Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
16. The Primary Substance is Infinite 18. "Eternal Motion" and the Dinê

From Chapter I., The Milesian School

17. The Innumerable Worlds
We are told that Anaximander believed there were "innumerable worlds in the Boundless,"69 and we have to decide between the interpretation that, though all the worlds are perishable, there are an unlimited number of them in existence at the same time, and Zeller's view that a new world never comes into existence till the old one has passed away, so that there is never more than one world at a time. As this point is of fundamental importance, it will be necessary to examine the evidence carefully.

In the first place, the doxographical tradition proves that Theophrastos discussed the views of all the early philosophers as to whether there was one world or an infinite number, and there can be no doubt that, when he ascribed "innumerable worlds" to the Atomists, he meant coexistent and not successive worlds. Now, if he had classed two such different views under one head, he would have been careful to point out in what respect they differed, and there is no trace of any such distinction. On the contrary, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Archelaos, Xenophanes, Diogenes, Leukippos, Demokritos, and Epicurus are all mentioned together as holding the doctrine of "innumerable worlds" on every side of this one,70 and the only distinction is that, while Epicurus made the distances between these worlds unequal, Anaximander said all the worlds were equidistant.71 Zeller rejected this evidence72 on the ground that we can have no confidence in a writer who attributes "innumerable worlds" to Anaximenes, Archelaos, and Xenophanes. With regard to the first two, I hope to show that the statement is correct, and that it is at least intelligible in the case of the last.73 In any case, the passage comes from Aetios,74 and there is no reason for doubting that it is derived from Theophrastos, though the name of Epicurus has been added later. This is confirmed by what Simplicius says:

Those who assumed innumerable worlds, e.g. Anaximander, Leukippos, Demokritos, and, at a later date, Epicurus, held that they came into being and passed away ad infinitum, some always coming into being and others passing away.75

It is practically certain that this too comes from Theophrastos through Alexander.

We come next to a very important statement which Cicero has copied from Philodemos, the author of the Epicurean treatise on Religion found at Herculaneum, or perhaps from the immediate source of that work. "Anaximander's opinion was," he makes Velleius say, "that there were gods who came into being, rising and passing away at long intervals, and that these were the innumerable worlds";76 and this must clearly be taken along with the statement of Aetios that, according to Anaximander, the "innumerable heavens" were gods.77 Now it is much more natural to understand the "long intervals" as intervals of space than as intervals of time;78 and, if that is right, we have a perfect agreement among our authorities.

It may be added that it is very unnatural to understand the statement that the Boundless "encompasses all the worlds" of worlds succeeding one another in time; for on this view there is at a given time only one world to "encompass." Moreover, the argument mentioned by Aristotle that, if what is outside the heavens is infinite, body must be infinite, and there must be innumerable worlds, can only be understood in one sense, and is certainly intended to represent the reasoning of the Milesians ; for they were the only cosmologists who held there was a boundless body outside the heavens.79 Lastly, we happen to know that Petron, one of the earliest Pythagoreans, held there were just one hundred and eighty-three worlds arranged in a triangle,80 which shows at least that the doctrine of a plurality of worlds was much older than the Atomists.

Burnet's Notes


69. Cf. [Plut.] Strom. fr. 2 (R. P. 21 b).

70. Aet. ii. 1, 3 (Dox. p. 327). Zeller seems to be wrong in understanding κατὰ πᾶσαν περιαγωγήν here of revolution. It must mean "in every direction we turn," as is shown by the alternative phrase κατὰ πᾶσαν περίστασιν. The six περιστάσεις are πρόσω, ὀπίσω, ἄνω, κάτω, δεξιά, ἀριστερά (Nicom. Introd. p. 85, 11, Hoche).

71. Aet. ii. 1, 8 (Dox. p. 329), τῶν ἀπείρους ἀποφηναμένων τοὺς κόσμους Ἀναξίμανδρος τὸ ἴσον αὐτοὺς ἀπέχειν ἀλλήλων, Ἐπίκουρος ἄνισον εἶναι τὸ μεταξὺ τῶν κόσμων διάστημα.

72. He supposed it to be only that of Stobaios. The filiation of the sources had not been traced when he wrote.

73. For Anaximenes see § 30; Xenophanes, § 59; Archelaos, § 192.

74. This is proved by the fact that the list of names is given also by Theodoret. See Note on Sources, § 10.

75. Simpl. Phys. p. 1121, 5 (R. P. 21 b). Cf. Simpl. De caelo, p. 202, 14, οἱ δὲ καὶ τῷ πλήθει ἀπείρους κόσμους, ὡς Ἀναξίμανδρος . . . ἄπειρον τῳ μεγέθει τὴν ἀρχὴν θέμενος ἀπείρους ἐξ αὐτοῦ τῷ πλήθει κόσμους ποιεῖν δοκεῖ.

76. Cicero, De nat. d. i. 25 (R. P. 21).

77. Aet. i. 7, 12 (R. P. 21 a). The reading of Stob., ἀπείρους οὐρανούς, is guaranteed by the ἀπείρους κόσμους of Cyril, and the ἀπείρους νοῦς (i.e. ουνους) of the pseudo-Galen. See Dox. p. 11.

78. It is natural to suppose that Cicero found διαστήμασιν in his Epicurean source, and that is a technical term for the intermundia.

79. Arist. Phys. Γ, 4. 203 b 25, ἀπείρου δ' ὄντος τοῦ ἔξω (sc. τοῦ οὐρανοῦ), καὶ σῶμα ἄπειρον εἶναι δοκεῖ καὶ κόσμοι (ἄπειροι). The next words—τί γὰρ μᾶλλον τοῦ κενοῦ ἐνταῦθα ἢ ἐνταῦθα—show that this refers to the Atomists as well; but the ἄπειρον σῶμα will not apply to them. The meaning is that both those who made the Boundless a body and those who made it a κενόν held the doctrine of ἄπειροι κόσμοι in the same sense.

80. See below, § 53. Cf. Diels, Elementum, pp. 63 sqq.

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