Anaximander and the Nature of Science 
by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Marion Lignana Rosenberg.
Allen Lane, 209 pp., £16.99, February, 978 0 241 63504 9
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Nietzsche​ found Anaximander troubling. In Basel in the 1870s, struggling to balance his duties as a lecturer in classics with his philosophical writing, Nietzsche described Anaximander as a ‘true pessimist’ with a guilt-ridden, punitive view of the universe. But he was also envious. Anaximander was born in 610 BC, long before the word ‘philosophy’ was coined: such antiquity freed him from the self-consciousness that constrained later philosophers. Unlike uptight Plato and obsessive Aristotle, whom Nietzsche dismissed as having survived accidentally, Anaximander was a free thinker, voyaging through new constellations of thought. He was far from straightforward, though: his surviving work was an ‘enigmatic proclamation’, an ‘oracular inscription over the boundary stone of Greek philosophy’.

Nietzsche, no stranger to laying it on thick, was in this case quite correct: Anaximander’s ‘enigmatic proclamation’ could fit easily on a boundary stone, even a small one. All that survives of his work is a single, sentence-length fragment, preserved by a later writer, Simplicius – if it really is a continuous fragment and not, as some think, an artificial amalgam of quotations. It says something like this: ‘Where things come into being, there too they must also pass away according to necessity; for they must pay penalty and recompense to each other for their injustice, according to the arrangement of time.’ The translation of Anaximander’s Greek has been irascibly contested, although the main themes are agreed. Heidegger nearly doubled the fragment’s length by cramming in extra subclauses (‘in the surmounting of disorder’) and paraphrases (‘temporalising time’; ‘order and thereby also reck [the opposite of recklessness]’). You can see why he would want to editorialise, though. There is something disconcerting about a statement so heavily metaphysical yet so brief: without sufficient effort, the mind bounces off it like a droplet off an impermeable surface.

We have more than just the fragment to go on, however. A few later Greek writers provide details about Anaximander’s views and theories. He is usually cast as the second of a trio of philosophers from ancient Miletus, sometimes known as the ‘substance monists’, who speculated about the beginnings of the cosmos. The youngest, Anaximenes, is virtually unheard of outside ancient philosophy circles. The eldest, Thales, makes a brief but significant cameo in GCSE maths. Aristotle and others repeat stories about his mathematical prowess, his contact with Egyptian sages and his ability to predict eclipses. The comparatively unmathematical Anaximander was recognised as important by later Greeks, but never honoured as the originator of any intellectual tradition.

The substance monists were united by the idea that it’s possible to identify a single primal substance from which everything else derives, but they disagreed about the substance. Thales thought it was water. He recognised that living creatures require water, and may have made observations about evaporation and condensation. From this, he extrapolated that water was the necessary precondition not just for life, but for the whole cosmos. In his system the Earth floated on water: earthquakes could be explained by occasional waves. Anaximenes refined Thales’ system: instead of water, he proposed a nebulous floating substance called aer (usually translated as ‘air’ but something like ‘fog’ might be better). It could be compressed to become more solid, like a ball of wool formed into dense felt: with enough compression, the solid Earth could be squeezed from this misty beginning.

Anaximander’s primal substance was different. We know from Aristotle that his word for it was apeiron, which means ‘the boundless’. Aristotle and others never really specify what Anaximander meant by apeiron, but it seems clear that it was not based on a visible element in the way that Thales’ water or Anaximenes’ aer were. In a text by an even later philosopher (previously attributed to Plutarch), there’s a description of Anaximander’s universe: unlike Thales’ Earth, which floats on water, Anaximander’s Earth floats on nothing at all. It is poised at the centre of the cosmos, ‘equidistant from everything’. The Earth itself is a shallow cylinder, like a hockey puck, three times as wide as it is deep. At fixed (and geometrically significant) distances from the Earth are crystalline rings containing fire. Some of the rings have holes in them, which we see as the Sun, Moon and stars. The rings rotate, and sometimes occlude one another, which we see as an eclipse. In the beginning, this system was generated from the apeiron: somehow fire and air broke out and created the cosmos as we know it.

Anaximander is the most cryptic of the half-glimpsed Greek philosophers who lived before Plato. We have around 30 sentence-length fragments of Xenophanes, 120 of Heraclitus and 160 lines of Parmenides. Much of the scholarship on them tries to piece together plausible exoskeletons of thought to shield the weirdness and vulnerability of the surviving scraps. Students, even when they’re told that they’re allowed to find it confusing, often nod along as if it’s all perfectly clear and straightforward. These are noble instincts: it’s always more interesting when you assume that ancient people weren’t idiots. But it’s also cautionary. Once you’ve pretended to understand something – once you’ve filled in the gaps – it can be hard to remember what’s you and what’s the original.

All we can really say is that Anaximander’s system offers a partial account of the origin, nature and appearance of the Earth and heavens. It explains some of the phenomena we experience: why the Earth feels stable beneath our feet, why we see the stars rotating around us and why events such as eclipses happen. The fragment also explains that the elements, which came from the apeiron, can pass back into it: they are held in a cosmic balance that obeys the rule of necessity. Crucially, the interplay of the elements and the movement of the heavenly rings happen ‘according to the arrangement of time’. This is not a static image of a frozen cosmos at the moment of its inception, but a dynamic, living system. Anaximander is telling us not only about the birth of the universe, but about its life. For Nietzsche, this was the core of the problem. Anaximander’s explanation of change in the cosmos depended on the idea that everything would pass away as well as come into being. In Nietzsche’s view, this was tantamount to claiming that the essential character of life – death – could be applied to all things.

Anaximander was born in Miletus, in Ionia, on the western coast of what is now Turkey and what was then the boundary between Greece and Persia. It was the most prosperous of the Greek trading posts, welcoming merchants from across the Mediterranean. Herodotus, looking back on its golden age, called it the ‘jewel of Ionia’. The city had been occupied by Minoans from Crete and by Mycenaean Greeks. It had been raided by the Hittites several times. It was a place of confluence and multiculturalism, where literature flourished: Anaximander was perhaps a generation younger than Sappho and Alcaeus, from nearby Lesbos.

It’s hard to overstate how completely Homer dominated Greek intellectual culture at this time. He was seen as the fount of all knowledge: not only myth, history and theology, but agriculture, navigation, geography, zoology, medicine, even cooking. Early Greek reverence for Homer, the universal teacher, is not paralleled in Anaximander’s relationship with his teacher, Thales. Anaximander’s views are clearly influenced by Thales but he also rejects some of his ideas. It’s long been suggested that the reason for this may have had something to do with Milesian politics. At a time when most cities were ruled by autocrats, the Milesian system had a high level of public debate and citizen involvement, at least among wealthy men. Political argument may have allowed the development of critical thinking about the natural world.

The other habit of mind that is striking in Anaximander (along with the other substance monists) – and also contrasts with the Homeric norms of the time – is that his explanation doesn’t mention the gods. The agents and causes he invokes (the apeiron, the elements, necessity) are sometimes described as ‘supernatural’ but they are not themselves gods. Anaximander could have said that the apeiron was a god, or that the Earth is in the middle of the universe because Atlas holds it there; Thales could have said that Poseidon is responsible for earthquakes (the explanation given in Homer). But they did not. From this apparently neutral observation has come a welter of views – some more polemical than others – on the ‘miracle’ of Greek science. The conventional account used to go like this: Greek scientific thought began in the early sixth century BC with Thales and Anaximander, because they broke from the shackles of myth to give rational explanations of natural phenomena.

This is slippery territory, however. Sometimes Anaximander’s notion of the apeiron and the elements is contrasted with Hesiod’s seventh-century account of the creation of the world, in which an exhausting succession of gods slaughter one another until Zeus achieves lasting dominance. Yet at the very start of Hesiod’s Theogony we are introduced to a primeval force called chaos, simultaneously a god and a pond of gloop from which everything develops. It isn’t at all clear that chaos and the apeiron differ in anything but name, or that terms like ‘supernatural’ make much sense as applied to them.

The mention in the fragment of elements committing ‘injustice’ and having to pay a ‘penalty’ is often brushed over in naturalistic interpretations, which see these terms as figures of speech, a metaphorical looseness that we are all familiar with from science textbooks which talk about what viruses ‘want’ or what evolution ‘intends’. On this view, justice and retribution are ways of casually personifying elemental waxing and waning. But it’s just as likely that Anaximander had a system of cosmic ethics in which elements really were agents subject to moral rules and norms. Here we run into the perennial problem of interpretation: are we trying to understand what Anaximander really meant? Can we even attempt that? Or are we more interested in the impact he had on later thinkers, on Aristotle, Nietzsche or the Western scientific tradition as a whole? Or are we perhaps using Anaximander for our own cumulative thinking, with one interpretation (it’s all really about ethics) becoming the context and the inspiration for another (the whole thing is meant to be a riddle)?

InAnaximander, first published in French in 2009 and now translated into English by Marion Lignana Rosenberg, Carlo Rovelli argues that Anaximander was the world’s first scientist. He doesn’t spend much time on the fragment or the apeiron. He is more interested in the idea that the Earth floats unsupported in the middle of the cosmos. Other early thinkers saw the Earth as a flat disc, with the underworld beneath. In Anaximenes, when the sun or stars set, they circle around the rim to rise on the other side. According to Anaximander’s model, however, the stars go under the Earth. Once we can visualise this, it seems obvious. What’s so impressive about Anaximander is that he was willing to ‘redesign the universe’ – to hypothesise an extra hemisphere of reality – on the basis of evidence that would have been easy to explain away. It’s less the discovery itself than the intellectual courage that Rovelli admires: such radical questioning, he says, is the essence of science.

Proposing a definition of ancient science, let alone science as a whole, isn’t straightforward. Rovelli at one point suggests that it’s a means of ‘building and developing an image of the world, which is to say a conceptual structure for thinking about the world, effective and consistent with what we know and learn about the world itself’. Depending on how much heavy lifting is being done by the terms ‘world’ and ‘know’, this is a fair definition of science, but also of philosophy, history, literature and (for many people) theology. Most professional scientists would reject it as bafflingly abstract. Although Rovelli says that his intention in Anaximander is to explore the nature of science, the book seems more concerned with identifying something closer to an aesthetics of science. Philosophers and historians, he suggests, are too obsessed with the nuances of Anaximander’s Greek to appreciate the core of his thought – the science. The problem with this framing is that it’s so easy to turn it back on itself. The philosophers that Rovelli excoriates haven’t overlooked Anaximander’s importance for science – they just think the metaphysical stuff is more interesting. And despite his claims to a radical reading of Anaximander, Rovelli’s scientific sensibility uncovers explanations of Anaximander’s doctrines that are in harmony with the philosophers’. Only the emphasis is different.

What does set Rovelli’s book apart is the irrepressible joy that bubbles through it. His summaries of Anaximander’s astronomical thought are some of the most lucid and enthusiastic I’ve read, and many of his asides display a sensitive historical respect for ancient people and theories. To remind readers that our modern know-it-all superiority isn’t always deserved, he points out that most of us couldn’t provide convincing proof that the earth is spherical. There’s something omnivorous about the writing, too: moving outwards from Anaximander, Rovelli in the second half of the book considers the global history of science and religion, racing at breakneck speed through sociological theories of prehistoric religion, hasty summaries of early Christian persecutions, amusing stories about Carl Friedrich Gauss and references to tree-hugging and the mind-altering potential of LSD.

It’s easy to pick holes in Rovelli’s claim that Anaximander was, above all, a scientist. At one level, it’s an anachronistic projection of modern categories and concerns onto somebody so far in the deep past that there’s no way it could tell us anything about the real Anaximander and what he actually thought. But this is a short-sighted criticism too. It may be the case that careful attention to Anaximander’s enigmatic phrasing will bring us closer to the mind of the man himself. But everyone who writes on Anaximander fills in the gaps differently: it’s hard to avoid when an entire cosmos floats on a single fragment.

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