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1.3: Anaxagoras (Fragments)

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    3 Anaxagoras (Fragments)


    Anaxagoras (/ˌænækˈsæɡərəs/; Greek: Ἀναξαγόρας, Anaxagoras, "lord of the assembly"; c. 510 – c. 428 BC) was a Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. Born in Clazomenae in Asia Minor, Anaxagoras was the first 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, if they were not fabricated by later ancient biographers.

    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 is believed to have enjoyed some wealth and political influence in his native town of Clazomenae, in Asia Minor. However, he supposedly surrendered this 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.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 was the first to explain that the moon shines by reflecting the sun's light. 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.

    According to Laertius, Pericles spoke in defense of Anaxagoras at his trial, c. 450 BC. 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.

    Fragments of Anaxagoras5

    Fragment 1

    All things were together, infinite both in number and in smallness; for the small too was infinite. And, when all things were together, none of them could be distinguished for their smallness. For air and aether prevailed over all things, being both of them infinite; for amongst all things these are the greatest both in quantity and size.

    Fragment 2

    For air and aether are separated off from the mass that surrounds the world, and the surrounding mass is infinite in quantity.

    Fragment 3

    Nor is there a least of what is small, but there is always a smaller; for it cannot be that what is should cease to be by being cut. But there is also always something greater than what is great, and it is equal to the small in amount, and, compared with itself, each thing is both great and small.

    Fragment 4

    And since these things are so, we must suppose that there are contained many things and of all sorts in the things that are uniting, seeds of all things, with all sorts of shapes and colours and savours, and that men have been formed in them, and the other animals that have life, and that these men have inhabited cities and cultivated fields as with us; and that they have a sun and a moon and the rest as with us; and that their earth brings forth for them many things of all kinds of which they gather the best together into their dwellings, and use them. Thus much have I said with regard to separating off, to show that it will not be only with us that things are separated off, but elsewhere too.

    But before they were separated off, when all things were together, not even was any colour distinguishable; for the mixture of all things prevented it—of the moist and the dry; and the warm and the cold, and the light and the dark, and of much earth that was in it, and of a multitude of innumerable seeds in no way like each, other. For none of the other things either is like any Other. And these things being so, we must hold that all things are in the whole.

    Fragment 5

    And those things having been thus decided, we must know that all of them are neither more nor less; for it is not possible for them to be more than all, and all are always equal.

    Fragment 6

    And since the portions of the great and of the small are equal in amount, for this reason, too, all things will be in everything; nor is it possible for them to be apart, but all things have a portion of everything. Since it is impossible for there to be a least thing, they cannot be separated, nor come to be by themselves; but they must be now, just as they were in the beginning, all-together. And in all things many things are contained, and an equal number both in the greater and in the smaller of the things that are separated off.

    Fragment 7

    . . . So that we cannot know the number of the things that are separated off, either in word or deed.

    Fragment 8

    The things that are in one world are not divided nor cut off from one another with a hatchet, neither the warm from the cold nor the cold from the warm.

    Fragment 9

    . . . as these things revolve and are separated off by the force and swiftness. And the swiftness makes the force. Their swiftness is not like the swiftness of any of the things that are now among men, but in every way many times as swift.

    Fragment 10

    How can hair come from what is not hair, or flesh from what is not flesh?

    Fragment 11

    In everything there is a portion of everything except Nous, and there are some things in which there is Nous also.

    Fragment 12

    All other things partake in a portion of everything, while Nous is infinite and self-ruled, and is mixed with nothing, but is alone itself by itself. For if it were not by itself, but were mixed with anything else, it would partake in all things if it were mixed with any; for in everything there is a portion of everything, as has been said by me in what goes before, and the things mixed with it would hinder it, so that it would have power over nothing in the same way that it has now being alone by itself. For it is the thinnest of all things and the purest, and it has all knowledge about everything and the greatest strength; and Nous has power over all things, both greater and smaller, that have life. And Nous had power over the whole revolution, so that it began to revolve in the beginning. And it began to revolve first from a small beginning; but the revolution now extends over a larger space, and will extend over a larger still. And all the things that are mingled together and separated off and distinguished are all known by Nous. And Nous set in order all things that were to be, and all things that were and are not now and that are, and this revolution in which now revolve the stars and the sun and the moon, and the air and the aether that are separated off. And this revolution caused the separating off, and the rare is separated off from the dense, the warm from the cold, the light from the dark, and the dry from the moist. And there are many portions in many things. But no thing is altogether separated off nor distinguished from anything else except Nous. And all Nous is alike, both the greater and the smaller; while nothing else is like anything else, but each single thing is and was most manifestly those things of which it has most in it.

    Fragment 13

    And when Nous began to move things, separating off took place from all that was moved, and so much as Nous set in motion was separated. And as things were set in motion and separated, the revolution caused them to be separated much more.

    Fragment 14

    And Nous, which ever is, is certainly there, where everything else is, in the surrounding mass, and in what has been united with it and separated off from it.

    Fragment 15

    The dense and the moist and the cold and the dark came together where the earth is now, while the rare and the warm and the dry (and the bright) went out towards the further part of the aether.

    Fragment 16

    From these as they are separated off earth is solidified; for from mists water is separated off, and from water earth. From the earth stones are solidified by the cold, and these rush outwards more than water.

    Fragment 17

    The Hellenes follow a wrong usage in speaking of coming into being and passing away; for nothing comes into being or passes away, but there is mingling and separation of things that are. So they would be right to call coming into being mixture, and passing away separation.

    Fragment 18

    It is the sun that puts brightness into the moon.

    Fragment 19

    We call rainbow the reflexion of the sun in the clouds. (Now it is a sign of storm; for the water that flows round the cloud causes wind or pours down in rain.)

    Fragment 20

    With the rise of the Dogstar (?) men begin the harvest; with its setting they begin to till the fields. It is hidden for forty days and nights.

    Fragment 21

    From the weakness of our senses we are not able to judge the truth.

    Fragment 21a

    What appears is a vision of the unseen.

    Fragment 21b

    (We can make use of the lower animals) because we use our own experience and memory and wisdom and art.

    Fragment 22

    This page titled 1.3: Anaxagoras (Fragments) is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Noah Levin (NGE Far Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.