Consider this; the people of the ancient Greek world believed that everything in the world was made of four elementary substances, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Thales had chosen water as being the primary substrata. In saying this he was implying that the other three were all made of water. Of course his description of the universe and its evolution was developed from traditional sources as well as rational inquiry. The idea of water as the fundamental substance fit in well with traditional views on the creation of the earth and all that is on it. Anaximander, a younger contemporary of Thales carried Thales reasoning a step farther than did his master. He said that if there was such an underlying substance it could not be water, in fact it could not be any one of the four elements, fire, water, earth or air. The very idea would be irrational. If the underlying substrata out of which everything was built was one of the these four elements then that element would dominate all the rest and be the principle material of the world. This, he said, was false. The underlying substrata could not possibly be one of the four elements because it was the source for all four. If, out of the underlying substrata of the universe, all that is must be generated then there cannot be anything in the universe other than this substrata. Thus until the universe came into existence the substrata itself would be all that there was and it could not be bounded. To be bounded would mean that it was limited by something else, there would have to be something that existed beyond the boundary. Something that separated the substrata from that which was not the substrata. This is impossible because all that is, is either the substrata or something generated by the substrata. Therefore it must be boundless, or in our modern terms infinite.

What is more important is that he also stated that it must always have been and must always be, otherwise it would be bounded in time. It cannot even be named because naming something separates it from what is that it is not and of course since the boundless is everything that is, it would be impossible for there to be something that separates it. The more that a philosopher relies on purely logical implications for his description of the universe, the less it resembles the world of our experience.

Not only that but this boundless must be alive because it is the source of all motion. Therefore all motion is eternally in it. Within it is contained the four opposites, the hot, the cold, the wet, and the dry. These are constantly competing for advantage. When we identify something as hot or cold or wet or dry it is only because at that point in time and in the area determined by that thing the hot or the cold or the wet or the dry has essentially won out over the others in this ceaseless battle. It also means that in time it will be swallowed up by its opposite. In the words of Theophrastus,

"He says that it is neither water nor any other of the so-called elements, but a different substance which is boundless, from which there comes into being all the heavens and the worlds within them. Things perish into those things out of which they have their being, as is due; for they make just recompense to one another for their injustice according to the ordinance of time."

Later Simplicius was to put it this way;

"It is clear that when he observed how the four elements change into each other, he did not think it reasonable to conceive of one of these as underlying the rest, but posited something else. More over, he does not account for genesis by a qualitative operation of the element, but by a separation of the opposites caused by eternal motion


Anaximander's highest contribution to philosophy was the introduction of the non-perceptive. Any thorough-going physical description of the universe has since relied on a reduction to the imperceptible through which the perceptible is explained. What he said was that implicit in the boundless was the primary opposites, the hot and the cold, the dry, and the wet. Since these are always in conflict, the perceptible arises from a separating out of these opposites. In his rather cryptic words, "They make just recompense to one another for their injustice according to the ordinance of the time." In this sense fire can be created out of water only because of the simultaneous existence of both the hot and the wet and the fact that the balance between them is always being redressed. The encroachment of one opposite is naturally followed by a retribution in which the other gains lost ground. What this amounts to is the development of a total cosmology from the assumption that, since the natural tendency of each of the elements is to swallow up its opposite, they must struggle until one prevails. However, total victory is never granted to any one opposing force and what has lost in the past will gain in the future. This sense of cosmic justice introduced by Anaximander is one more of those underlying concepts that our western heritage has inherited from our Milesian ancestors. Aristotle explained it in a sense that will help to understand Anaximander's view, at least in terms of Aristotle's third century thinking.

Everything either is an origin or has an origin: the unlimited has no origin, for that would be the limit of it. More over, being an origin or source, or principle, it is ungenerated and imperishable... Therefore, as I say, there is no origin for it, but it appears to be the origin of other things and to encompass all things, as those philosophers say who do not posit besides the unlimited other causes such as mind or love; this they say is divine, for it is immortal and imperishable, as Anaximander and most writers on nature call it.

Part of the concept of the divine, or the eternal, is the idea of eternal motion. It is from this eternal motion that the separating out of opposites occurs. This makes the boundless and hence the universe itself alive. In fact the Greeks believed that life was self-caused motion. This eternal motion caused a process of separating out that resulted in the present world structure. He explained the birth of the cosmos as a germ of hot and cold that was separated out from the eternal boundless. Out of this a sphere of flame grew about the vapor surrounding the earth like the bark around a tree. When this was torn away and shut off in certain rings, the sun, moon, and stars came into existence. He said that the stars were wheel-shaped concentrations of mist filled with fire, breathing out flames through openings in certain quarters. They come into being as circles of fire, separating out from the fire that pervades the cosmos and surrounded by mist. There are certain pipe-like passages through which the stars appear.

If this seems a long way from contemporary science, it is equally far from the anthropomorphic descriptions of the cosmos that were expressed by both the pre-archaic Greek and the general run of non-Greek cultures of the sixth century B.C.. However, keep in mind that this was not meant as supernatural description. It was Anaximander's best attempt at describing the universe as he conceived it to have begun. Conceived, that is, out of pure reasoning from what he found to be undeniable. That everything changes from one thing to another is a statement that no one who has experienced the world as we know it can ever deny. At the same time if there is nothing that remains without change, then there is nothing that can be known since what can be known is only that which does not change.