The Pre-Socratics inaugurated the search for what they called the archē of all things, where the term “archē” originally connoted either a beginning point or a position of authority. An archē is a principle of order, and the search for the archē of all things is essentially the attempt to find an ultimate source and explanation for the order of the world. Anaximander’s predecessor Thales famously proposed water as the source from which all else derives. His view seemed to be that the ordinary objects of our experience are all water in various configurations. Perhaps he had in mind the idea that just as water can in everyday experience take on a liquid, solid, or gaseous form, so too the other objects of our experience are just further transformations of it (an idea analogous to Anaximenes’ later proposal that all things are air in various forms).
However, and Anaximenes notwithstanding, the tradition largely and quickly moved beyond such crudely materialistic models. Even those Pre-Socratics who took the archē to be in some way material came to see that it had to be radically unlike any of the objects of ordinary experience. And as Lloyd Gerson notes in his book , the trajectory of the Greek tradition was toward locating the ultimate explanation of things in a single archē that exists of necessity. The theistic implications of this line of thought are obvious, and some thinkers did indeed arrive at conceptions of the archē that would deeply influence the classical theist tradition – for example, Xenophanes’ non-anthropomorphic philosophical monotheism, Parmenides’ Being, Plato’s Form of the Good, Aristotle’s Prime Unmoved Mover, and Plotinus’s One.
Arguably we see something like a germ of classical theism already in Anaximander’s notion of the apeiron as the source from which all else derives. The apeiron is the “unbounded” or “unlimited.” The things of our experience are all bounded or limited in various ways – to being water and having the specific range of properties and powers distinctive of water, to being fire and having the properties and powers of fire, to being a tree with its characteristic properties and powers, or a dog with its properties and powers. The ultimate source of things must not be bounded or limited in any of these ways, or it could not be the ultimate source of things. For example, if it was limited to being water, then it could not be the explanation of things that are beyond the powers of water; if it was limited to being fire, it could not be the explanation of things that are beyond fire’s powers; and so on.
Anaximander took the apeiron to be unbounded or unlimited in duration as well. It cannot have a beginning, or it would have come from something else, in which case that other thing would be the true source of all things. It cannot have an end, for only things that are bounded or limited in some way can have that. For example, because of the properties and powers to which fire is limited, it can be put out by water; because of the properties and powers to which a tree is limited, it can be chopped down and burned; and so forth.
More could be said about the properties Anaximander attributes to the apeiron, and why he does so (though given the limited textual evidence, some of this would have to be speculative). But as Werner Jaeger emphasizes in , these properties – being unbounded, beginningless and endless, immortal and indestructible, all-encompassing and all-governing, the source from which everything comes and to which everything returns – are precisely the sorts which the Greeks regarded as marks of the divine. Indeed, Aristotle tells us that Anaximander took the apeiron to be divine.
To be sure, the apeiron does not seem to be personal in nature. But in the Greek tradition, whether the source of all things was to be regarded as personal or impersonal is essentially treated as a question about the nature of God, not the existence of God. Aristotle, for one, treats the divine as personal, insofar as he attributes thought to the Prime Unmoved Mover. But that Anaximander does not make such an attribution to the apeiron does not by itself make of him any less a theist than Aristotle was. It just makes of him a theist of a different kind (even if one who, from the point of view of us Aristotelian-Thomists, understood the divine nature less well than Aristotle did).
We should note a couple of further points about Anaximander’s theism, if indeed we want to assign that label to his views. First, and as Jaeger notes, “his theology is a direct outgrowth from the germ of his new intuition of φύσις” (p. 23). That is to say, his theism was not incidental to or detachable from his work as a natural philosopher or physicist. On the contrary, he took the reality of the apeiron and its divine properties to be the inevitable conclusion of the search for a complete explanation of the natural order. Second, however, as David Roochnik points out in his excellent book on Greek philosophy, , Anaximander also thought that the search for the archē of all things required going beyond what was knowable by observation. He was in this sense engaged in a kind of rationalist metaphysics, rather than merely in empirical hypothesis formation.
I make these points and cite these experts on our topic because they are at odds with the impression the unwary reader would get from popularizations like Carlo Rovelli’s book When treating Anaximander’s views about the apeiron and the project of ultimate explanation, Rovelli seems to me to get things badly wrong. For one thing, he characterizes Anaximander’s notion of the apeiron as if it were different from or even at odds with a theological explanation – completely ignoring both the testimony of Aristotle that Anaximander regarded the apeiron as divine, and what actual experts on the Pre-Socratics’ views about religion such as Jaeger and Gerson have to say..
Why would Rovelli put forward such a view, and so matter-of-factly? For one thing, he seems to have the simplistic view of theology that too many scientists evince when they write popular works attempting to relate science and religion. Following Augustine, Gerson notes in God and Greek Philosophy that to understand the views of the ancients on matters of religion, we need to distinguish (1) civic theology, or the cultic practices of various ethnic and political groups, (2) mythical theology, such as stories about the Greek and Roman pantheons, and (3) natural theology, or rational argumentation concerning the existence and nature of God of the kind developed by philosophers.
Too many writers of pop science books treat all discourse about God as if it were of type (1) or (2), either ignoring (3) altogether or quickly dismissing it without serious examination as if it could only ever be a feeble attempt to prop up (1) or (2). This is a little like dismissing all of physics on the grounds that it can only ever be a feeble attempt to patch up the crude and failed theories of Thales and Anaximenes. Certainly it does not do justice to the arguments of a Xenophanes, an Aristotle, or a Plotinus. Those thinkers did not regard the crudities of mythical theology as a reason to give up theology, but rather as a reason to give up myth and replace it with a rational theology. (You might think that even if arguments of type (3) at one time had some plausibility, they have now been refuted by science or otherwise been shown to be no longer defensible or interesting. But , nothing could be further from the truth.)
Rovelli seems to be of the mindset that cannot see beyond (1) and (2) to give a fair shake to (3). Because Pre-Socratic thinkers are clearly trying to move beyond myth as a way of making sense of the world, he appears to suppose that they must therefore be moving beyond theology as a way of making sense of it. Hence he does not consider the possibility that the notion of the apeiron might be a concept in natural philosophy and at the same time a theological concept. To be sure, it is only fair to note that Rovelli is admirably willing to think beyond clichés about the ancients . Unfortunately, his imagination seems to fail him when theology is at issue.
A second problem is that Rovelli explicitly declines to consider exactly what Anaximander might have meant by the term “apeiron.” He tells us that this is no more important than determining the meaning of the term “quark,” which physicist Murray Gell-Mann borrowed more or less at random from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Modern particle physics would be no different if Gell-Mann had borrowed some other word instead, and Rovelli claims that “in the same fashion, had Anaximander called his principle something other than ‘infinite’ or ‘indistinct,’ the scientific relevance of his idea would have been strictly the same” (p. 66).
This is quite a bizarre claim. That Gell-Mann’s bit of terminology was picked more or less at random and could easily be exchanged with something else doesn’t entail that all terminology in physics or natural philosophy is like that. That is just a non sequitur. And Anaximander’s term “apeiron” was most definitely not chosen at random. Again, what he was trying to convey is the idea that the ultimate source of all things cannot be bounded or limited in any of the ways the things of our experience are, or it too would be in need of precisely the sort of explanation they require. It would in that case not be ultimate. To fail to see this is simply to miss Anaximander’s whole point.
That Rovelli does entirely miss it is clear from his suggestion that the atoms of Leucippus and Democritus “are the direct descendants of Anaximander’s apeiron. They are natural objects (nothing is particularly divine about atoms) that escape our direct perception but in terms of which we understand the constitution of matter” (p. 68). Rovelli also claims that Faraday’s notion of the field is similarly comparable to the apeiron.
In fact, these notions are in no way comparable to Anaximander’s. It is true that the atomists took the atoms to be the fundamental reality, but one of the difficulties with their position is that it is hard to see how anything having the properties attributed to the atoms could possibly be fundamental. An atom is extended, and thus could in principle be smaller than it actually is, in which case it is hard to see how it could be (as the atomists claimed it was) unbreakable in principle. It has a certain specific shape, speed, and trajectory, and all of these could in principle have been different. In short, the atoms are contingent in various respects, and they are so precisely because they are limited or bounded in various respects. Hence they are no more like Anaximander’s apeiron than the water of Thales’ natural philosophy is.
Analogous problems afflict the suggestion that Faraday’s notion of the field is in any interesting way like the apeiron. In general, if it is even intelligible to ask “Where did it come from?” or “Could it have been otherwise?” or any questions of a comparable sort, then we are not talking about the apeiron, because we are not talking about an ultimate explanation of things. Again, to fail to see this is to miss the whole point.
Now, when contemporary physicists make a stab at ultimate explanations, this typically involves positing some fundamental laws of nature. The trouble with this, as longtime readers of this blog know, is that laws of nature are simply not the kinds of thing that could possibly be fundamental, for reasons Aristotelian philosophers have set out (and which I survey at pp. 177-190 of Aristotle’s Revenge and ). Hence they too cannot be the ultimate explanation of things, and thus cannot be the sort of thing Anaximander had in mind in putting forward the notion of the apeiron.
Indeed, you aren’t ever going to understand what Anaximander was up to if you interpret him as doing only natural science as that is understood today (even if that was, of course, part of what he was doing). And that brings us to a third problem with Rovelli’s treatment, which is precisely that this is how he (mis)interprets Anaximander. He essentially remakes Anaximander in the image of a contemporary academic scientist, and one whose views on matters of methodology and religion are apparently very similar to those of Rovelli. That Anaximander was no less a metaphysician and, as some scholars of Pre-Socratic philosophy argue, a natural theologian too, is thus lost on him.