Literature Review: Elizabeth Asmis on Anaximander’s apeiron

Elizabeth Asmis published a journal article challenging the traditional view that Anaximander’s apeiron is a kind of starting point from which all existing matter first sprouted from. Instead she put forward the notion that the apeiron is part of all of the existing matter we now have in universe; this is a more monist view, as opposed to the separatist view of modern scholars. The point of this essay is to show that Asmis’ view of the apeiron is plausible and is supported by both ancient and contemporary figures.

To begin let’s look at Anaximander. Anaximander was one of the Pre-Socratic philosophers from Miletus. Born c600BC and died c550BC, he studied under Thales of Miletus before taking over as the head of Thales’ school in Miletus, where Anaximander became tutor to Anaximenes and Pythagoras. We know very little of Anaximander’s theories as a single fragment of his works remain; what we know about his argument for the apeiron comes entirely from this fragment. Nevertheless this has not stopped scholars attempting to decipher what Anaximander was trying to say.

Asmis argues that the apeiron is the original starting point for all matter, a first principle (or arche), much like the traditional view but she doesn’t agree that the apeiron is a divine element resting outside the world, creating and guiding matter within it. Instead what Asmis tries to argue is that the apeiron is a boundless source, which flows through all matter; guiding it as if it were a manifestation of justice, thus linking together justice, matter and the apeiron as one unified entity. This monist view is supported by evidence from numerous fragments including one from Aetius who reports that the apeiron is “the principle of existent things…from this all things are created… into this all things are destroyed” [Aetius, De plac, 1.3.3.], this fragment alongside another argument that the apeiron cannot be an unlimited source of matter since we don’t have unlimited amounts of matter in the universe. Instead the apeiron creates matter up to its limit and then when new matter is needed will draw back in decaying matter destroying it in order to create new matter. Thus the apeiron isn’t an unlimited source but a limited one, which through guidance and justice gives new life to old matter; an argument supported by Gaarder who states that Anaximander believed that our world is one of many, which emerge from and decay into the apeiron. Since the apeiron is tied in with matter, by keeping matter ongoing the apeiron itself will remain ongoing giving it the illusion that it is unlimited and indestructible in character.

Kahn in ‘Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology’ argues that the apeiron shouldn’t be translated as unlimited, instead a more accurate translation would be “unable to be moved through to the end” [p.231]. Anything that is so large that we cannot travel across it would be enormous and this, Kahn argues, is the true definition of apeiron. Kahn is supported by evidence provided by fragments of work from Theophrastus, Anaximenes, Simplicus and Aristotle, although we can argue against Kahn by referring to Waterfield who states that “Anaximander himself said nothing… about his boundless” [Waterfield, The First Philosophers, p.5]. If we return back to Kahn’s recommended literal translation then we can paraphrase it as “unable to reach its limit” this could be where the translation of ‘unlimited’ comes from. On pages 234-235 Kahn refers to a number of passages which describe the apeiron as being a sphere outside the world, if we think of this as the universe and we accept that the universe is enormous in size (possibly limitless), then from this we can then say that Anaximander meant the apeiron to mean the universe, which contains all matter and guides it, also the universe has other characteristics given to the apeiron (that of being indestructible). This line of argument follows the idea that the apeiron is a matrix for all matter whilst the apeiron itself remains separate; hence going against the monist view Asmis tries to defend.

An alternative view is that the apeiron is an unlimited energy not an unlimited mass, since according to Einstein’s theory of relativity mass is only energy travelling at speeds close to that of light [E=m<c>²]. This means that energy and mass is essentially the same thing and constantly interchanges between one another, thus both are in flux. Also energy cannot be created or destroyed; characteristics both given to the apeiron; then as energy and mass are the same, mass cannot be created or destroyed but only change form or transform into energy, this is backed by Gaarder who states the apeiron is not a known substance but something separate from matter. Support for this can also be found from the big bang theory. The big bang started as an explosion of infinite energy, which started to change into atoms of hydrogen, held together by energy; in the form of a strong nuclear force; since every atom is bound in this way if follows that energy runs through all mass, and if the apeiron is infinite energy then this argument would support the monist view.

To conclude the monist view of the apeiron is a valid argument supported from thinkers, both ancient and contemporary. Furthermore the argument put forward by Kahn isn’t much of an argument against the monist view but a debate about the translation of the Anaximander fragment and the literal meaning of some of Anaximander’s commentators, but as Waterfield points out “Anaximander himself said nothing…” so how can be sure about which definition should be attached to apeiron? Therefore we have to go on our own interpretation and the interpretations of others, with the most reliable coming from those closer to Anaximander’s time.

The journal article is useful in understanding Anaximander as it shows both the traditional view and an alternative view on the apeiron, which gives us the opportunity to evaluate the arguments and also provokes us to think for ourselves about our own interpretation of Anaximander. It is also useful as it shows that there is no actual ‘correct’ answer to philosophical questions providing us with the confidence needed to put forward our own ideas on debated theories.


Posted on February 2, 2011, in philosophical and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I have noticed that apeiron is similar to peri- the prefix meaning surrounding, as in paradise, the surrounding wall of the garden. Another angle of viewing the complexity of the concept might that it is the unsurroundable.

    • Thanks for the comment 🙂

      If something is unsurroudable then that would suggest that it has no limit to its extension supporting Asmis’ claim that apeiron is boundless, and Khan’s translation as being unlimited. This being the case the meaning you provided helps bridge the gap between the two scholars and makes for some very intriguing reading.

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