Philosopher, Physicist, Astronomer (c.585 BC – c.525 BC)
Anaximenes, the third and chronologically last of the great Milesian philosphers, was a pre-Socratic philosopher and student of Anaximander. He exerted important influence on pre-Socratic philosophy with his theory on the genesis of the cosmos. The thesis that air is the origin of life is unique and belongs to him.
Before Socrates, philosophy was almost exclusively focused in studying nature. Hence, philosophers back then were synonymous to physiologists (from φύσις + λόγος/ the science of nature). Anaximenes was primarily influenced by his predecessors Thales and Anaximander but introduced his own principles in philosophy. He believed that air was the first principle and that all life comes from air. He based in theory on 3 observations that he made: 1) Air is the most abundant element in nature, 2) air surrounds everything, 3) without air, every living organism would die. Anaximenes asserted that the quality of matter depends on the different quantity and distribution of air caused by motion. As such, it is the difference of air quantity and distribution that creates different beings. Because the Greeks considered the first principle as God, Anaximenes believed air to be the Divine principle. An ancient writer asserts that Anaximenes indeed believed air to be God
Another theory of Anaximenes was the following: Air lacks characteristics and is invisible when motioness. However, when in motion, it manifests in the form of temperature, humidity and velocity. For example, if air becomes thinner, it turns into fire. If it condenses, it creates clouds that produce water. If condensed even more, water transforms into earth and then stone. According to Anaximenes, all varieties are attributed to motion of air, which creates condensation or dillution.
Apart from philosophy, an indistinguishable part of science at the time, Anaximenes had a particular interest in physics and meteorology. He suggested that the planets are held in place by the atmosphere and that the moon reflects the light of the Sun. He presented correct theories on the formation of snow and hail from frozen rainwater, explained that lightning was formed when air was thinned out to fire, was the first to explain correctly how the rainbow was formed and the first to note that the rainbow could also be formed by the moonlight. Moreover, he attempted to provide an explanation for the earthquakes and the eclipse of the Sun.
In astronomy and cosmogony, he attempted to explain the creation of the universe, creating his own cosmogonic model. He theorized that the Earth, which was created by air, was trapezoid in shape and that the world turns like a mill. The sun and the stars rotated around the Earth like a hat rotates around the head. Much like the Earth, the celestial bodies were flat bodies that floated in air.
Today, even though his theory of air being the primordial element of the world is not accepted as scientifically correct, his influence in philosophy up until the 18th century was significant, especially his meteorological findings. For instance, Stephen Hales in his book “Vegetable Statics” in 1727, influenced by Anaximenes’ theory writes “Air takes part in the composition of bodies wherein it is found in a solid form without its elasticity. Air is the universal link of nature”. The fact that Anaximenes came up with the theory that beings differ from one another due to their difference in air density and distribution makes him the forerunner of the atomic theory.
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