The last of the three famous Milesian philosophers was a student of Anaximander known as Anaximenes (circa 586-526 B.C.E.). He incorporates the oneness and infinity of his predecessors with a definite material principle, air, the elusive and the invisible. The constituents of the world differ in their nature by rarity and density; the finest is fire, the most dense is stone. He is the first thinker to recognize that qualitative differences reduce to differences in quantity; i.e. there is no separation. Change is due to eternal motion. Thus infinite air is God and the principle form which all things are becoming. Aetius summarizes his philosophy elegantly, “…air is the principle of existing things; for from it all things come-to-be and into it they are again dissolved. As our soul, he says, being air holds us together and controls us, so does the wind and air enclose the whole world.”2
What I find most fascinating about the Milesians is their attempt to define a fundamental explanation of reality based on only inchoate or primitive science. They astutely reflect on their experience of the world to extract and propose limited, but scientific explanations. They also are the first to Western thinkers to acknowledge the real world as the only world, while positing a primeval ‘substance’ or ‘principle’ as its origin. Their theory of God is a more sophisticated concept than we expect of their epoch – no longer taking human form, but a more abstract and expansive configuration. Thales appears to be the first recorded pantheist, and his thinking anticipates the idea of the universe as organism as developed by Alfred North Whitehead. Anaximander’s ‘indefinite’ seems remarkably similar to the modern concept of the quantum flux of modern physics. Anaximenes air seems to me to be the quantum void or perhaps space which sets up the intriguing possibility that his infinity might be time creating the earliest notion of Einstein’s space-time.
Next we will see how the later Greek atomists built on the thoughts of the Milesians to arrive at a prophetically modern view of ultimate reality. Join me then.