Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
13. Theophrastus on Anaximander's Theory of the Primary Substance 15. Aristotle's Account of the Theory

From Chapter I., The Milesian School

14. The Primary Substance is Not One of the Elements
Anaximander taught, then, that there was an eternal, indestructible something out of which everything arises, and into which everything returns; a boundless stock from which the waste of existence is continually made good. That is only the natural development of the thought we have ascribed to Thales, and there can be no doubt that Anaximander at least formulated it distinctly. Indeed, we can still follow to some extent the reasoning which led him to do so. Thales had regarded water as the most likely thing to be that of which all others are forms; Anaximander appears to have asked how the primary substance could be one of these particular things. His argument seems to be preserved by Aristotle, who has the following passage in his discussion of the Infinite:

Further, there cannot be a single, simple body which is infinite, either, as some hold, one distinct from the elements, which they then derive from it, or without this qualification. For there are some who make this (i.e. a body distinct from the elements) the infinite, and not air or water, in order that the other things may not be destroyed by their infinity. They are in opposition one to another—air is cold, water moist, and fire hot—and therefore, if any one of them were infinite, the rest would have ceased to be by this time. Accordingly they say that what is infinite is something other than the elements, and from it the elements arise.—Arist. Phys. Γ. 204 b 22 (R. P. 16 b).

It is clear that Anaximander is here contrasted with Thales and with Anaximenes. Nor is there any reason to doubt that the account given of his reasoning is substantially correct, though the form is Aristotle's own, and in particular the "elements" are an anachronism.56 Anaximander started, it would seem, from the strife between the opposites which go to make up the world; the warm was opposed to the cold, the dry to the wet. These were at war, and any predominance of one over the other was an "injustice" for which they must make reparation to one another at the appointed time.57 If Thales had been right in saying that water was the fundamental reality, it would not be easy to see how anything else could ever have existed. One side of the opposition, the cold and moist, would have had its way unchecked, and the warm and dry would have been driven from the field long ago. We must, then, have something not itself one of the warring opposites, something more primitive, out of which they arise, and into which they once more pass away. That Anaximander called this something by the name of φύσις is the natural interpretation of what Theophrastos says; the current statement that the term ἀρχή was introduced by him appears to be due to a misunderstanding.58 We have seen that, when Aristotle used the term in discussing Thales, he meant what is called the "material cause,"59 and it is hard to believe that it means anything else here.

Burnet's Notes


56. See p. 12, n. 2.

57. The important word ἀλλήλοις is in all the MSS. of Simplicius, though omitted in the Aldine. This omission made the sentence appear to mean that the existence of individual things (ὄντα) was somehow a wrong (ἀδικία) for which they must be punished. With ἀλλήλοις restored, this fanciful interpretation disappears. It is to one another that whatever the subject of the verb may be make reparation and give satisfaction, and therefore the injustice must be a wrong which they commit against one another. Now, as δίκη is regularly used of the observance of an equal balance between the opposites hot and cold, dry and wet, the ἀδικία here referred to must be the undue encroachment of one opposite on another, such as we see, for example, in the alternation of day and night, winter and summer, which have to be made good by an equal encroachment of the other. I stated this view in my first edition (1892), pp. 60-62, and am glad to find it confirmed by Professor Heidel (Class. Phil. vii., 1912, p. 233 sq.).

58. The words of Theophrastos, as given by Simplicius (Phys. p. 24, 15: R. P. 16), are ἀρχήν τε καὶ στοιχεῖον εἴρηκε τῶν ὄντων τὸ ἄπειρον, πρῶτος τοῦτο τοὔνομα κομίσας τῆς ἀρχῆς, the natural meaning of which is "he being the first to introduce this name (τὸ ἄπειρον) of the material cause." Hippolytos, however, says (Ref. i. 6, 2) πρῶτος τοὔνομα καλέσας τῆς ἀρχῆς, and this has led most writers to take the words in the sense that Anaximander introduced the term ἀρχή. Hippolytos, however, is not an independent authority (see Note on Sources, § 13), and the only question is what Theophrastos wrote. Now Simplicius quotes Theophrastos from Alexander, who used the original, while Hippolytos represents a much more indirect tradition. Obviously, καλέσας is a corruption of the characteristically Peripatetic κομίσας, and the omission of τοῦτο is much more likely than its interpolation by Alexander or Simplicius. But, if τοῦτο is genuine, the ὄνομα referred to must be τὸ ἄπειρον, and this interpretation is confirmed by Simpl. De caelo 615, 15, ἄπειρον δὲ πρῶτος ὑπέθετο. In another place (p. 150, 23) Simplicius says πρῶτος αὐτὸς ἀρχὴν ὀνομάσας τὸ ὑποκείμενον, which must mean, as the context shows, "being the first to name the substratum of the opposites as the material cause," which is another point altogether. Theophrastos is always interested in noting who it was that "first" introduced a concept, and both ἄπειρον and ὑποκείμενον were important enough to be noted. Of course he does not mean that Anaximander used the word ὑποκείμενον. He only infers that he had the idea from the doctrine that the opposites which are "in" the ἄπειρον are "separated out." Lastly, the whole book from which these extracts were taken was Περὶ τῶν ἀρχῶν, and the thing to note was who first applied various predicates to the ἀρχή or ἀρχαί.

59. See p. 47 n. 6 and Introd. p. 11 n. 3.

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