Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
14. The Primary Substance is Not One of the Elements 16. The Primary Substance is Infinite

From Chapter I., The Milesian School

15. Aristotle's Account of the Theory
It was natural for Aristotle to regard this theory as an anticipation or presentiment of his own doctrine of "indeterminate matter,"60 and that he should sometimes express the views of Anaximander in terms of the later theory of "elements." He knew that the Boundless was a body,61 though in his own system there was no room for anything corporeal prior to the elements; so he had to speak of it as a boundless body "alongside of" or "distinct from" the elements (παρὰ τὰ στοιχεῖα). So far as I know no one has doubted that, when he uses this phrase, he is referring to Anaximander.

In a number of other places Aristotle speaks of some one who held the primary substance to be something "intermediate between" the elements or between two of them .62 Nearly all the Greek commentators referred this to Anaximander also, but most modern writers refuse to follow them. It is, no doubt, easy to show that Anaximander himself cannot have said anything of the sort, but that is no real objection. Aristotle puts things in his own way regardless of historical considerations, and it is difficult to see that it is more of an anachronism to call the Boundless "intermediate between the elements" than to say that it is "distinct from the elements." Indeed, if once we introduce the elements at all, the former description is the more adequate of the two. At any rate, if we refuse to understand these passages as referring to Anaximander, we shall have to say that Aristotle paid a great deal of attention to some one whose very name has been lost, and who not only agreed with some of Anaximander's views, but also used some of his most characteristic expressions.63 We may add that in one or two places Aristotle certainly seems to identify the "intermediate" with the something "distinct from" the elements.64

There is even one passage in which he speaks of Anaximander's Boundless as a "mixture," though his words may perhaps admit of another interpretation.65 But this is of no consequence for our interpretation of Anaximander. It is certain that he cannot have said anything about "elements," which no one thought of before Empedokles, and no one could think of before Parmenides. The question has only been mentioned because it has given rise to a lengthy controversy, and because it throws light on the historical value of Aristotle's statements. From the point of view of his own system, these may be justified; but we shall have to remember in other cases that, when he seems to attribute an idea to some earlier thinker, we are not bound to take what he says in an historical sense.66

Burnet's Notes


60. Arist. Met. Λ, 2. 1069 b 18 (R. P. 16 c).

61. This is taken for granted in Phys. Γ, 4. 203 a 16; 204 b 22 (R. P. 16 b), and stated in Γ, 8. 208 a 8 (R. P. 16 a). Cf. Simpl. Phys. p. 150, 20 (R. P. 18).

62. Aristotle speaks four times of something intermediate between Fire and Air (Gen. Corr. B, 1. 328 b 35; ib. 5. 332 a 21; Phys. A, 4. 187 a 14; Met. A, 7. 988 a 30). In five places we have something intermediate between Water and Air (Met. A, 7. 988 a 13; Gen. Corr. B, 5. 332 a 21; Phys. Γ, 4. 203 a 18; ib. 5. 205 a 27; De caelo, Γ, 5. 303 b 12). Once (Phys. A, 6. 189 b 1) we hear of something between Water and Fire. This variation shows at once that he is not speaking historically. If any one ever held the doctrine of τὸ μεταξύ, he must have known which "elements" he meant.

63. Arist. De caelo, Γ, 5. 303 b 12, ὕδατος μὲν λεπτότερον, ἀέρος δὲ πυκνότερον, ὃ περιέχειν φασὶ πάντας τοὺς οὐρανοὺς ἄπειρον ὄν.

64. cf. Phys. Γ, 5. 204 b 22 (R. P. 16 b), where Zeller rightly refers τὸ παρὰ τὰ στοιχεῖα to Anaximander. Now, at the end (205 a 25) the whole passage is summarised thus: καὶ διὰ τοῦτ' οὐθεὶς τὸ ἓν καὶ ἄπειρον πῦρ ἐποίησεν οὐδὲ γῆν τῶν φυσιολόγων, ἀλλ' ἢ ὕδωρ ἢ ἀέρα ἢ τὸ μέσον αὐτῶν. In Gen. Corr. B, 1. 328 b 35 we have first τι μεταξὺ τούτων σῶμά τε ὂν καὶ χωριστόν, and a little further on (329 a 9) μίαν ὕλην παρὰ τὰ εἰρημένα. In B, 5. 332 a 20 we have οὐ μὴν οὐδ' ἄλλο τί γε παρὰ ταῦτα, οἷον μέσον τι ἀέρος καὶ ὕδατος ἢ ἀέρος καὶ πυρός.

65. Met. Λ, 2. 1069 b 18 (R. P. 16 c). Zeller (p. 205, n. 1) assumes an "easy zeugma."

66. For the literature of this controversy, see R. P. 15. Professor Heidel has shown in his "Qualitative Change in Pre-Socratic Philosophy" (Arch., xix. p. 333) that Aristotle misunderstood the Milesians because he could only think of their doctrine in terms of his own theory of ἀλλοίωσις. That is quite true, but it is equally true that they had no definite theory of their own with regard to the transformations of substance. The theory of an original "mixture" is quite as unhistorical as that of ἀλλοίωσις. Qualities were not yet distinguished from "things," and Thales doubtless said that water turned into vapour or ice without dreaming of any further questions. They all believed that in the long run there was only one "thing," and at last they came to the conclusion that all apparent differences were due to rarefaction and condensation. Theophrastos (ap. Simpl. Phys. 150, 22) says ἐνούσας γὰρ τὰς ἐναντιότας ἐν τῷ ὑποκειμένῳ . . . ἐκκρίνεσθαι. I do not believe these words are even a paraphrase of anything Anaximander said. They are merely an attempt to "accommodate" his views to Peripatetic ideas, and ἐνούσας is as unhistorical as the ὑποκείμενον.

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