a theory of the formation of climatic phenomena such as lightning and thunder, winds and clouds. According to him, winds are the primary source of meteorological occurrences and carry out the processes of these atmospheric changes.


Whirlwinds, lightning, thunder and typhoons take place when wind gets forced out of the clouds and causes a roar, bursting out with its full might. This then tears open the clouds and causes a flash to occur after suddenly rubbing against the thick clouds. All of this is impossible when the wind is “enclosed” in the cloud, and that is its natural state for the most part. This is why climatic conditions only rarely lead to extreme phenomena, and remain stable for the most part.


8. The Hovering Earth and Revolving Celestial Bodies

astronomer looking space
Image from page 6 of “The story of the sun, moon, and stars” (1898), via Medium.com.


Anaximander changed the manner humans looked at the world forever. He asserted that celestial bodies move around the Earth in full circles. That seems apparent to us now but wasn’t an obvious opinion back in Anaximander’s time. He believed that the sun goes down while the moon comes up every day. Although we don’t truly see where they go due to our limited consciousness; they just disappear and reappear later on.


Nevertheless, Anaximander asserts quite emphatically that things move in circles around the Earth and therefore pass underneath it. This thought leads to another idea: the Earth isn’t resting on anything. There’s nothing underneath it, nor is anything holding it upwards. If it were otherwise then the moon, sun and all the planets would not be able to circle the globe.


Anaximander introduced another notion that wasn’t obvious in the ancient world: that heavenly bodies are spaced out at varying distances all over the galaxy. According to Homer, before Anaximander’s proposition, people used to believe that the sky was a fixed surface above the earth. This is why Anaximander tried to work out the order of the celestial bodies but didn’t quite get it right. Regardless, he was successful in recognizing orbital spaces. This means that Anaximander is one of the first people to have conceived the idea of space itself!


9. A Cosmological Account of the Apeiron 

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Apeiron, a Faux Holographic Projection/Performance by Paul Prudence, 2013. Via the artist’s website.


Anaximander’s concept of the Apeiron was deemed notoriously obscure and much more metaphysical than anything thought out by Thales, his predecessor. Many ancient works are dedicated to comprehending what the hell this Apeiron is! Aristotle preserves much of what we know about it but delivers conflicting definitions. Jonathan Barnes has even suggested that Anaximander himself did not know what this term actually meant.


Regardless of these contrasting interpretations, it is known that Anaximander’s Apeiron is spatially infinite, divine, eternal and exists beyond the world we live in. What makes this concept of Apeiron so difficult to apprehend is that he does not specify the sort of substance this unlimited component is. Some scholars convey that Anaximander meant that this Apeiron had no determinate quality or was perhaps a mixture of elements. Others suggest that it was a bit like air.


But setting that aside, we are dealing with an assumed primordial unlimited substance which is a source of the physical universe and that governs the law of nature. Anaximander characterized it by saying that it ‘Steers the Cosmos like a Ship’. The question arises: why did he posit this extraordinary thing?


According to Anaximander, the material world is operated by opposing forces such as the wet versus the dry. In a rare fragment of Anaximander’s writings, he says:


“Whence things have their origin, Thence also their destruction happens, According to necessity; For they give to each other justice and recompense For their injustice In conformity with the ordinance of Time”.


By this, he meant that whenever a wet thing takes over a dry one, there is an injustice done to the dry entity which must be reciprocated with the dry body taking over the wet again, and so on and so forth. This interplay between opposites could go on indefinitely. Anaximander likely thought that the source of the opposites could not possess changing qualities and, because of this, that it had to be separate from the process it created.


Anaximander’s Lasting Influence on the World

miletus ancient ruin
Ruins of the ancient city of Miletus, Anaximander’s birthplace, in modern Turkey. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Anaximander is now universally recognized as a forward-thinking and influential philosopher. His views on cosmic occurrences and the explanations behind their trajectories was unique and, in some respects, predicted much of what we now know to be true.


Anaximander’s work paved the way for modern astronomy by establishing fundamental concepts of the movements of the sun, moon and stars around the Earth. His knowledge pertaining to astronomy in combination with his work in geometry helped introduce the sundial in Greece. All of the information about Anaximander comes from a multitude of (sometimes conflicting) sources, but in all of them, it is established that he was one of the greatest thinkers of his time, and we now know that he laid the keystone for later Western philosophy.

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By Huda BasitBSc English LiteratureHuda is an English Literature major excelling in Ancient and Modern Philosophy. She loves diving into the details of an abstract idea, dissecting it from the core while analyzing the fragments that can be practically incorporated into upgrading the mind, thought, and behavior of an individual reading her works.